Prejudice, Hysteria and a Failure of Political Leadership: Of Refugees and November 17 in Prague

by Derek Sayer


“Long Live Zeman – but somewhere else!”   A placard supporting Czech President Zeman altered by an anti-presidential protestor,Prague November 17th 2015

American politicians’ xenophobic attitudes to refugees generate international controversy, while similar sentiments expressed by politicians in Prague pass largely unnoticed. Professor Derek Sayer argues that we should not ignore events in the Czech capital as, despite the efforts of historically inspired protestors, they increasingly reflect the dangerous spirit of 1939 rather than the more hopeful one of 1989.


Most Americans would not have been too interested in reading about events in Prague in recent weeks. Their minds were on how to keep the homeland safe.

In the aftermath of the ISIL attacks in Paris on November 13, presidential candidate Donald Trump considered how his managerial skills might help build a database of Muslims. He has since called for a ban on all Muslim entry to the United States. Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, recalled “that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.” Thirty-one governors hastened to proclaim that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in their states. The House of Representatives meantime passed an Act effectively halting settlement of all Syrian refugees in the United States, including the three-year-old orphans that Governor Chris Christie, another Republican candidate for the presidency, vowed he would not allow to terrorize New Jersey.

There are some nasty historical echoes here. The Nazis’ registration of Jews was the first step on the road to Auschwitz. FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans has since been widely recognized as a major blot on his presidency. The policy was later acknowledged (by the 1988 Civil Liberties Act) to be the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” and President Reagan formally apologized on behalf of the US government. Out of 937 Jewish refugees on the transatlantic liner the St Louis, which was turned away by the United States in 1939 and had to sail back to Europe, 254 perished in the Holocaust. Had Otto Frank’s request for a US visa been granted in 1941 Anne Frank might also still be alive today.

Europe’s Dark Mirror
With these precedents in mind, events that made headlines in Prague in November but mostly went unreported elsewhere deserve wider attention. Not for the first time in modern history the Bohemian capital offers a mirror—of sorts—in which to examine the dark side of what used to call itself the Free World. We might begin by noting that what is today the Czech Republic gave that world more than its fair share of refugees during the last century: among them three million German-speaking Bohemians deprived of their citizenship and forcibly expelled by Czechs during the “transfer” [odsun] of 1945-6, and hundreds of thousands of Czechs who in turn fled their homeland following the communist coup of “Victorious February” 1948 and the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring in August 1968. Some went on to become western household names: among them the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, the American tennis player Martina Navratilova, and the film director Miloš Forman, who won Oscars for both Amadeus and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In the Czech Republic November 17 is a public holiday known as the Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy. The holiday commemorates two events that occurred on this date, fifty years apart. The first took place in 1939. Following Slovakia’s Nazi-sponsored secession, Germany invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia on March 15 of that year. The last public protest against the occupation took place on November 15 at the funeral of a medical student, Jan Opletal, who had died from injuries sustained when the police fired on an earlier demonstration. Two days later, on November 17, the Occupation authorities raided student dormitories in Prague and Brno, deported over 1200 students to concentration camps (where many later died), and summarily executed nine students and professors. All Czech universities were declared closed for three years.  In the event they remained shut for the duration of the war. In memory of these events the International Students Council—a London-based body made up of refugees—declared November 17 International Students’ Day.

During the Cold War the communists hijacked International Students’ Day for their own propagandistic agendas. But the fiftieth anniversary in 1989 took place under unusual circumstances. For weeks East German refugees had been pouring through Prague bound for West Germany. The East German government opened the Berlin Wall on 9 November but the Czechoslovak Communist Party was still resisting the tide of reform sweeping the Soviet bloc. After assembling at the Albertov campus of Charles University for International Students’ Day, thousands of students marched into downtown Prague demanding change. They were attacked by riot police on National Avenue (Národní třída), outside the National Theatre. The echo of 1939 was obvious. The police action triggered ten days of nightly mass demonstrations that eventually forced the Communist Party to relinquish power on November 28.

Hijacking National Heritage
Thereafter November 17 became a day not only for remembering the Nazi victims of 1939 but for affirming the democratic values that triumphed in the Velvet Revolution. Students commemorated both annually by laying flowers at Albertov. But this year the celebrations took a strange turn. Against vehement opposition from the university authorities, who expressed “profound sadness” at the “misuse of November 17 by people to whom intolerance and hatred are natural,” the far-right Anti-Islamic Bloc organized a rally “in support of the views of the president on immigration and Islam” at the time and place where the November 17 commemoration would normally take place. A month earlier Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman had warned that “Islamic refugees will not respect Czech laws and habits, they will apply sharia law, so unfaithful women will be stoned to death and thieves will have their hand cut off.” When the students arrived at Albertov to lay their flowers police barred their entry, ostensibly because their presence would threaten public order. Only people carrying pre-printed cards reading “Long Live Zeman!” were allowed past the police barriers.

President Zeman was present at the rally, where he told the crowd that people opposed to Islam and refugees should not be “branded” as Islamophobes, fascists or racists. Afterward he stood side-by-side with Anti-Islamic Bloc founder Martin Konvička to sing the Czech national anthem. Konvička has previously made himself notorious for advocating establishing concentration camps for Muslims. Other guests at the rally included the founder of the street-fighting anti-Islamic English Defence League, Stephen Lennon, and the leader of the German anti-Islamic movement Pegida. Banners carried by the crowd read “Fuck Islam!” and “Ban Islam!”

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka is one of many prominent figures in Czech public life who have since criticized Zeman for participating in “a rally organized by a xenophobic sect that spreads hatred.”  The populist president is widely despised by the liberal media and those he routinely mocks as Prague’s coffee-house intelligentsia. Unfortunately, Zeman’s spokesman is likely right that in the present climate of fear it is the president rather than the prime minister who speaks for the nation. Opinion polls show his views on Islam and refugees enjoy majority support. November 17 was a preliminary shot in Zeman’s next election campaign. He went still further in his recent Christmas and New Year message, telling his compatriots that “I am profoundly convinced that we are facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees.”

Inspiring Resistance
Zeman’s attempt to hijack the Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy has not however passed without protest—or appeal to a different set of Czech memories and values. On November 22, Prague students laid flowers at Albertov on November 22 in a “compensatory” commemoration and then marched to Wenceslas Square, the venue of the nightly demonstrations that brought down communism in November 1989. There they joined in singing Prayer for Marta, a song recorded by Marta Kubišová, lead singer of the popular sixties group the Golden Kids, as a protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968. Prayer for Marta led to the singer being banned from radio, TV, and the recording studio and she eventually became a signatory of Charter 77. Kubišová’s first public appearance in twenty years was standing beside Václav Havel on the Melantrich balcony on 22 November 1989, where she sang “Prayer for Marta” to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the square below.

The song begins “Let peace remain long in this land, malice, envy, hatred, fear, and discord, let them pass.”  The words are not Kubišová’s. They come from a prayer by Jan Amos Komenský, the last bishop of the Bohemian Brethren, who is better known in the west under his Latin name Comenius as the founder of modern education. Having successively lost his house, his library, his wife, and his children to the Thirty Years War, Comenius fled his homeland in 1628. He eventually died in exile in Amsterdam in 1670. Just another refugee.

Derek Sayer is Professor of History at Lancaster University (UK) and is the author of Prague, Capital of the 20th Century: A Surrealist History (2013) and The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) both published by Princeton University Press. He is a Senior Editor at New Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Journal of Central & East European Politics and International Relations