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Czechoslovakia: Road to Revolution

Václav Havel honoring the deaths of those who took part in the Prague protest.

The Czechoslovak Revolution of 1989 was the most surprising, yet most rational, event in the array of startling upheavals that ended the decade in Eastern Europe. It was surprising in that virtually no one-in Czechoslovakia or abroad-foresaw anything approximating what would happen between November 17 and December 29. It was rational in that all those characteristics that had shaped Czechoslovak history for the past several hundred years seemed to merge in what was clearly the most gentle and complete disestablishment of communism in Eastern Europe.

There were many factors-accidental happenings and political trends-that came together to create that "velvet revolution." The person who started it was Mikhail Gorbachev. The ideas underpinning the clean sweep of the communist dominion in Eastern Europe flowed without question from perestroika and glasnost. Yet the way in which the events in Czechoslovakia unfolded demonstrated Gorbachev's apparent lack of vision or even ignorance of the real forces at play in this important allied nation.

The spark that lit the fire under revolution in November surely came from the explosive events earlier in East Germany, events which Gorbachev condoned if not wholly encouraged. Human waves of East Germans flowing through Czechoslovakia and Hungary to freedom in the West riveted the attention of young Czechs and Slovaks, opening their minds to the potential for mass action and the possible impotence of their security police. Ultimately, however, it was a uniquely Czechoslovak reaction to the prospect of reform in Eastern Europe and to the dramatic change in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev that formed the character of their revolution and led to Václav Havel's election as the Czechoslovak president on December 29.

Historians over decades to come will dissect the almost miraculous disappearance of the Cold War and East European communism in 1989. Many in Prague find their own revolution so mystifyingly beautiful that they attribute it to astrological forces, to the recently canonized Bohemian princess St. Agnes, or to the return of Rabbi Loew's golem. For now, however, tracing the earthly steps that

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