17th of November and its historical meaning
It is the beginning of November 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. An anti-Nazi student demonstration shakes the streets of Prague. One student, Jan Opetal, is killed. His funeral, on November 16, soon turns into student demonstrations expressing anger toward the Nazi regime. On 17th of November 1939 over 1,200 students were arrested and deported to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Nine of them were killed and it is an honour, for me, to remember their names: Josef Matousek, Jaroslav Klima, Jan Weinert, Josef Adamec, Jan Cerny, Marek Frauwirt, Bedrich Koukala, Václav Šafránek, František Skorkovský.
Throughout history November 17 became the date of memory of the students who fell for rights, democracy and freedom. It is therefore not a coincidence that many important student struggles took place on this day, and is not a coincidence that some of these struggles have made the history of the twentieth century. The struggles of Greek students at the Athens Polytechnic in 1973 were one of the highest points of resistance to the fascist regime of the Colonels. The struggles of the Czech students in Prague in 1989 kicked off the Velvet revolution against the communist regime. Over the last hundred years, students have often been at the forefront of movements for freedom, peace and democracy. It happened with the White Rose, a little student movement that defied the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in the University of Munich. And it happened in different waves since ’68 in United States, France, Italy, Germany, where various student movements have strongly opposed wars, imperialism, and societies inequalities.
This date, November 17, is a day full of meanings, hopes and claims. Yet November 17 was almost forgotten by the end of the eighties by the student movement worldwide. It was re-launched after more than ten years, at the beginning of 2003, in the frame of the World Social Forum born in Porto Alegre, Brasil. I was there representing the Italian school student union and I had the chance to discuss with student associations from Latin America, Asia and Europe in a crowded meeting which we gave the high-sounding name of “World Student Assembly”. We discussed the biggest challenge uniting the student movement worldwide and, though we came from completely different backgrounds and we had different perspectives, in the end we were in agreement. We recognized that what unites is the will to defend public and free education against attempts to privatization. So in that meeting we decided to launch for the first time in many years a worldwide student mobilization on the 13th of March 2003. A few months later we met again in Mumbai, India, to hold a new World Student Assembly. On that occasion, the student platform of Latin American and India proposed to revive the idea of 17 November as the International Students’ Day, just as it had been for over sixty years, but free from the ideologies of the Cold War. It was there that 17th of November was born again. And in these years, through the assemblies of the Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Nairobi, Florence, London and Paris, we reconstructed together the meaning of this date of commemoration.
OBESSU was one of the main actors of this process. OBESSU and European Students’ Union (ESU) cooperated in organizing the European Student Assemblies in Florence, London and Paris, for instance. Moreover OBESSU and ESU organized the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the 17th of November in 2009, in Brussels, with the participation of some of the protagonists of the history of the student movement but also with the participation of the EU Commissioner to Education, the president of the European Parliament’s Commission on Culture and Education and many other important guests. But what was most important was the participation of student representatives from Latin America, Africa and Asia. It was an important moment to establish again some links with the international student movement worldwide and I sincerely hope that those links are still working!
What does it mean today to celebrate 17th of November for OBESSU and for all European school students? In many countries of the world, unfortunately, the meaning is still the same as seventy years ago. Millions of students, millions of human beings still live under regimes where democracy, participation and freedom do not exist. I think we have a moral obligation not only to keep the memory of the events but also to stand up in solidarity with our fellow students all over the world. So 17th of November, as the first of May for workers, has to be a day of remembrance and struggle. It must become the day when we celebrate the memory of the fallen students but also the day when we celebrate and promote the unity of students in defending their rights. History has taught us a lesson: there is nothing more powerful than unity.
Written by Giuseppe Beccia, former Secretary General of OBESSU