One day, every day
Within the vast calendar of annual celebrations, November 17, the International Student Day, established in the last century, deserves more than special mention. Why? To honor the memory of the students killed by the Nazi occupation in Czechslovakia and to always remember other tragic events occurred in the 20th century, described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm on Age of Extremes The Short Twentieth Century, one of the most interesting analysis of the that century.
November 17 was first declared International Student Day in 1941 in London by the International Union of Students. Formally constituted in Prague in 1946, the International Union of Students has the celebration of this day one of the fundamental constitutive principles of the group.Before we go on, we have to clarify this: the day is not only about celebrations, but about claiming a fundamental and inalienable right, which is still threatened in some contexts and countries: The right to education.
Prague, autumn 1939.
To better understand the context of what led to the International Student Day creation, it’s important to take a look at European history before the Second World War. In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and claimed territories outside its borders, which he considered to belong to the German Reich. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria and shortly afterwards, Czechoslovakia was forced to surrender parts of its territory, being divided and treated as a ‘satellite state’. The annexation of the Sudetenland and part of Czechoslovakia was ratified by the 1938 Munich Accords, from which the Czechoslovak representatives were completely excluded (renamed the ‘Munich Diktat’), fueling a sense of rebellion and intolerance.
The next step, in the Nazi strategy, was the beginning of the final plan to conquer the entire territory, completed in the spring of 1939.
The establishment of the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’ triggered protests, such as the student demonstration on October 28 of the same year. During the protest organised by medical students from the Carolina University, Wermacht troops killed a worker called Václav Sedláček and mortally wounded one of the students present, Jan Opletal, who died on 11 November 11, 1939.
The funeral march on November 15, 1939, attended by thousands of civilians and students, turned into an open anti-Nazi demonstration that prompted the occupying troops to take strict countermeasures.
On November 17, two days after the protest, the Nazi army executed, by firing squad, nine students and professors without a trial, ordered the deportation of more than a thousand students to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and closed all universities in Czechoslovakia.
During the second half of the 20th century, there were several episodes having student movements as protagonists, from Europe to South America, from the United States to the Soviet Union; just think of the demonstrations in Italian universities during 1968, or the French May of the same year, the social riots during the dictatorships in South America, such as in Videla’s Argentina. Along with the one described in Prague, there is another one that, more than the rest, has remained fresh in the memory: Athens 1973, November 17.
The second post-war period had determined, in a long list of countries, the presence of a, more or less, direct influence of an external control; this happened also in Greece following the Yalta agreements in order to give more “political influence” mainly in favor of the Allies. As elsewhere, even in the Hellenic territories, the US strategy was to run a rigid anti-communist socio-political structure, with the help of the secret services and local forces.
The Greek ‘Junta’
Around the mid-1960s, the Greek centrist governments went into crisis, following the economic situation that undermined internal stability. The failure of King Constantine II to create a stable government for the following months opened the door to a political shift towards the center-left, in the 1967 elections. The failure of subsequent plans to maintain the status quo by the monarch led to the military coup on the night of April 21, in open contrast to the pro-socialist turn that was taking place; In a few hours, the military took command of Athens and convinced the king to legitimize the operation which, from that moment on, started the Junta, which is also called ‘Regime of the Colonels’.
In the following years, a strong tightening of domestic policies, characterized by curfews, martial law, police oppression, torture and the suppression of civil and press freedoms. Despite an initial economic growth, the result of the alliance with the United States, the economic crisis of the early 1970s and the first steps of the international Detente marked a moment of openness to democratic reforms, to which the left and students looked with interest.
The polytechnic and the democratic transition
Within that scenario, on November 14, 1973, the students of the Athens Polytechnic went on strike and started a strong protest against the council. In the early stages of the protest there was no reaction from the military government even when the students barricaded themselves inside the university buildings; There, they setted up a radio station that broadcasts throughout the area of the city of Athens.
The message transmitted for hours in the capital said: “This is from the Polytechnic! Greek people, the Polytechnic is the flag bearer of your suffering and our own suffering against the dictatorship and for democracy.”. Thousands of workers and young people joined the protest both inside and outside the university.
After three days, on November 17, the Junta sent a tank, which opened the doors of the Polytechnic at 3am. The government again proclaimed martial law and a curfew, turned off the lights throughout the city and the military raided the Polytechnic. A night of clashes and violence followed, inside and outside the university premises: the repression of the regime was brutal. Simultaneously with the eviction of the University, barricades and clashes multiplied in the rest of the city. Hundreds were injured and 24 killed, including nineteen-year-old Michael Mirogiannis, murdered in cold blood with a gunshot to the head a few meters from the Polytechnic by Colonel Dertilis (according to some testimonies at the trial that would be held years later, when democracy was restored).
At the end of the operation, defined by some as a “slaughter” by the police and the armed forces of the dictatorship, the hard core wing of the Junta dismissed Papadopoulos, replaced by General Dimitrios Ioannidis, but the attempts to restore the initial dictatorship failed in 1974 and then Greece embarked on a process of democratic transition.
November 17, 1989 was a very important historical moment for Czechoslovakia and for the fate of the Soviet Union, which was already in decline. On International Student Day and in the days that followed, workers, university and high school students in Czechoslovakia carried out a series of peaceful demonstrations. In addition to remembering the victims of 1939, the goal was to raise awareness of the need for political change and new reforms, such as in the education system.
Many students of the International Union of Socialist Youth were against the Communist Party’s management, but had always been afraid to express their concerns out loud, remembering the repression of 1968, known in history as the Prague Spring. Demands for change were met with violent police charges, creating panic and terror. Among the turmoil, news began to spread about the death of a student, which was later denied.
After November 17, students and artists went on a ‘permanent strike’ as the number of protesters continued to grow. On November 20, 500,000 people took to the streets in protest. The pressure began to build and the Communist Party could no longer continue to ignore the demands of the population.
The turning point
November 24 was a point of no return. The party leaders, including the Secretary General, resigned, marking a historic victory for the protesters. It was now clear that the regime no longer had the support of its historical political base; meanwhile, the protests also spread to Bratislava, where the Public Movement Against Violence (Verejnosť proti násiliu) had sprung up. On November 27, all citizens of Czechoslovakia went on strike for two hours, demonstrating unity throughout the country and formalising the mediating role of the Civic Committees.
On the following day, the Federal Assembly removed the articles from the Constitution that enshrined the political preeminence of the Communist Party. The government, however, did not accept the demands of the demonstrators, who continued to protest until Vaclav Havel was officially elected president of Czechoslovakia. Four days later, on 1 January 1993, the division between Slovakia and the Czech Republic started.
Right to Education: The world scenario
The successive fall of the communist bloc has projected the world towards a single global society and broken the geopolitical balances of previous centuries. Technological development, the spread of computers and the internet, and the birth of projects such as Erasmus in Europe have propelled education into a new phase; one example of this is the recent past of remote learning. One fact, however, remains central: the right to education.
The path to full recognition of this and other fundamental rights is, unfortunately, still a long way to go. A Unicef report states that in 2020 there are more than 600 million young people without access to ‘minimum levels of knowledge’. The situation is worse in areas of war, under dictatorships or over unstable and dangerous places such as Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Nigeria; just as an example, according to a Unicef report of 2016, in Liberia the percentage of children without access to education is 62%.
In history, there have been some turning points where student motivated claims have led to complex improvement processes and conditions. As happened in Prague in 1989, in Chile in 2011 the demonstrations led to a historic success: the writing of a new Constitution, replacing the one of 1980, during the regime of General Pinochet.
Defending the right to education is fundamental to humanity. Students represent the future and the values we want to put forward. And it has always been like that, everywhere.
Happy International Student Day to all!