It was a revolution whose dissident leaders vowed that truth and love would triumph over lies and hatred. Yet Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ would not have happened the way it did were it not for what was essentially a lie.
After a bloody crackdown on a non-violent student march in Prague on November 17, 1989, a woman falsely claimed that the riot police had beaten to death her friend, a 19-year-old mathematics student named Martin Smid.
Reports of the alleged death spread like wildfire, rousing ordinary people from their lethargy and igniting the peaceful coup that brought back democracy to Czechs and Slovaks.
Twenty years later, the motivations of the women’s false claim – and the role of journalists in spreading it – remains clouded in mystery.
‘I am convinced that I will not know until the end of my days what actually happened,’ said Jana Smidova, a mother of one Martin Smid – then and now very much alive – who fit the ‘dead’ student’s description.
What is known is that the rumour was disseminated by Drahomira Drazska, then a 23-year-old Prague resident. In a recently re- discovered video from the time, she offered a grueling account of the beating to death of a student.
‘They were kicking him in his face with their boots. They were stepping on his head,’ she said. ‘It was no longer a head. It was devastated living matter.’
Looking straight into the camera, the woman with a round face and shoulder-length hair added: ‘All that I have declared is true.’
Drazska’s tale, recounted to the regime’s opponents, was passed on to the foreign media on November 18, 1989, a day after the bloody crackdown.
Two students fit her description – a blond, chubby-faced Martin Smid from an orderly, middle-class family living in Beroun – a small town outside the capital – and Jana Smidova’s lanky, brown-haired son from Prague.
Amid chaos, the classmates and police soon found out that both Martin Smids were still alive. The next day, Czechoslovak state television broadcast what what was then regarded as an unpersuasive denial. But by then, people were already in the streets of Prague.
‘It was an impulse that roused many people who would not have otherwise stood up,’ Martin Smid, the ‘dead’ student from Beroun, told the German Press Agency dpa. ‘But of course I take no credit. My participation in all this was a coincidence.’
To this day, investigators, historians and journalists struggle to explain why Drazska spread the rumour. Both Smids were not aware of having previously met her.
Despite a lack of convincing evidence, many believe that Drazska was a puppet in a plot orchestrated either by a Communist faction seeking to oust the Party’s conservative leadership or by anti- Communist dissidents wishing to overthrow Communist rule altogether.
And many suspect that the dissidents and journalists who ran the false report of publishing what they knew was a falsehood, to help trigger the regime’s collapse.