The velvet revolution started innocuously enough. On the afternoon of Nov. 17, 1989, thousands of students and sympathizers gathered in Prague to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the closure of Czech universities by the Nazis. The officially sanctioned event broke up peacefully, but trouble started when some 5,000 participants decided to march to Wenceslas Square. At Národní Boulevard, home to Café Slavia, then a popular hangout of Václav Havel and other dissidents, the demonstrators ran into a wall of riot police. Some managed to flee, but about 2,500 others were trapped. They tried to avoid a confrontation by sitting down, lighting candles and chanting: “We have bare hands” and “We don’t want violence.” But to no avail. At 8:50 p.m. they were charged by the police, and almost 600 were injured in the resulting melee. The news of the injuries, and rumors that one student had been killed (that later proved false) galvanized the nation. Wenceslas Square became the scene of a weeklong series of demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands of Czechs. On Nov. 19, Civic Forum, an umbrella group of opposition forces, was formed with Havel as its leader. Within days, the regime crumbled. On Dec. 29, Havel became Czechoslovakia’s President, paving the way for the country’s first free elections in more than four decades.
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