For almost 80 years, 17 November has marked International Student’s Day. Its historical background is more tragic than you might suspect.
To better understand the context of what led to the International Students’ Day, it is important to take a look at European history before World War II. In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Over the following years, the country expressed increasingly aggressive claims over territories outside their borders, but which they considered to belong to the German Reich. In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, his home country. Soon after, Czechoslovakia was forced into giving up parts of its territory, giving the Third Reich control over the Czech regions, with Slovakia forced to be split and treated as a “satellite state”. All this happened before the Third Reich started its war against Poland in September 1939, which ended with Poland’s capitulation in early October 1939.
Against this backdrop, on 28 October 1939, students at Charles University in Prague held a demonstration to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia. This demonstration was suppressed brutally by the Nazi occupant forces; 15 students were gravely injured, and one of them later died of his bullet wounds two weeks later.
For the day before his funeral, 15 November 1939, grieving fellow students requested permission for a funeral procession through Prague’s inner city, which was - surprisingly - granted by the protectorate’s government. The procession attracted thousands of students and became more of a demonstration against the Nazi forces. Their reaction, once more, was drastic and brutal. Historians suspect that the protectorate’s government decided to allow the procession because they well expected a violent outcome, and wanted to use that as a pretence to close down all Czech universities, thus weakening rebellious academic activists.
The Funeral of student Jan Opletal, 16 November 1939. Unknown photographer.
Not only did they close down universities, they also arrested more than 1,200 students and deported them to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. On 17 November 1939, nine of the protesters - eight students and one professor - were executed without trial. Of the 1,200 deported students, at least 20 did not survive their imprisonment. Universities remained closed until the end of the war, with the exception of the German University in Prague. The two demonstrations in October and November 1939 remained the only larger uprisings of the Czechoslovakian population against the Nazi forces.
In 1941, two years after the events, the International Students’ Council was held in London, United Kingdom, including a number of refugee students. At the Council, it was decided to introduce International Students’ Day on 17 November, the date of the executions, to commemorate this occasion. In subsequent years after World War II, the tradition has been observed by the International Union of Students and a range of other organisations.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia may today be the only countries where International Students’ Day is officially observed as a public holiday, even though indirectly: On 17 November 1989, demonstrations and protests related to International Students’ Day sparked a chain of events that ultimately led to the reform of then-socialist Czechoslovakia to a democratic system in a matter of weeks. The revolution was termed “velvet” for its relatively peaceful, non-violent transition of power.
Today, the Czech Republic and Slovakia observe 17 November as the “Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day”, a public holiday.
However, the day holds significance in other countries, as well. With its rather sad history, 17 November is today mostly a day for commemoration and a vehicle for student activism. In this context, the most prominent organisation is the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU). Every year, they raise awareness for students’ rights and needs through various activities, always with the goal to improve higher education for students and for society on a wider scale.