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The most enduring images of the democratic revolutions of autumn 1989 remain the ones of jubilant East Germans scaling and then breaching the Berlin Wall, and those of delirious thousands overwhelming now-redundant checkpoints on the border between east and west. Less familiar – at least to western eyes – but no less dramatic and spectacular, was a gathering, just a fortnight after the wall fell on 9 November, of one million people on Letná Plain in Prague.

As political drama, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution could not have been better scripted. Conceived in a real theatre, the Magic Lantern in Prague, birthplace of the dissident Civic Forum, and directed by the playwright Václav Havel, it was a flawless production.

Havel’s Civic Forum staged the dissolution of a tired and vindictive Communist regime using the symbols of the ill-fated, but much-lamented, Prague Spring of 20 years earlier. Alexander Dubcek, architect of that brief but glorious thaw in Czechoslovakia’s Cold War, addressed the crowd with Havel on 26 November. Three days earlier, the singer Marta Kubisová had moved a crowd of 200,000 in Wenceslas Square to tears with a rendition of her 1968 anthem “Modlitba pro Martu” (“Prayer for Marta”).

But this was not the first mass assembly during the Velvet Revolution; nor was it the last. The following day, 27 November, millions throughout Czechoslovakia came on to the streets to

observe a two-hour general strike called by Civic Forum.

In fact, crowds had been on the streets of Prague and Bratislava for more than a week by the time Havel and Dubcek appeared on Letná Plain. This apparently spontaneous combustion of the Czech people began on 17 November, after a student demonstration in Prague was violently suppressed by police. That was the last time the authorities would use force, however – from then on, the crowds were simply too large and too frequent. Three hundred thousand on 20 November. The 200,000 with Kubisová and Havel in Prague on 22 November. And 500,000 on Letná Plain the day before Dubcek spoke to a million on the same spot.

The main reason this was a velvet revolution, and not a bloody one, was that by the time Czechoslovakia overthrew Communist rule, the race to democracy elsewhere in the east was already won. Poland and Hungary were organising elections and the East Germans had pulled down the wall. The Czechs and Slovaks crossed the finishing line in an undistinguished photo finish for fourth place with the Bulgarians, and only a few yards ahead of the Romanians.

Even if it was belated, victory was complete – so complete, in fact, that an apocryphal story soon began to circulate in Prague of how one

former dissident had throw himself off the Charles Bridge and drowned, the fulfilment of his democratic aspirations having rendered his life, which had been validated by the struggle, meaningless.

Havel’s priorities after the revolution were plain: he wished to oversee the promulgation of three new democratic constitutions, one Czech, one Slovak and one for the country as a whole. The constitutional project soon ran into difficulties, however, and Havel’s ambitions began to unravel as deep-seated historic antagonisms between the Czechs and the Slovaks began to reassert themselves. And while Havel, as the new president, was being feted around the globe, his nemesis at home, Václav Klaus, was quietly building his own formidable political organisation, using his position as finance minister to considerable effect. Klaus’s newly formed party won a thumping victory in the June 1992 elections, and he was named prime minister.

Klaus was determined to thwart Havel, whom he regarded as a liberal and dilettante. To this end, he stoked Czech anger at the subsidies handed out by the provincial industrial powerhouses of Moravia and Bohemia to the predominantly rural economy of Slovakia. His aim, the break-up of Czechoslovakia, was achieved in 1993, and with the Velvet Divorce of the Czech and Slovak republics, the aspirations of the Velvet Revolution were dashed.

Czech politics in the years since the break-up has been largely drab and mundane, though that is the price of becoming a normal country. Nevertheless, we can be sure it will be Václav Havel, the presiding genius of that month of crowds in 1989, who will be remembered, long after his namesake Klaus has been forgotten.

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This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd