These days we are commemorating two events in our history connected with the date of November 17 and university students’ protests against totalitarian regimes. Two events that are exactly half a century apart. In both cases, these protests led to changes in society. Fortunately, for the better in the latter, and thanks to that, you can enjoy freedom and democracy today. But it was not free.
Let us first go back in time to 1939 and the celebration of the anniversary of Czechoslovakia's founding. As you undoubtedly know, on October 28, medical student Jan Opletal was shot during a demonstration against the German occupiers. He later succumbed to his injuries. His death is symbolically considered the first Czechoslovak victim of World War II. And on the occasion of his funeral, on November 15, 1939, a wave of resistance of the Czech intelligentsia to the Nazi occupation and repressive regulations of German state power within the protectorate rose again. It was this demonstration that led the Gestapo to occupy dormitories in Prague, Brno, and Příbram two days later and arrest more than 2,000 students. Nine were executed without trial, and more than 1,200 were beaten and taken to concentration camps.
The commemoration of Opletal's memory also played an important role fifty years later, in 1989, when it became one of the impulses to overthrow the totalitarian communist regime in Czechoslovakia during the so-called Velvet Revolution. If you are interested in the atmosphere of socialism, the turbulent November 1989, and the period just after it through the eyes of a witness, I highly recommend an interview with Eduard Fuchs, associate professor at our Department of Mathematics and Statistics. He has been witnessing the changes of the Faculty since 1960.
I would like to quote at least the final passage of the interview: “Once I was shocked by the situation when I was returning from Vienna and journalism students from Prague were sitting in front of me on a bus. They were complaining about the current situation saying, ´We were in Vienna and we can write what we want, but in reality, nothing has changed compared to socialism´. And I thought, journalism students, and they say nothing has changed for them even though they can write what they want? After all, it was something so unimaginable ... Of course, there are things I disagree with, parties I could never vote for, but the basic thing, the total change, is something amazing and fundamental. It is crucial and wonderful that we have broken out of a regime that degraded its people and restricted them to a zoo enclosed by an iron curtain fence."
Please do not forget the past. Freedom and democracy are not a matter of course and require care, so we do not lose them. History shows us how easily we can lose freedom and democracy and how difficult (and only at the cost of great sacrifices) it is to regain it back.
I would like to wish you, the students of our Faculty, all the best for International Student Day and a lot of strength in keeping our freedom and democracy.