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Czech Republic: Palach's Legacy Sparked Collapse Of Communist Rule

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 15 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In 1989 -- 20 years after Czech student Jan Palach turned himself into a human torch and ignited the consciences of Czechs and Slovaks -- his memory remained very much alive.

At the beginning of January 1989, illicit leaflets surfaced in Prague calling on citizens to commemorate the anniversary of Palach's death by gathering on Wenceslas Square on January 15. They also called for a national pilgrimage to Palach's native Vsetaty north of Prague on January 21. The leaflets circulated despite the efforts of Czechoslovakia's hard-line Communist rulers to block remembrances.

The organizers were five independent human rights groups: Charter 77, the Children of Bohemia (Ceske deti), The John Lennon Peace Club, the Independent Peace Association and the Society of Friends of the USA (SPUSA).

Documents of the secret police (StB), the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General published after the collapse of communist power, termed the commemoration plans "anti-social.. provocative acts...." The local authorities in Prague and Vsetaty banned all Palach-related gatherings and ordered security measures to "ensure calm and public order", including patrols at likely sites of Palach graffiti and drop-off points for samizdat.

On Jan. 14, the StB launched a scare campaign. An anonymous caller identifying himself just as Palach had 20 years earlier -- as "torch number one" -- warned that in the event the police were to seal off Wenceslas Square the next day, five people would set themselves alight at separate locations in Prague.

The threat presented Czechoslovak dissidents with a dilemma. They were virtually certain it was an police-inspired provocation but could not risk ignoring the threat of human torches. At a wedding party that evening at the home of a fellow human rights activist, Vaclav Havel met with several dissidents in a back room and composed an appeal to be broadcast by foreign radio stations discouraging suicide as a form of protest. Instead of calling off the protests as the police had hoped, Havel announced he would join in the wreath-laying ceremony and try to ensure no one set himself alight.

The Communist party controlled press appeared unsure whether the warning was a hoax and so proceeded to denounce both Havel and the threat of another Palach-like human torch.

What followed came to be known as "Palach week" -- six consecutive evenings of demonstrations by thousands in Prague from Jan. 15 through 20. Riot police used force to suppress all but one of the demonstrations. They confronted the first protest by some 4,000 people at several locations in central Prague with water cannon, armored personnel carriers, smoke bombs, tear gas, clubs and dogs.

The Communist authorities also called out what had once been the party's armed vanguard, the People's Militia (LM), but was now a bunch of aging vigilantes. Busloads of these unarmed "people's militia" were brought into central Prague and posted on Wenceslas Square to keep the protesters well away from the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas, a traditional magnet for protesters and near the site where Palach had sit himself on fire. But it was riot police and secret police who used force as the militia stood by.

The crowd whistled and screamed "Gestapo!" as a cordon of riot police moved down the square, pushing demonstrators into side streets where secret police were waiting to beat, kick and detain them.

One leading Czech dissident, actress Vlasta Chramostova who witnessed the first demonstration of Palach week, was outraged by the police violence as she said in an interview the next day.

"People of all ages came here with children, the elderly, serious people who wanted to pay their respects to Jan Palach. Like it or not, the truth of Jan Palach backed by the greatness of his moral act is simply stronger than any evil."

On January 16, the actual anniversary of Palach's desperate act of defiance, a group of dissidents attempted to lay flowers in his memory on Wenceslas Square. As a crowd estimated by police at 700 looked on, the police prevented the commemoration and detained 13 of what they called "the main organizers of this anti-social provocative action". The detainees included Havel, Alexandr Vondra (now Czech Ambassador to Washington), and Jana Petrova (now an MP for ODS). The crowd chanted "freedom!" and "Gestapo!" at the police, who responded with water cannon.

Police again used force to disperse demonstrators the following day.

On January 18, the protests took a decidedly political tone as demonstrators, mainly students and young people, called for the ouster of Communist Party leaders Milos Jakes and Miroslav Stepan. They also demanded Havel's release, and chanted Prague Spring leader Alexander Dubcek's name, as well as "Russians go home!", and "To the Castle!", the traditional seat of the head of state. The crowd this time numbered nearly 1,000 with several thousand more onlookers. Police prevented the protesters from marching to Hradcany castle but used no violence. The demonstrators eventually dispersed on their own.

The Communist party and security apparatus, after reviewing police video footage and reports of the Jan. 18 protest, ordered new security measures, which as published police files put it, had "the goal of conducting a decisive and uncompromising attack by the forces of order in Prague".

The following evening (Jan. 19) the authorities deployed some 1,200 police officers, including riot police, plus 800 members of the People's Militia at six potential trouble-spots in Prague as well as in Vsetaty. Late that afternoon a crowd suddenly formed near the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas in central Prague reaching in a matter of minutes several thousand, far outnumbering the police and militia. The protesters ignored police demands to disperse and chanted instead, "Let Havel go!", "Freedom, freedom", "Long live the Charter", "Gorbachev is Watching!", "Palach Lives!", "Give up the government!", "Give us back Dubcek!" and "Free elections!". The riot police suddenly attacked with truncheons, chasing protesters down the immense square, running after those who had jumped aboard trams, beating them as horrified commuters watched before dragging them to waiting paddy wagons and busses. Police detained 281 people. The message was clear -- challenges to the Communist Party's "leading role in society" would not be tolerated.

In the final demonstration in Prague of Palach week on January 20, less than 1,000 people gathered and were soon forcibly dispersed.

The following day the police were out in force around Vsetaty manning a series of five "filters" at roadblocks and train stations checking the identities of nearly 450 people, detaining 227 of them, including a Slovak dissident who went on to become Prime Minister of Slovakia, Jan Carnogursky. A handful of pilgrims made it to the Vsetaty cemetery by hiking across muddy fields and forests. One of those who outsmarted the police was radical dissident Stanislav Devaty. He succeeded in throwing a crown of thorns over the cemetery wall onto Palach's grave and went on eventually to head of the post-communist secret police.

The police permitted western reporters to drive to Vsetaty but once in the deserted village, Czechoslovak TV filmed them, showing them on the news that evening as "reporters in search of a sensation where there was none."

In Prague, the StB let the air out of the tires of several foreign reporters' cars and in one case defaced a reporter's car with white spray paint as a strong hint that it was time to go home.

But the foreign news media came back one month later for Havel's trial and one month after that for his appeal's trial and back yet again on May 17 for his early release after he had served half his sentence.

Havel declared just hours after his release that the massive domestic campaign to secure his freedom testified to a change in Czech society -- the end of the sense of hopelessness and futility that Palach by his suicide had tried to bring an end to.

"This testifies to a certain deepening of the freedom of the spirit in our country, which for years has been shoved into some sort of apathy and lethargy and (now) is starting to wake up."

Havel said his incarceration offered the opportunity for people to freely express themselves en mass and this in turn he said gave him the feeling that the four months he spent in prison, largely in an isolation cell, had a purpose.

Exactly six months later, Czechoslovakia's non-violent Velvet Revolution erupted and by the end of what came to be known as the year of miracles, Vaclav Havel was President of a free Czechoslovakia. On the 21st anniversary of Palach's death, Havel unveiled a bronze death mask of Palach at Charles University and renamed Red Army Square in front of Palach's old college, Palach Square.

(Second of two features on 30th anniversary of Jan Palach's death.)