Published: 16 Nov 2016

How a Prague student inspired a worldwide tradition

Jan OpletalAll over the world, 17 November is celebrated as International Students' Day. But did you know that the reason for this choice of anniversary is rooted in the tragic events of Czech history?

In late 1939, the then state of Czechoslovakia had already been under the iron grip of Nazi Germany for at least twelve months. In March that same year, Hitler himself had visited Prague Castle and signed documents establishing the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

On 28 October – the twenty-first anniversary of Czechoslovak independence – demonstrations took place at a number of key locations in the city. Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them students from Charles University, massed in Wenceslas Square to make their feelings known. 

In all, four hundred were arrested; and among the nine seriously injured when police began shooting, one – Prague student Jan Opletal (pictured) – lost his life. His funeral procession on 15 November was allowed to go ahead, but further brutality was to come, including the execution without trial of nine student leaders, and the forced closure of the universities, two days later.

Fifty years later, on 17 November 1989, it was an agreed student march commemorating that original atrocity that lit the touchpaper for the overthrow of the communist regime in the Czech lands.

Hence, in this part of the world, this national holiday represents the struggle against totalitarianism in all its forms. We have Opletal and others like him to thank for their sacrifice.