Note to all of my younger readers—as if I had any. Today is International Student’s Day but even if it didn’t fall on Sunday this year, you would not notice it at any American school, college, university. Why? Because the day honors students not just for academics, but for their traditional role as being a kind of collective public conscience, the bearers of high ideals, and a thorn in the side of arbitrary authority everywhere. In other words pretty much exactly what our oligarchs and authorities do not want. They would prefer you train quietly and diligently to seamlessly become cogs in the machinery of their prosperity. Or if you must blow off steam, do it at football games, keggers, or meaningless hook-up sex. Anything but protest.
The day owes its origins to the dark days following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. The country was perhaps the most sophisticated in eastern Europe with a large and prosperous middle class which placed value on what was called high culture. Education was particularly valued and it had one of the highest percentage of its young people enrolled in colleges and universities in the world. In Prague many of those students had watched glumly as German troops poured into the city in March.
Some students fled the country with their families, it they were able. Jewish students were expelled and Jewish professors fired. Some students, particularly young Communists and left Social Democrats went underground and began to form what would become a resistance movement. Most stayed fearfully at their studies, but many were determined to protest the subjugation of their country.
On October 29, the anniversary of the declaration of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1919, students of the Medical Faculty of Charles University held a street rally which was violently suppressed by the Nazis. Among the wounded was Jan Opleta who was shot and died of his wounds on November 11.
Students from all over Prague and the now splintered Czechoslovakia turned out by the tens of thousands to turn Opleta’s funeral procession into a mass protest on November 15. Students expected reprisals. What they got was beyond any of their imaginations.
On November 17 the Nazis stormed the University of Prague and other campuses. All universities around the former nation were immediately closed and their students ejected. 1,200 were rounded up and deported immediately to concentration camps. Others would be picked up and arrested over the next year. Few of those sent to the camps survived the War.
Nine professors and students were shot without trial the same day. Their names have become a litany of heroes to Czechs—Josef Matoušek, Jaroslav Klíma, Jan Weinert, Josef Adamec, Jan Černý, Marek Frauwirt, Bedřich Koukala, Václav Šafránek, and František Skorkovský.
In 1941 the International Student Council (ISC) which included many refugee, proclaimed November 17 International Students day with the approval and encouragement of Allied governments which used the proclamation in their propaganda broadcasts to the Continent.
The celebration was kept alive in the post war years by the successor organization to the ISC the International Union of Students. Along with the National Unions of Students in Europe and others there has been an on-going attempt to get the United Nations to officially recognize the day along with celebrations for Women, Children, Indigenous Peoples, and such. The effort has been met with what might be called benign neglect. It turns out a lot of governments are worried about politicized students. And support has been forthcoming and withdrawn depending on whose ox is being gored by students in the street.
Take the case of the old Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies. They originally embraced the celebration as an extension of anti-fascism. But that changed after another incident in Prague’
In 1989 independent student leaders and the official organized mass demonstration for the 50th anniversary of the attack on Czech schools and students. The 15,000 students who took to the street in a peaceful parade used the opportunity to criticize the Communist Party and government on an array of issues. Police responded with a predictable baton attack leaving many wounded and one dead. The dead man turned out to be a secret police agent who had infiltrated the students but had gotten too close to his own government’s clubs.
Students did not realize the dead man was an agent, however, and rumors of the death of a comrade swept the capital. A student strike was proclaimed and supported by actors and others. The subsequent uproar led directly to the Velvet Revolution and the ouster of the Communist Government breaking the hold of the Soviet Union on Eastern Europe.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, European student groups fractured on ideological lines. In the chaos, international coordination of Student Day observances fell by the way side, although many countries and national Student Union carried on independent celebrations.
Since then students have been at the forefront of protest and rebellion throughout the former Soviet empire, in China’s Tiananmen Square, in the Arab Spring, in anti-austerity protests across Europe, in Istanbul, and dozens of other places around the world. They protest against tyrants of the Left and of the right, against oligarchic wealth, and religious zealotry. No wonder governments are so skittish about encouraging them with United Nations recognition.
At the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India in 2004 various student groups and national unions began to discuss re-launch an official, coordinated movement. The movement has picked up steam, particularly in Europe.
In 2009 there was a massive commemoration of the 70th Anniversary and a major conference held at the University of Brussels. Among the actions taken was a resolution pressing for the adoption of a European Student Rights Charter.
But still nothing going on in the USA. Hey, here’s an idea, young readers. What say you start something next year….