January 16th marks an important day on the Czech calendar. That same day in 1969, a twenty-one year old student of philosophy committed suicide on Wenceslas Square by setting himself on fire. The young man’s name was Jan Palach, who was studying at Charles University in Prague.
Dubček And The Warsaw-Pact Invasion
To understand the cause for this act of self-immolation, you have to know what had happened prior that lead up to the incident. In 1968, the leader of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček, had started to liberalize the country during the Prague Spring. New reforms allowed for more freedom of speech, press, and movement. It sought the democratization and liberalization of society, all the while allowing the Communist Party to maintain its power. The vision was to create “socialism with a human face,” which became the name of the new political programme set by Dubček.
The Prague Spring lasted from January 5th, 1968 until August 21st that same year. It was halted when the four nations belonging to the Warsaw Pact (Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary) invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end the reforms. Their governments were worried that opening up freedom of speech, and limiting the power of the secret police in Czechoslovakia, would eventually be detrimental their interests. They were afraid of a potential domino effect that would affect other soviet satellite states. What is now known as the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia successfully ended the Prague spring, and a period of normalization began, trying to restore the power of the Communist regime.
In 1956, Hungary saw it’s own uprising that became the first real threat to Soviet control in eastern and central Europe. It all began after a student was shot by the police after a group of students had taken over the radio station to broadcast their demands. The student that was shot was wrapped in a flag and shown to the crowd outside. The revolution cost the lives of 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops, while 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Dubček’s new Czechoslovakia was seen as a threat much like the Hungarian revolt of 1956, so in that context, the Soviets needed to suppress the situation before it got out of hand.
Nineteen years later, the Russians would have their own perestroika, which was pretty much the Prague Spring, but over there. It eventually lead to the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union, so maybe Soviet leader during the 60s, Krushchev, wasn’t too paranoid and irrational when you look at it from his perspective.
The invasion was swift, and saw quick results, but there were some small uprisings. The Soviet army overstayed their welcome in order to help restore order and hardliner socialism. Since the Czechoslovak government hadn’t done anything to prevent the Warsaw Pact Invasion, there wasn’t any real opposition. It was as if the Czechs were able to breathe for a short moment, only to unexpectantly have their heads pushed back into the water. The moral for the citizens was low. With the exception of the few retaliations (which were quickly shut down), there wasn’t any resistance, because… what’s the point?
Entering the next year, the Soviet army was still occupying Prague. On the 16st of January, Jan Palach stood in front of the National Museum and set himself on fire after dousing himself in petrol. A bystander nearby was able to put out the fire with his coat, and the young man was rushed to the hospital to treat his severe third degree burns. Three days later, he died.
This wasn’t some spontaneous event though. Palach had written a letter to several prominant public figures warning that there would be several students who were willing to self-immolate, and such acts would keep occuring until their demands were met. It seems that such a group didn’t really exist, but that could be due to the fact that it’s reported that Palach, while in the hospital, pleaded for others not to follow his example. However, there’s doubt that he actually said this. However, Palach did claim that the reason for his actions was because he felt he had to do something about the demoralation of his people. He wasn’t so much protesting against the invasion itself, but rather the public apathy towards the invasion. He hoped to shock the Czechoslovak people into action; to stand up to the Soviets.
Jan Palach is known as the second person to self-immolate in protest to the Warsaw Pact Invasion. The first to do so wasn’t even Czech or Slovak. It was a Polish man by the name of Ryszard Siwiec. Eventhough the suicide was cought on a motion picture camera, the Polish press omitted any mention of the incident. In doing so, they successfully erased any memory of him for many years. It wasn’t until after the fall of Communism that people found out about what he did. This post is honoring those who sacrificed their lives for political change, so we must acknowledge this brave martyr.
A massive amount of people turned up for his funeral in Prague, especially at Wenceslas square, where it all happened. The shock value of his stunt worked in the sense that thousands of people acknowleged what happened. His sacrifice is controversial though, because some still think that Palach giving up his life was useless. It didn’t spark change that he was hoping. People showed up to his funeral, but then went home. No real change happened for another 20 years, and the Czechs didn’t really do much until then.
To say that his sacrifice was completely meaningless isn’t exactly true though. Jakub Jareš, a Czech historian wrote:
“I think he was a kind of symbol for the people who lived through these times. For example, Tomáš Halík, the Catholic priest and dissident, wrote in an essay that he remembered Jan Palach the whole time when he was being interrogated by the secret police. He was able to resist telling them anything, because Jan Palach had set an example of what he had to compare himself to. So I think his example was very important.”
Jan Palach also inspired other dissidents like Václav Havel, who lead the Velvet Revolution and became the first president of the country after Communism fell.
More acts of self-immolation occurred in Czechoslovakia following Palach. First was Jan Zajíc, who traveled to Prague on February 25th, 1969, the 20th anniversary of Communism, and just over month after Palach, and set himself on fire as well on Wenceslas Square. He left a note saying:
“Mother, father, brother, little sister!
When you read this letter, I will already be dead or close to death. I know what a severe blow my act will be to you, but don’t be angry at me. Unfortunately, we are not alone in this world. I am not doing this because I would be tired by life, on the contrary, because I cherish it too much. Hopefully my act will make life better. I know the price of life and I know it is the most precious thing. But I want a lot for you, for everyone, so I have to pay a lot. Do not lose your heart after my sacrifice, tell Jacek to study harder and Marta too. You must never accept injustice, be it in any form, my death will bind you. I am sorry that I will never see you or that, which I loved so much. Please forgive me that I fought with you so much. Do not let them make me a madman.
Say hi to the boys, the river and the forest.”
Following Zajíc, a Czech man from the town of Jihlava, Evžen Plocek, also set himself on fire at the main square there on April 4th, 1969. His death didn’t attract any media attention. Only on the day that he died did the news actually report that someone had self-immolated. The government was trying to suppress the news. A few more similar incidences happened, but didn’t get as much attention as Palach.
Today there is a bronze cross on the spot where Palach set himself on fire on Wenceslas square. It is in honor of him and Zajíc. Plocek also has a simple memorial plaque in his honor on the main square in Jihlava, which is known today as Masarykovo náměstí.
Though Palach’s sacrifice didn’t see the call to action that he would have hoped, he didn’t die in vain, nor did those after him. They planted seeds that inspired the right people who were willing to fight, even if the rest of the country still were apathetic. Although enough time passed before Communism fell, it still fell, and Palach’s actions on January 16th were nothing less than heroic. The Czech Republic today isn’t perfect, but neither are any of the rest. Today, there is no need to lay down your life in order to be heard. The freedoms that Palach, and the many others that sacrificed, hoped our country would one day have, are here today. Let’s hope that it stays that way too!
Note: The featured image comes from the film Hořící Keř (Burning Bush), distributed by HBO. It’s based on the lives of real people surrounding the aftermath of Palach’s self-immolation.