Today is an absolutely wonderful and fascinating historical anniversary. Twenty-six years ago today, on March 25, 1988, over 5,000 Slovaks attended a peaceful demonstration in Hviezdoslav Square in Bratislava, then part of Czechoslovakia, to protest for religious freedom. The demonstration was planned by Marián Štastný, a noted Slovak national activist, and word of it spread via Catholic groups in Bratislava and was publicized on Radio Free Europe. The protesters lit candles and sang hymns at dusk–this despite cold dreary rain.
The Candle Demonstration was entirely peaceful–until the Communist Czechoslovak authorities got involved. After demanding that the protesters disperse, they used water cannons on the crowd, then went into Hviezdoslav Square with armored vehicles and started beating people with night-sticks and truncheons. Communist authorities in what was then the Eastern Bloc were terrified of any kind of popular demonstration. Czechoslovakia had already been invaded once by Soviet troops, in 1968, when popular dissent spread after the Prague Spring. They wanted to nip this insolence in the bud lest a broad-based movement develop against the regime.
Despite the regime’s best efforts, this is exactly what happened. The suppression of the Candle Demonstration caused widespread outrage in Slovakia and got the ball rolling toward real, sustained popular resistance to the Communist regime. What became known as the “Velvet Revolution” that overthrew Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 traces its roots directly to this event. Consequently, March 25 is commemorated in Slovakia as Struggle for Human Rights Day. Slovakia and the Czech Republic split into their separate countries in 1993.
Below is actual footage of the Candle Demonstration.
This event has particular resonance for me. It is depicted quite extensively in part of my novel Giamotti in Winter, the third and final book in the Giamotti Trilogy. While writing it, in 2009, I researched the Candle Demonstration extensively and tried to depict it as accurately as possible. There is a terrific website about the demonstration here, but it’s in Slovak.