1939: Nine Czech students

2 comments November 17th, 2008 Headsman

Today is International Students’ Day and a public holiday in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia thanks to the martyrdom of nine at the hands of the Nazi occupation forces this day in 1939.

The previous fall, Hitler had cowed the allied powers into ceding the mountainous Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to the Third Reich in order to avert war — leading to Neville Chamberlain‘s famously mistaken “peace in our time” speech.

In March 1939, Germany reneged its part of the bargain and gobbled up Bohemia and Moravia, essentially the modern Czech Republic.

That this would collapse Chamberlain’s vision of peace and set Europe’s powers on the road to war with Berlin was cold comfort to the occupied Czechs. They had their own problems.

On October 28, youth demonstrations in Prague against the occupation resulted in the shooting of Charles University medical student Jan Opletal

Two weeks later he succumbed to the injury, and his funeral turned into an anti-occupation riot forcibly quashed by German arms. According to the London Times account:

On November 17 at 3 a.m., the Gestapo entered all students’ colleges, men’s and women’s, without allowing them to dress, tied the students in groups of three, and dragged them away … Between 3 o’clock and 8 o’clock in the morning the Gestapo visited students’ homes and lodgings. Those opposing arrests and parents who withheld information were immediately shot at, and the wounded were refused attention. The Gestapo broke into high schools as well as into the university …

The prisoners were taken to the Ruzyn barracks and to the Sparta football stadium, where cold water was flung over them and were made to wait until the evening. Then, in the barrack yard, 124 students and teachers* were shot before their fellow-students, the first nine being presidents of students’ associations, including the brilliant young sociologist Dr. Matoushek [English Wikipedia entry | Czech], son of a former Minister of Commerce.

Universities in the cities were declared closed for three years; they would not in fact re-open until after the war.

The day, subsequently memorialized as den boje studentu za svobodu a demokracii (Day of the Students’ Fight for Freedom and Democracy), entered Czech history a second time a half-century later. A student protest at Opletal’s grave on this date in 1989 helped catalyze the Velvet Revolution that toppled Czechoslovakia’s Communist government.

* The larger figure was circulated in the days following by Czech sources. It is not clear to me whether that number proved unfounded, or whether subsequent memorials simply came to focus on the leading nine — whose executions are certain, and were even announced by German communique.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Rioting,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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