Normally, when you think of something like International Students’ Day, most of us think of a day of things like walkouts, protests, and other days during which students are expected to conform to a collective norm of all these issues, like climate change, anti-war protests, and such. No matter what your stance on that is, this is not why International Students’ Day is commemorated. On November 17, 1939, in Czechoslovakia, students the University of Prague were demonstrating against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Nazi occupation was protested by many groups, and yet, what was a legal protest, was turned into a mass invasion and murder of the student protesters. The event was similar to the Tiananmen Square massacre in which they opened fire on the protesters in China. That one was the Chinese government, while this one was the Nazis. I’s sure the Tiananmen Square massacre was illegal in China, but that was not the case…supposedly anyway, with the Czech protests. Today, the nations have come together in remembering the nine students who were killed, and the others who were sent to concentration camps as a result of their participation in protests over German occupation.
The world was so shocked by the killings and the taking of captives, but not much could be done. Among the dead were Jan Opletal and worker Václav Sedlácek. The Nazis rounded up the students, murdered nine student leaders and sent over 1,200 students to concentration camps, mainly to Sachsenhausen. As a result of the attacks, all Czech universities and colleges were closed. Technically, by this time Czechoslovakia no longer existed, as it had been divided into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Slovak Republic under a fascist puppet government. The Nazi authorities were in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Their main target was students of the Medical Faculty of Charles University. That demonstration was held on October 28, and it was to commemorate the anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. During this demonstration the student Jan Opletal was shot, and later died from his injuries on November 11th. On November 15th, his body was supposed to be transported from Prague to his home in Moravia. The funeral procession attracted thousands of students, who turned the event into an anti-Nazi demonstration. The Nazis would not allow such a demonstration, so the Nazi authorities took drastic measures in response. They closed all Czech higher education institutions, and arrested the more than 1,200 students, all of whom were then sent to concentration camps. They also executed nine students and professors without trial on November 17th. Historians speculate that the Nazis granted permission for the funeral procession already expecting a violent outcome. Their plan was to use that as a pretext for closing down universities and purging anti-fascist dissidents. I would have to agree. In that way, it was easier to place blame on the students and staff, and not the Nazis.
In 2009, on the 70th anniversary of November 17, 1939, OBESSU and ESU promoted a number of initiatives throughout Europe to commemorate the date. An event was held from the 16th to the 18th of November at the University of Brussels, focusing on the history of the students’ movement and its role in promoting active citizenship against authoritarian regimes. The conference gathered around 100 students representing national students and student unions from over 29 European countries, as well as some international delegations. Today, International Students’ Day is a day of remembrance to honor these brave students, who gave their lives and their freedom for a cause the believed in. Some countries, like Czechoslovakia have named it a national holiday.