International Students' Day
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International Students' Day is an international observance of student community, held annually on November 17. Originally commemorating the Nazi German storming of Czech universities in 1939 and the subsequent killing and sending of students to concentration camps, a number of universities now mark it, sometimes on a day other than November 17, for a nonpolitical celebration of the multiculturalism of their international students.
The date commemorates the anniversary of the 1939 German Nazi storming of the University of Prague after demonstrations against the killing of Jan Opletal and worker Václav Sedláček as well as against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The German Nazis rounded up the students, murdered nine student leaders and sent over 1,200 students to concentration camps (mainly Sachsenhausen concentration camp). Subsequently, they closed all Czech universities and colleges. By this time Czechoslovakia no longer existed, as it was divided by the Nazi Germany into Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and Slovak Republic with a puppet fascist government.
During late 1939 the Nazi authorities in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia suppressed a demonstration in Prague held by students of the Medical Faculty of Charles University. The demonstration was held on the 28th of October to commemorate the anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic (1918).
During this demonstration the student Jan Opletal was shot and died from wounds on the 11th of November. On the 15th of November his body was meant to be transported from Prague back to his home in Moravia. His funeral procession consisted of thousands of students, who turned this event into an anti-Nazi demonstration. However, this resulted in drastic measures being taken by the Nazis. All Czech higher education institutions were closed down, more than 1,200 students were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and nine students and professors were executed without trial on the 17th of November. Due to this, 17 November was chosen as International Students’ Day.
The nine students and professors executed on the 17th of November in Prague were:
- Josef Matoušek (historian and associate professor; participated on preparation of Opletal's funeral)
- Jaroslav Klíma (student of law; Chairman of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia, requested release of students arrested by Gestapo during Opletal's funeral)
- Jan Weinert (student of Bohemistics and Germanistics; requested release of students arrested by Gestapo during Opletal's funeral)
- Josef Adamec (student of law; secretary of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)
- Jan Černý (student of medicine; requested release of students arrested by Gestapo during Opletal's funeral)
- Marek Frauwirth (student of economics; as a worker of the Slovak embassy in Prague, he was issuing false passports to Jews wanting to flee from the Nazis)
- Bedřich Koula (student of law; secretary of the Association of Czech students in Bohemia)
- Václav Šafránek (student of architecture; record-keeper of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)
- František Skorkovský (student of law; Director of a Committee of Confederatión Internationale des Étudians, Chairman of Foreign Department of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)
The 17th of November was first marked as International Students' Day in 1941 in London by the International Students' Council (which had many refugee members) in agreement with the Allies, and the tradition has been kept up by the successor International Union of Students, which together with the National Unions of Students in Europe and other groups has been lobbying to make the day an official United Nations observance.
In 1989 independent student leaders together with the Socialist Union of Youth (SSM/SZM) organized a mass demonstration to commemorate International Students’ Day. This fiftieth-anniversary event gave students an opportunity to voice their displeasure with the communist party of Czechoslovakia. What began as a peaceful commemorative event turned into a violent one, by nightfall, with many participants being brutally beaten by riot police, red berets, and other members of the law enforcement agencies. About 15,000 people took part in this demonstration. The only person to left lying where the beatings took place was an alleged body of a student who in fact was an undercover agent. The rumor of a fellow student that died due to the police brutality triggered events that the secret police probably had not envisaged. That same night, students and theater actors agreed to go on strike. The events linked to International Students' Day of 17 November 1989 helped spark the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day is today marked among both the official holidays in the Czech Republic (since 2000, thanks to the efforts of the Czech Student Chamber of the Council of Higher Education Institutions) and the holidays in Slovakia.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the progressive crisis within the International Union of Students, celebrations for the 17th of November were held only in few countries without any coordination worldwide. During the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India, in 2004, some international union of students such as OCLAE and some national unions such as the Italian Unione degli Studenti decided to re-launch the date and to call for global demonstration on 17 November 2004. Student movements in many countries mobilized again that year and kept on observing international students' day the following years with the active support of the European platform representing student and school student organizations OBESSU and the ESU.
In 2009, on the seventieth anniversary of 17 November 1939, OBESSU and ESU promoted a number of initiatives throughout Europe to commemorate the date. An event in Brussels was held from the 16th to the 18th of November at the University of Brussels. The event focused on the history of the students' movement and its role in promoting active citizenship towards authoritarian regimes and it was followed by an assembly discussing the role of student unions today and the need for the recognition of a European Student Rights Charter. The conference gathered around 100 students representing national students and student unions from over 30 European countries as well as some international delegations.