Short Teaching Module: Letter by the Bratislava Five
This teaching module addresses a protest in Bratislava during the summer of 1989 aimed at commemorating the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion by publicly laying flowers at various locations in Slovakia where citizens had been killed in 1968. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below. Click on the images or text for more information about the source.
This short teaching module includes brief context and guidance on discussing the one primary source.
In the summer of 1989, Slovak dissidents decided to commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion by publicly laying flowers at various locations in Slovakia where citizens had been killed in 1968. They announced their plans in a letter to the Slovak government dated August 4, 1989. Copies of the letter were produced in samizdat (clandestine press) and secretly distributed throughout Slovakia. In Bratislava, the authorities arrested the five dissidents who had signed the letter. Though crowds gathered at the sites on the August 20 anniversary, the police prevented anyone from presenting flowers. In the Slovak press, the authors became known collectively as the 'Bratislava Five.' The public outcry that followed their arrest strengthened the ties between the different opposition groups in Slovakia, which united that fall to form Public Against Violence. This broad organization helped negotiate the peaceful transfer of power from the Communist authorities.
This source is a part of the Letter by the Bratislava Five teaching module.
I use this document in an upper-division course that examines the history of East-Central Europe from 1945 to the collapse of Communism in 1989. It examines the region as a whole, so lectures and discussion have a strong comparative dimension. Enrollment is approximately twenty students and the class meets for two hours, twice a week. Students read this document after having discussed the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the policies of Normalization, the formation of Charter 77 in 1977, the Solidarity movement and declaration of martial law in Poland. Expressions of opposition in Slovakia were less prominent and often focused on demands for greater religious freedom. As this letter illustrates, by late summer 1989 the various small streams of opposition in Slovakia were beginning to coalesce into a more coordinated movement.
Prior to 1989, several groups had been active in Slovakia. The first included the handful of political dissidents who were active in Charter 77, such as Miroslav Kusý, Vladimir Maňák, and Milan Šimečka. The second was a slightly larger literary and artistic underground, including author Hana Ponická. A Catholic underground represented the largest expression of independent activity in Slovakia. Ján Čarnogurský and Anton Selecký were both active in this underground. Finally, an environmental movement had grown in Bratislava in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite many informal ties, there was little formal cooperation until 1988 when activists from throughout Czechoslovakia formed the Movement for Civil Freedoms (referred to hereafter by its Czecho-Slovak acronym as HOS). While Charter 77 argued for adherence to existing laws, HOS developed a program that called for specific reforms to political, cultural, religious, and environmental policies. HOS strove for a greater Czecho-Slovak orientation than Charter 77, and Slovaks became active in HOS to a greater extent than they had been involved in Charter 77.
In the summer of 1989, Slovak members of HOS decided to commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion by publicly laying flowers at various locations in Slovakia where citizens had been killed in 1968. They announced their plans in a letter sent to the Slovak government dated August 4, 1989. Hundreds of copies of the letter were also produced in samizdat form and secretly distributed throughout Slovakia. Five of the organizers were randomly selected to sign the letter. In Bratislava, the state authorities quickly responded by arresting Čarnogurský (whose name was signed in later copies of the letter by Andrej Strycek) and Miroslav Kusý. Though crowds gathered at the sites on August 20, the police prevented anyone from presenting flowers. The trials of the five were scheduled for the fall of 1989. In the Slovak press, the signators became known collectively as the 'Bratislava Five.' Crowds of Slovak Catholics were already publicly protesting Čarnogurský's arrest when word of the November 17 demonstration in Prague that began the Velvet Revolution reached Bratislava. The authorities released Čarnogurský, who joined other Slovak members of HOS in the newly formed Public Against Violence. The public reaction to the arrest of the Bratislava Five strengthened the ties between the different streams of opposition in Slovakia. Public Against Violence, which adopted the reform program developed by HOS in 1988, worked closely with its sister organization Civic Forum in the Czech lands to negotiate the peaceful transfer of power from the Communist authorities.
Students are introduced to HOS and the background of the five signators in the preceding class and are assigned to read the letter as homework. The letter is made available through my university's E-Reserve system. I do not provide any advance study questions, but I ask the students to think about how this letter compares to other documents we have examined, specifically the Charter 77 Declaration, Václav Havel's "The Power of the Powerless," a selection of Solidarity documents, and the text of Pope John Paul II's 1979 sermon at Victory Square in Warsaw. Students are directed to bring these documents to class for the discussion of the letter.
I begin by dividing the class into five groups. I write a simple question on the board: "How do the authors of this letter describe Czechoslovakia's history and government since 1968?" The groups are given 5-10 minutes to discuss the document and to formulate a response to the question. I listen in on the discussion of each group, sometimes offering hints or answering questions about the letter. Ten minutes later, I assign each group one of the previously discussed Czech or Polish documents and ask each group to make a comparison with the Bratislava Five letter. I direct the students to consider the issues that each document addresses and the actions/strategies that are discussed in the documents. I give the students 15-20 minutes to prepare a response and visit each group to offer advice and answer questions.
I then lead a full class discussion of each group's responses to the two questions. Students usually point out that the authors view the 1968 invasion as a violation of international law. Others might observe that the letter humanizes the 1968 invasion by describing the deaths of two specific students in Bratislava or that the authors give a picture of life in Czechoslovakia under normalization, referring to "discharges from jobs" and efforts by the state to erase references to the invasion. At least one student is usually surprised that an event twenty years earlier was still such a strong part of the authors' consciousness.
For the discussion of the second question, each group orally presents their comparison. Students identify similarities between the letters frank discussion of civilian deaths in 1968 and Havel's concept of "living in truth" or Pope John Paul II's honest discussion of the Soviet Army's unwillingness to come to the aid of Polish resistance during the Second World War. Others point out that the Slovaks planned a relatively small, isolated event in contrast to the regular, highly attended events in Poland prior to martial law. Students are usually surprised that real names were used to sign this letter. I will refer back to this class discussion in a subsequent unit on the Velvet Revolution to make the point that Slovakia had experienced dissidents with a program for reform already in hand when the revolution began. These pre-existing oppositional groups in Slovakia helped guide the country through a peaceful political transition in 1989.
One goal is to illustrate that opposition can take many different forms. Though the organizers of this event had a program of political reform, the oppositional activity in this case is a simple plan to lay flowers at various locations in Slovakia. It is important to understand the context of a primary source, particularly when making comparisons. This letter makes it very clear to students why the laying of flowers has political significance. Another goal was to put Slovak opposition in the context of other opposition movements in East Central Europe. A comparison with two documents or documents from the GDR, Hungary and Romania could be equally effective. A comparative approach illustrates how the different contexts shaped the activities, goals and opportunities of dissidents in different periods and places. A student has noted that there is big difference in tone and language between the sources; she explained that the authors of the letter used stronger, more direct language against the political system than the authors of earlier texts. In the future, I will add a third question asking the small groups to describe the language and tone of each document. This plan has worked well in a class of twenty students, and I think it would work equally well in a class of forty, though it would require more time for the full class discussion.
David Doellinger is a professor of history at Western Oregon University. He is the author of Turning Prayers into Protests: Religious-Based Activism and its Challenge to State Power in Socialist Slovakia and East Germany, published by Central European University Press in 2013.
This teaching module was originally developed for the Making the History of 1989 project.