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Czech Republic: Lennon's Death Left Legacy For Prague's Velvet Revolution

  • Ron Synovitz

It was 20 years ago Friday (December 8) that former Beatle John Lennon was shot dead by a deranged gunman outside his New York City apartment. On news of his death, Lennon's fans in Prague erected an impromptu memorial that defied totalitarian rule in then-Communist Czechoslovakia. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines the history of Prague's Lennon Peace Wall and the relation of the Lennon legacy to the non-violent Velvet Revolution.

Prague, 6 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The John Lennon Peace Wall stands in a quiet square amid the baroque architecture of Prague's diplomatic quarter. Although Lennon never visited the city, he was a pacifist hero for Czech youth who spontaneously created the memorial during the totalitarian era.

Since the collapse of communism, the Lennon Wall has come to be seen not only as a memorial to the fallen singer, but also a monument to free speech and to Prague's non-violent rebellion against the repressions of neo-Stalinism.

After Lennon's death on December 8, 1980, an anonymous group of young fans created a mock tombstone for Lennon within a recess of a wall that forms the backside of a 14th century churchyard in Prague.

Although the event was spontaneous, later visitors to the wall risked police harassment and possibly prison for what authorities then called "subversive activities against the state."

But even the watchful eyes of Czechoslovakia's secret police couldn't keep young Czechs and Slovaks from slipping into the square at night to scrawl graffiti epitaphs to honor their underground hero. The Communist police tried repeatedly to whitewash over the graffiti, but they could never manage to keep the wall clean.

Paintings of Lennon began to appear along with lyrics of his songs. The wall quickly took on a political focus and, inevitably, developed into a forum for grievances against the communist state. Even the installation of surveillance cameras and the posting of an overnight guard couldn't stop opinions from being expressed on the wall.

Lennon memorial marches also started to take place each year around December 8. The marches ultimately became linked to dissident protests on International Human Rights Day -- December 10. Participants during the 1980s were often channeled through a gauntlet of uniformed and plainclothes police. Some were jailed or beaten.

While some of the writing on the Lennon wall during the 1980s was naive, much of it was politically resonant. A running battle developed between the police white-washers and dissident graffiti writers until the end of communism in the November 1989 non-violent Velvet Revolution.

Lennon almost certainly would have agreed with the idea of a wall bearing his name that was used as a forum for peace, non-violent protest, and free speech. When asked in the 1970s about how he wanted to be remembered after his death, Lennon told an interviewer without hesitation he wanted to be known as a peacemaker.

Lennon invented the "bed-in" protest in 1969 as a non-violent way to protest the war in Vietnam. He urged young people around the world to demonstrate against war by staying in bed and growing their hair long.

"The point of a bed-in, in a nutshell, was a commercial for peace as opposed to a commercial for war -- which was on the news every day those days. It got down to all we were saying was give peace a chance: not we have any formula, or communism or socialism will answer it -- or any 'ism' could answer it."

The message struck a chord with youth across the Soviet bloc. In Prague, Lennon's avant-garde recordings became a source of inspiration for underground groups like the "Plastic People of the Universe" -- which was labeled by Czechoslovakia's communist authorities as an illegal "dissident" rock group.

The arrest of the Plastic People and their supporters in 1976 after a performance at a private party near Pilsen was the initial stimulus for a dissident petition known as Charter 77 -- a document on human rights that laid the groundwork for the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

The late H. Gordon Skilling, a noted political scientist at the University of Toronto, was in close contact with Prague's human rights movement in 1977. He found irony in the fact that the charges against the group included "disturbance of the peace."

The case against the Plastic People was not the only factor in the rise of Charter 77. But Skilling noted that the persecution of the musicians, together with the movement for their defense by eminent intellectuals, provided "a critical catalyst and an immediate stimulus for action."

Among those who worked for the release of the group was Vaclav Havel -- a self-proclaimed fan of both Lennon and the Plastic People -- who co-founded the Charter 77 movement. Later, Havel led the Velvet Revolution and became the first post-communist president in Prague.

During the years leading to the Velvet Revolution, French embassy officials in Prague were among those who saw the significance of the Lennon Wall as a venue for free speech and a gathering place for non-violent demonstrations.

France's ambassador to Prague, whose office looks directly onto the Lennon Wall, telephoned municipal authorities shortly after the Velvet Revolution and asked them not to paint over or interfere with the graffiti. It was a request which city officials honored.

More than a decade after the Velvet Revolution, new writing continues to turn up regularly. The potent political messages of the 1980s were long ago buried under more lightweight graffiti, much of it written by young Western tourists attracted to the legendary site. Thousands of tourists now visit the wall each year, and vendors do brisk business selling John Lennon Wall postcards.

Meanwhile, a John Lennon wall also emerged spontaneously during the late 1980s in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Municipal authorities there still regularly paint over the graffiti. Sofia's Lennon wall has evolved into a popular meeting place for youth.

Lennon probably never imagined walls behind the Iron Curtain being used to express revolutionary ideas in his honor. During Lennon's lifetime, his attempts to use his pop stardom as a platform for a political agenda were strongly criticized. At the time, critics said the absence of any real political organization ultimately doomed Lennon's efforts. But Lennon defended the comical nature of his bed-in protests.

"First of all, we made people laugh -- and that's good. Our opposition, whoever they may be in all their manifest forms, don't know how to handle humor. And we stand a much better chance under that guise because all the serious people -- like Martin Luther King and (John F. and Robert) Kennedy and Gandhi -- got shot."

For fans of Lennon, it is a sad but fitting irony that his violent death led to a serious legacy -- the creation of a irrepressible venue for political speech in Prague that ultimately played a role in the non-violent Velvet Revolution.

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