Looking back: Prague’s Velvet Revolution fired up by dead student hoax
Prague — A hoax about a dead student, which spread fast after riot police crushed a student march in Prague, fired up the so-called Velvet Revolution which toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989.
A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, police brutality against students marching through Prague’s historic centre on November 17, 1989 triggered a series of unusually massive anti-regime rallies.
The growing opposition to the hardline communist regime was fuelled by a rumour that a student had died from the blows of riot police truncheons.
"I banned my daughter from going to the rallies, I was too scared. And then I heard the police had killed a student, Martin Smid. I told my daughter: ‘Go,’" said pensioner Anna Milotova.
On Friday, November 17, maths student Martin Smid joined many of his friends and went to the march, but he left the place before the police assault.
A day later, he learnt that he was dead.
On November 18, a woman whom Smid had never met told a group of dissidents including Petr Uhl, head of a clandestine press agency, that her friend — a certain Martin Smid — was killed during the police crackdown.
"We were convinced that it’s true," said Uhl, a former political prisoner, who in good faith sent the information to foreign broadcasters Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, which millions of Czechoslovaks listened to illegally.
"Many people saw dissidents as demons. But students were seen as innocents, and this helped to mobilise many people," said film director Natasha Dudinski, who was a student in 1989.
By Sunday, November 19, everyone was talking about the allegedly dead student.
"Jan Palach 1969 – Martin Smid 1989," chanted a spontaneous gathering in Prague’s central Wenceslas Square, where student Jan Palach had set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia the year before.
On the same day, the communist television forced Smid to deny the rumour for the camera, but things were already moving too fast.
That evening, Vaclav Havel and fellow dissidents formed the "Civic Forum," a movement that steered the revolution towards the appointment of a government of dissidents and reformist communists on December 10, and towards Havel’s election as president on December 29.
Before they lost power, the communists sentenced Uhl to a week in prison for the crime of "spreading false information."
"But even if the rally of November 17 had not taken place, our revolution would have won all the same, only a few days or a few weeks later," said Uhl.
Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, the news about a dead student is still veiled by mystery — was it the idea of a scaremonger, or a sophisticated plot that escaped its authors’ control?
A series of theories about the origin of the hoax appeared shortly after the rumour spread, but all of them went unconfirmed.
One said a group of officers of the communist StB secret police, allies of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, spread the hoax with the hope of provoking an angry reaction among the people and accelerating the fall of Czechoslovakia’s hardline communists to the benefit of reformists.
Another theory said quite the contrary — that the hoax was a tool for the Czechoslovak government to accuse dissidents of lying, throw them in prison and charge them with organising anti-regime events, expected to take place around December 10, 1989, International Human Rights Day.
Martin Smid, now a mathematician and musician in his forties, keeps asking why the mysterious woman had used his name in particular.
"I got quite a trashing from history here. The wheel started to spin and I could only watch," he wrote on his website.
The man who found himself in the centre of events against his will refuses to speak to the press.
"Journalists always ask me the same questions," he told AFP.