Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution marked the end of the Marxist-Leninist system and the beginning of both a pluralistic democracy and a free market economy in that nation.

Summary of Event

In its “gentle revolution,” Czechoslovakia became the second Soviet bloc country, after Poland, to establish a non-Communist government. Although Czechoslovakia before 1989 had not undergone any of the political and economic liberalization that took place in Poland and Hungary, the country appeared to dismantle its Communist system more thoroughly than any other former satellite of the Soviet Union. Based on their democratic foundations and mass support, Czechs and Slovaks appeared ready and able to construct and maintain a viable industrial economy as well as a stable constitutional democracy (whether or not the Czechs and Slovaks remained united). Velvet Revolution (1989)
Czechoslovakia;Velvet Revolution
Revolutions and coups;Czechoslovakia
[kw]Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989)
[kw]Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Velvet (Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989)
[kw]Czechoslovakia, Velvet Revolution in (Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989)
Velvet Revolution (1989)
Czechoslovakia;Velvet Revolution
Revolutions and coups;Czechoslovakia
[g]Europe;Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia[07440]
[g]Czech Republic;Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia[07440]
[g]Slovakia;Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia[07440]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia[07440]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia[07440]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 17-Dec. 29, 1989: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia[07440]
Adamec, Ladislav
Calfa, Marián
Dubček, Alexander
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Velvet Revolution
Havel, Václav
Husák, Gustáv
Jakeš, Miloš
Klaus, Václav
Urbanek, Karel

Before World War II, Czechoslovakia was the Eastern European country that had been most successful in achieving economic and political modernization, and after 1918 it had been governed democratically for twenty years. Since becoming a Marxist-Leninist state in the “Prague coup” of 1948, however, Czechoslovakia generally adhered to the Stalinist model until Alexander Dubček promoted the “Prague Spring” of 1968. Prague Spring (1968) Following Soviet intervention, the new government under Gustáv Husák established one of the most authoritarian, repressive systems within the Warsaw Pact. Warsaw Pact Then, with the Helsinki Accords of 1975, Helsinki Accords (1975) playwright Václav Havel and other liberal dissidents created an organization, Charter 77, Charter 77[Charter seventy seven to monitor respect for human rights, but the organization’s leaders were often harassed and sometimes imprisoned.

When Mikhail Gorbachev began his reforms in the Soviet Union, the Czechoslovakian leaders tried a few of the reforms related to economic “restructuring,” but they distrusted and rejected the entire concept of political“openness” (glasnost). President Gustáv Husák and Miloš Jakeš, who replaced Husák as head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1987, permitted almost no deviation from “hard-line” Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, but moderates such as Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec were willing to consider limited reforms. Among the public there was widespread dissatisfaction with the political regime as well as growing awareness of economic stagnation and ecological degradation. In 1987, a new liberal group, Democratic Initiative, added to the many voices calling for political and economic change.

Early in 1989, there were indications that the year would be eventful. On January 15, approximately two thousand demonstrators assembled in Prague to honor the memory of Jan Palach, Palach, Jan who had committed suicide in 1969 to protest the Soviet-led invasion. Riot police responded with tear gas and truncheons, driving the protesters out of Wenceslas Square. Demonstrations continued for six days and resulted in the arrest of some eight hundred people, including Havel and nineteen other leaders of Charter 77. Czechoslovakia’s Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, Tomasek, Frantisek issued a public letter criticizing the “crude violence” of the regime. On February 21, Havel was convicted and sentenced to nine months in jail for his attempt to place flowers at the statue of Saint Wenceslas, and the next day seven dissidents received similar sentences. Foreign governments everywhere protested, and even the French Communist Party called the convictions “inadmissible.” The government released Havel and others on May 17, but the dissidents vowed to continue their activism.

A demonstrator carries a bust of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin with a sign translating, “Nothing lasts forever,” during a march through Prague, Czechoslovakia, in November, 1989.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Criticisms of the regime grew louder, and on June 29, Charter 77 presented a petition signed by two thousand citizens who supported a seven-point program of economic reform and religious freedom. On August 21, about three thousand protesters gathered in Prague on the twenty-first anniversary of the 1968 invasion; they sang the national anthem, shouted anti-Communist slogans, and chanted the names of Dubček and Havel. Security police broke up the rally and made more than three hundred arrests.

The events that came to be called the Velvet Revolution began with a student march on November 17, 1989. At a rally to remember Jan Opletal, Opletal, Jan a student who had been killed by the Nazis, twenty thousand demonstrators began to shout antigovernment slogans, and riot police tried to prevent demonstrators from entering Wenceslas Square; in the end, thirteen people were hospitalized and more than one hundred arrests were made. There was a false rumor that one student had been killed. On November 19, about two hundred thousand people gathered to protest the violence against the students, and that day Havel and other dissidents formed a new organization, Civic Forum, Civic Forum modeled after the New Forum of East Germany. Fearing uncontrolled violence, Prime Minister Adamec met with Havel and other representatives of Civic Forum and agreed to future discussions about limited reforms.

On November 24, Dubček returned to Prague for the first time since 1969, and before 250,000 cheering demonstrators, he declared, “Long live socialism with a human face.” That same day there was an emergency meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, at which time Jakeš, Husák, and eleven other conservatives were forced to resign from the Presidium. The new secretary-general, Karel Urbanek, was considered to be flexible. Civic Forum demanded additional concessions, and on November 25, the Central Committee removed more hard-liners from the leadership. That same day, the Soviet newspaper Pravda published an article by Gorbachev in which he endorsed the prodemocracy movement in Czechoslovakia.

By November 26, antigovernment demonstrations swelled to crowds of almost five hundred thousand. On November 27, an estimated 60 percent of Czechoslovak workers participated in a two-hour general strike, with huge rallies in all of the major cities of the country. Faced with the threat of longer strikes, Adamec agreed to meet Havel for formal power-sharing talks. On November 28, Adamec effectively capitulated; among other concessions, he promised to change the constitution to abolish the “leading role” of the party and promised to put together a coalition cabinet with non-Communist members within a week.

As huge crowds continued to demand even more changes, Adamec resigned on December 7. Three days later, Husák resigned the presidency, and a new interim prime minister, Marián Calfa, formed a new cabinet composed of a majority of non-Communists, including liberal economist Václav Klaus, who was appointed finance minister on December 10. On December 21, a Communist congress apologized for “unjustified reprisals” against dissidents; it also installed the moderate Ladislaw Adamec as party chairman and suspended or expelled hard-liners of the old regime, including Vasil Bilak and Husák. On December 29, the National Assembly unanimously elected Havel as the Czechoslovak president and elected Dubček as chairman of the Assembly.


The euphoric Velvet Revolution was remarkable in its rapid achievement of an end to the Communist system in Czechoslovakia. On June 8, 1990, the country held its first free multiparty election since 1946, and the Communist Party adapted to the new situation by participating in the election and finishing second. Leaders of the new government strongly disagreed about how rapidly the nation should move to a free market system, and the country faced other challenges as well, such as environmental degradation and ethnic conflicts between Czechs and Slovaks. Despite the magnitude of these problems, only a tiny percentage of the population disagreed with the general direction of the revolution. The full realization of the Velvet Revolution came with the so-called Velvet Divorce, Velvet Divorce (1993) when the Czechoslovakian federal parliament decided to split the country into the two independent nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a separation that became official on January 1, 1993. Velvet Revolution (1989)
Czechoslovakia;Velvet Revolution
Revolutions and coups;Czechoslovakia

Further Reading

  • Banac, Ivo, ed. Eastern Europe in Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Collection of stimulating articles by recognized scholars includes a perceptive analysis of the Velvet Revolution by Tony Judt.
  • Dowling, Maria. Czechoslovakia. London: Hodder Arnold, 2002. Concise history covers the major events in Czechoslovakia from 1918 to the splitting of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Includes maps, suggestions for further reading, and index.
  • Dubček, Alexander. Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubček. Translated by Jiri Hochman. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. Presents a fascinating account of Dubček’s career and the development of his thinking. Includes discussion of his role in the events of 1989.
  • East, Roger, and Jolyon Pontin. Revolution and Change in Central and Eastern Europe. Rev. ed. New York: Pinter, 1997. Examination of the changes in Central and Eastern Europe in the final years of the twentieth century presents a factual guide to the personalities and events of the Velvet Revolution. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Garton Ash, Timothy. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. New York: Random House, 1990. Authoritative discussion of the crucial developments in the region in 1989 includes a dramatic account of the events in Czechoslovakia. Written by a journalist who knew the major figures well and was present when the events he describes took place.
  • Kriseová, Eda. Václav Havel: The Authorized Biography. Translated by Caleb Crain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Scholarly study of the life and career of the dominant figure of the revolution. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Rosenberg, Tina. The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism. New York: Random House, 1995. The first section of this volume presents an engaging narrative that explores the demise of Communism in Czechoslovakia and the problems that subsequently arose. Includes discussion of the Velvet Revolution. Features glossary of names and selected bibliography.
  • Stokes, Gale. The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Readable analysis of the revolutions of Eastern Europe presents an excellent summary of Czechoslovakia in 1989.
  • Wheaton, Bernard, and Zdenêk Kavan. The Velvet Revolution: Czechoslovakia, 1988-1991. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. Provides a detailed narrative of how and why the revolution occurred. Includes appendix containing useful documents and tables.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Soviet Troops Withdraw from Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia Splits into Two Republics