Frederik Rajkovic looks into the origins of International Students’ Day. A day celebrated in honour of students who were suppressed on this day, 17th November, back in 1939 by the Nazi Party during the occupation in Prague.
Do you know what today is? It’s International Students’ Day! Have you ever heard about it? If you are curious about the story behind this commemorative day, which speaks to the critical effects of student activism, please read along.
Everything began on the 28th of October 1939. On this day, Czech students organised a demonstration against German occupation on the 21st anniversary of the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence, which had been established on the same day just 21 years prior in 1918. After March 1939, Czechoslovakia had been divided between Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which was occupied by Nazi Germany, and Slovak State, which was under a fascist puppet government. This event was held by students of the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University. Protesting students were quickly overshadowed as they were immediately met with oppression by Order Police and armed units of SS.
As a result of the suppression tactics of Nazi police, baker, Vaclav Sedlacek (22-years-old), was shot and killed that very night. Additionally, a student of medicine, Jan Opletal (24-years-old), was shot by police and suffered from several injuries, which he endured for two weeks prior to ultimately succumbing to his extensive injuries and passing away on the 11th of November. Four days later, Opletal’s funeral was attended by thousands of students, and the event sparked another anti-Nazi demonstration.
In retaliation against the students for utilizing their human right to protest, Nazi’s met on the 16th of November in Berlin and ultimately decided to close all Czech universities for the following three years. Between the nights of 16th and 17th of November, nine leaders who had spearheaded the student organisation efforts were executed. Another 1200 students were then arrested and transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp where they were held for a significant amount of time. Thirty-five of these students died while in custody and the remainder were finally released between late 1942 and early 1943.
Inspired by these events, in London 1941 the Central Association of Czechoslovak Students (USCS) along with the National Union of Students of England and Wales (NUS) and other foreign students fighting Nazis from England made successful efforts in convincing 14 out of 26 countries to agree to officially certify the 17th of November as International Students’ Day. In 1942 at the meeting of The International Student Assembly in Washington, the 17th of November was confirmed and officially declared International Students’ Day. Delegates of students from 50 nations of the world took part in the act of confirmation. (Source: SME)
On the 50th anniversary of this very special day in 1989, students in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic demonstrated yet again. This time the demonstrations were against the communist regime which led to the Velvet Revolution and that spread throughout Europe. This represented a significant breaking point and was finally the beginning of the end of communism era in Central and Eastern European countries.
Many people stereotype students as very naive, inexperienced, easily manipulated, and detached from world events. However, to the contrary, throughout history students have proved by the effective demonstration that they have a strong impact on the turning tide of world events. Today we commemorate the heroism students, such as those who were the backbone behind this day, have portrayed, and we continue to pass on their message to the next generation of students. In addition, we only hope that our generation will carry the torch and embody the courage and agency students who came before us showed and contribute to the resolution of collective world problems.