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History, Freedom, and Fate: Remembering the Velvet Revolution Twenty Five Years Later

17/11/2014 11:31 GMT | Updated 16/01/2015 10:59 GMT

"The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle," said Vaclav Havel.

The Czech playwright and dissident knew something of struggle. He was threatened, harassed, surveilled, detained and interrogated repeatedly over decades by Communist authorities during the Cold War. His advocacy on behalf of democracy and human rights landed him in prison several times, once for nearly 5 years. His last jailing took place in early 1989, the year of Prague's Velvet Revolution -- the political upheaval that led to Czechoslovakia's non-violent transition of power. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Around the same time Havel was last imprisoned, in East Berlin a twenty-year-old waiter named Chris Gueffroy was becoming fed up with the stifling of free speech and dissent in his country. Like Havel, Gueffroy had been denied access to education. Gueffroy was punished for having refused to pursue the officer's track in the National People's Army. His simple act of defiance would end his dream of becoming a pilot or actor. Gueffroy went to the East Berlin district of Britz on the evening of February 5, 1989 to escape to a new life in the West.

After Havel was elected President of free Czechoslovakia in December, 1989 -- the Berlin Wall was open and the dictatorships of the region were dropping like dominoes -- he reminded fellow citizens in a new year's address to the nation that new hope and opportunity were the result of struggle. "We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedoms," the new President said.

Gueffroy was one of those brave individuals. He was the last East German shot and killed by border guards trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Another who paid a price in the struggle for freedom was a 21-year-old Czech university student named Jan Palach. Around 4 p.m. in the afternoon of January 16, 1969, a year and a half after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Palach walked to the top of Wenceslaus Square in Prague, doused himself with petrol, and set himself on fire. According to the physician who treated Palach, it was not so much the Soviet occupation that had led him to such a desperate and dramatic act. Rather, as Palach told his doctor, he was driven by what he saw as the the demoralisation that was setting in at the time, as "people were not only giving up, but giving in."

Monica Lovinescu did neither. On the evening of November 18, 1977, the Romanian journalist was severely beaten by assailants in the courtyard of her Paris home. Lovinescu was an essayist and literary critic whose weekly radio programs for Radio Free Europe (RFE) were so popular in her native Romania that Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered his secret police, the Securitate, to silence her. The intention of the attack was, as one of Ceausescu's aides later put it, to leave her "as a living corpse."

In January, 1969 in Prague, Palach died of his burns. In Paris in 1977, the vicious beating by Romanian agents left Lovinescu in a coma. But she recovered and returned to her microphone to press on with her defense of free speech and dissident writers.

There were countless souls across Central and Eastern Europe, most less known than Havel, who risked and sacrificed for freedom, human dignity and for what Havel called "living in truth." Before Chris Gueffroy, some 5,000 East Germans tried to escape over the Berlin Wall. After Jan Palach died in a Prague clinic, a month later (in February 1969) at the same place on Prague's Wenceslaus Square another student, Jan Zajic, burned himself to death. He was followed in April of the same year by Evzen Plocek.

Vaclav Havel, who passed away three years ago, said famously, "truth and love must prevail over lies." That's not a bad way to remember him, the freedom fighters of the time, and the revolutions of 1989.