On a chilly November evening in the fall of 1989, I stood on a busy street in Prague and wondered if spring would return.
Twenty-one years earlier, in 1968, the “Prague Spring” had brought students and workers into the streets to protest communism and pressure the government into enacting reforms including freer speech and government transparency — only to see their revolt crushed by Soviet tanks.
Now, clutching a notebook and pen, I stood with other foreign correspondents waiting to see if the Czechs, emboldened by the rebellions of their communist neighbors — the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, and upheaval in Hungary — would take to the streets again.
At first, it seemed the communists had things under control. The government back then organized an annual “official” march to commemorate the death of a communist resistance fighter who opposed the Nazi occupation during World War II. Students marched obediently through the streets chanting communist slogans and bearing communist-approved signs. Then things went awry. As the march was about to end, the students suddenly veered off and headed for Wenceslas Square and the heart of the city. Police scrambled to cut them off. They formed a cordon at one end of the long avenue blocking the march then set up a line of police behind the march, and along every side street. The protesters were trapped. Minutes passed, then hours. The students began singing. Few of us journalists spoke Czech so we couldn’t understand the words. But the melody was clear. In Czech, the students were singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Suddenly the police charged the students with truncheons. Secret police in civilian clothes and with expressionless faces followed behind, methodically punching and pummeling everyone in their path. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune was driven back into a store doorway, beaten until her head split, blood pouring everywhere. A policeman raised a truncheon in front of me. I covered the top of my head with my hands. My wedding ring still carries the dent.
The students scattered. But the next night they returned, and the night after that. The crowds grew larger; the singing louder. Within days the communist government had fallen. Vaclav Havel, the imprisoned dissident playwright, was named president. The anti-communist revolutions swept onward, eventually engulfing the Soviet Union which collapsed and dissolved two years later, in 1991.
Thirty years on, it’s clear that the tumultuous revolutions of 1989 haven’t fully lived up to their promise. The end of communism allowed many of the old ethnic hatreds of Eastern Europe to resurface. The economic shock that followed the collapse of the iron curtain led to mass unemployment. Conservative populist governments now rule Poland, Hungary, and even Prague. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of a seemingly implacable foe left Europe and the United States without a common enemy, leading to fractures in the European Union and, now, in NATO and among America’s longtime alliances.
But if Europe is unsettled today, it is far better than it was in 1989, when the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain divided the continent, the United States and the Soviet Union aimed nuclear missiles at each other, and millions of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, and Romanians lived under communist repression, watched by the secret police, forbidden to travel, forced to stand in line for meat and toys and new shoes.
In the tumult of 1989, the young Eastern Europeans protesting in the streets kept saying that they just wanted to live in a “normal country” — where they could live freely, vote in elections, argue about politics, make their own choices. We may not agree with all those choices, just as many Eastern Europeans today surely cringe at some of America’s political choices. But with their hard-won freedom, they have undoubtedly built something better than what came before.
The street where I watched police beat up demonstrators has now been renamed in honor of that night and is packed with cafes and shops. The Berlin Wall that once symbolized the division of Europe has been reduced to an unobtrusive path underfoot, like Boston’s Freedom Trail, that busy Berliners stride over as they hurry to work.
The students who courageously marched down the streets of Prague remind us that history often surprises, and that change can come quickly and unexpectedly.
They also gave us something important: hope.
In our polarized times, it is easy to question whether democracy can continue to advance or even survive. But 30 years ago, tens of millions of people living under communist totalitarianism, who hadn’t experienced democracy since before World War II, stunned the world by rising up and peacefully overthrowing their leaders.
They sang a song made popular by the American civil rights movement decades earlier and thousands of miles away.
They reminded us, as Martin Luther King once preached, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Jonathan Kaufman, director of the Northeastern School of Journalism, covered the revolutions of 1989 for the Globe. He is the author of “The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China” to be published by Viking in June.