Important days

18. 11. 2011

Autumn 1939 – Student demonstrations and the closure of Czech universities

On the 17th of November, in addition to the events of 1989, we commemorate the memory of the murdered and imprisoned students of 1939. Following popular demonstrations, the German occupation authorities decided to close universities and punish student functionaries in an exemplary fashion.


Demonstrace na podzim 1939 Initial protests, which the resistance at least partly directed, broke out on the occasion of the 28th of October. Prague was flooded with a large number of leaflets calling its residents to wear a black tie and dark Sunday clothes on the national holiday (this recommendation was later lifted so as not to facilitate any arrests by the Gestapo), refrain from smoking or drinking alcohol (to have an effect on tax levies), shopping, traveling by tram or going to work. Czech and German authorities knew that something was going to happen on the streets and squares of the city center, but the protectorate government and the Office of the Reich Protector concluded that it would be better not attach any special weight to it. As was his habit, Neurath did absolutely nothing and diplomatically left Prague for the weekend, but his deputy, Secretary of State Frank, and the commander of the security forces Stahlecker waited for an opportunity to intervene and to prove that his policy of caution was completely wrong.

The day started quietly. Workers and employees came to work as usual, but just before nine o’clock in the morning many young people gathered on Wenceslas Square wearing black and blue ribbons on their lapel or a “Masaryčka” riding hat on the head. Later that morning, the crowds began singing and chanting “We want freedom!” and “Long live Benes!”. They relocated to the Old Town Square, where scuffles broke out with German civilians, while protectorate policemen deliberately looked the other way.

K. H. Frank At one o’clock in the afternoon in front of the Gestapo building in Bredovská Street (nowadays Politických vězňů) a crowd gathered demanding arrests. At that time the commander of the German security forces informed the protectorate Minister of the Interior that members of Wachtregiment Prag, components of the Division of Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, will march from the upper end of Wenceslas Square every Saturday, and if the authorities do not provide a clear path, then they will do it themselves. German security forces and the protectorate police then began to push demonstrators from Wenceslas Square into the adjacent streets and open spaces.

At three o’clock in Jindřišská Street a group of protesters stormed the Palace Hotel opposite the main post office, which had been taken over by the Gestapo for officers of operational groups. One of the detainees managed to break free, then the protesters returned to Wenceslas Square, which, despite resistance from the police on one side, filled up again. At five o’clock in the afternoon Frank visited President Hácha at Lany Castle, uncompromisingly he told him that the leader does not intend to tolerate any demonstrations in the protectorate, and if the police do not intervene more decisively, the Leibstandarte SS will. Shortly after German security forces, to which the protectorate government under pressure had to add the Czech police, repeatedly dispersed demonstrators from Wenceslas Square, during which time a few shots were fired. The crowd dispersed but protests continued in front of the Main Station and (then still) Masaryk Station, Vinohrady, and other parts of the city at about eight o’clock in the evening. During the day the Czech and German side arrested about 400 people and 15 wounded protesters required hospitalization. A former miner (then bakery worker) Václav Sedláček died at the intersection of Žitná and Ve Smečkách from a police bullet to the heart, and a medical student Jan Opletal, who was standing on the corner of Žitná and Štěpánská, was taken to hospital in a critical condition after being shot in the stomach.

Jan Opletal On the 11th of November, Opletal succumbed to his injuries and his classmates decided to escort the coffin from the student halls in Hlávkova to the main station, as he was to be buried in his native Náklo in Moravia. Why did the German authorities allow this to happen? This question is accompanied by many presumptions and allegations, all of which are directed mostly to the fact that the Gestapo wanted to make up for what they missed on the 28th of October. Actually the version given by the former protectorate Minister Feierabend sounds the most plausible: According to him, the Gestapo banned students from any involvement in the funeral. But when the government learned that despite the ban the students intended to attend the funeral, it sent Feierabend to negotiate with the student leader, Associate Professor Joseph Matoušek. The students promised Feierabend that the escort would not grow into a demonstration, and that the protectorate government guaranteed the Reichsprotektor peace and order during the funeral. Then only German students were permitted to attend the funeral.

On the 15th of November, over 3,000 students came to pay their last respects to Opletal in front of the Institute of Forensic Medicine on Albertová Street. Then the coffin was carried off in complete silence to an awaiting hearse that would take it to the station, but the students began to sing the national anthem. This signaled that the event would not end up being lost. About 500 people headed to Karlovo náměstí, where they clashed with the protectorate police and then hid in the ČVUT buildings. The police eventually let them leave in small groups, but the students met up again outside and formed a procession chanting slogans like “Long live Czechoslovakia!” and “Long live freedom!”, and headed into the city center.

Pohřeb Jana Opletala K. H. Frank, who wanted to see the situation for himself, also arrived there by car. When he ordered the car to stop on the corner of Národní and Spálená, outraged students surrounded the car and physically attacked Frank’s chauffeur, who ended up with a broken nasal septum and a blackened right eye. The more conflict-minded groups then continued the protest by throwing bilingual signs from the front of a tram into the Vltava River. They stopped at the chapel of the Old Town Hall, were the grave of the Unknown Soldier had been temporarily placed since 1922 and sang national songs in front of the Faculty of Law. At noon it was all over, but only in the streets of Prague.

Hitler, after triumphing over Poland in just ten weeks, was unwilling to tolerate any Czech defiance and after the demonstrations had calmed down he ordered Neurath, Frank, and the commander of the Wehrmacht in Prague, General Erich Friderici, to Berlin for a meeting on how to deal with the situation. Historians still argue over what exactly was agreed at this meeting and when. Neurath’s advocates, such as Gustav von Schmoller in relation to this wrote that on the morning of the meeting, the 16th of November, only the closure of Czech universities was discussed, while during the afternoon meeting to which Neurath and his entourage had not been invited, Hitler with Himmler and Frank approved other measures. Frank, who wanted to immediately fly back to Prague, gave Neurath a plane and took the train with his Chief of Staff the next morning. After his return he found that all of the Czech universities were to be closed for three years, nine student officers had been shot dead and more than 1,200 had ended up in concentration camps. Frank signed it, but when the Prime Minister of the Protectorate General Elias urged Neurath to confirm the drastic measures during a solicited evening audience, the Reichsprotector took the responsibility on himself.

Konstantin von Neurath Of the nine student functionaries shot in Ruzyně prison at seven o’clock on the 17th of November, eight were involved in the National Union or in the national or Prague leadership of students. It must be emphasized that none of these functionaries of the official National Union and student organizations were involved in the resistance in any way.

Even before the execution of the student functionaries, members of the Gestapo and the SS rounded up the five largest student halls in Prague and two in Brno, although no students demonstrated there. The arrested students were transported to Ruzyně, where they were gradually perlustrated. Persons under twenty-one years of the age were released, as well as Slovak citizens, nationals of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and members of Vlajka. The remaining 1,200 awaited transport to the Oranienburg concentration camp and later to Sachsenhausen. Thanks to Hácha’s tireless requests to Neurath and his successor, a larger number of students were released in groups in 1943, but the Germans enforced severe political concessions on the protectorate government. Fifteen students died in the camps between 1940 and 1942. Of those who returned, three (Zdenek Mikeštík, Adolf Skalka and Francis Stavělík) died in May 1945 at the Prague barricades.

The German penal measures had a “devastating effect” on most Czechs. The upper social strata hoped there would be strikes, but they never materialized. The words of many leaflets, especially from the Communist Party, which called for protest strikes against the arrest of students and closure of universities went unheeded, strikes only took place in five companies in Dvůr Králové nad Labem. National resistance groups, by contrast, tried to calm the Czech population; they issued the slogan “avoid unnecessary casualties”.

Closure of the universities was one of the steps that harmed the Czech nation the most. It had serious consequences for each individual student and for the Czech nation as a whole.

Author of the text: Martin Gurín

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