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Czech Republic: Student's Immolation Sought To Rouse Nation 30 Years Ago

  • Jolyon Naegele



Prague, 15 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty years ago (Jan. 16, 1969) a Czech student poured gasoline over himself and set himself alight on Prague's Wenceslas Square during the afternoon rush hour. Jan Palach hoped to shake Czechs and Slovaks out of their growing lethargy six months into the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Palach did not die on the spot. A tram dispatcher put out the flames by wrapping his coat around Palach, who spent three days in hospital before finally succumbing to the burns.

Self-immolation was a desperate form of political protest repeatedly resorted to in the 1960's by Buddhist monks in South Vietnam. But it was virtually unknown in Europe. The self immolation in Poland in 1968 by a pensioner in a stadium in the presence of the country's leadership, in protest at Poland's participation in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, was covered up for more than two decades.

But Palach's desperate act did have a link to his own country's history. The Czech national martyr, church reformer Jan Hus, refused to recant his beliefs and was convicted of heresy by the Council of Constance in 1415 and burnt at the stake. Hus appears to have been a role model for Palach. According to one of his schoolteachers, Palach was fascinated by two novels about Hus (by Milos Kratochvil); Master Jan, and The Torch.

Palach, a student of history and political economy at Charles University, left a letter signed "Torch number one". It said volunteers prepared to go up in flames for their cause had decided to wake up the Czech and Slovak nations, whom Palach described as being "on the verge of hopelessness". He threatened another "human torch" would burn within five days unless censorship were immediately abolished and the Soviet-occupation newspaper Zpravy (News) banned. He called on the public to demonstrate support such as through indefinite strikes. Palach concluded: "PS: remember August," a reference to the Soviet invasion. He added that: "an open space has been created for Czechoslovakia in international relations -- let's use it".

Palach's act deeply shocked Czechs and Slovaks.

One leading Czech dissident, actress Vlasta Chramostova, described the significance of Palach's act ten years ago on its 20th anniversary.

"He sensed that the first symptoms of (the Czechs')readiness to compromise, make concessions, resort to lying, constituted a far deeper, far worse tragedy than were the tanks in the streets and the foreign occupation armies."

Chramostova added that the symptoms signified the "internal breakdown of the nation."

Palach told doctors his act was not an attempt at suicide and insisted no one else should emulate him in setting himself alight. But in one discussion with a doctor he defended being a human torch, saying, "it helped in Vietnam". Palach's biographer, the late Jiri Lederer, wrote "He saw no other means to get the government and the people of this country to guarantee freedom and democracy." Lederer said Palach's belief that self-immolation made a difference in Vietnam "was in light of history not quite right" but helped convince him that it would make a difference in Czechoslovakia.

Palach died on January 19. Czech radio broadcast the news:

"This afternoon at 1530, student Jan Palach died. Despite all the care and efforts of doctors and others, the patient (could) not resist the third degree burns covering more than 85 percent of his body....Jan Palach passed away peacefully."

The same day the country's four top leaders (President Ludvik Svoboda, Party chief Alexander Dubcek, Prime Minister Oldrich Cernik and Federal Assembly Chairman Josef Smrkovsky) sent a telegram to Palach's mother expressing their shock. They said they believed that Palach had set himself ablaze "out of pure and glowing love for his country and its happy future".

The next day President Ludvik Svoboda, in a televised address, spoke of Palach's "best intentions and personal courage". But Svoboda criticized suicide as a political tool. He warned that Czechoslovakia risked what he termed a huge conflagration which he said "could cost thousands of innocent lives".

Palach's death, which came amid growing calls in Czechoslovakia by the remaining liberal leadership faction for new general elections and a Communist Party congress, forced the Kremlin to respond. Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev and his Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin wrote a joint letter on Jan. 23 to their Czechoslovak counterparts. They warned that events in Czechoslovakia following Palach's death "were taking on a dangerous political character".

Palach's funeral on Jan. 25 was the largest mass gathering in the country since the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion the previous August. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Prague's Old Town. The government boycotted the ceremony in the hope of not offending the Kremlin. Charles University rector Oldrich Stary declared Palach's act was "the expression of a pure heart (and) of a tremendous love for truth, freedom and democracy" adding, "this torch has shaken all people of good will."

Palach's death ignited a rash of other self-immolations: in Prague by student Jan Zajic, in Pilsen by brewery worker Josef Hlavaty, in Brno by construction worker Miroslav Malinka, and in Jihlava by Evzen Plocek.

Palach's act briefly galvanized the people of Czechoslovakia. But "normalization", the Kremlin-inspired move to restore order by purging all those who disagreed with the Soviet-led invasion, had already begun. Dubcek was ousted as party chief in April and replaced by Gustav Husak, who proceeded to jail his political opponents. Husak forced hundreds of thousands from their jobs on grounds of political unreliability, barred their children from higher education, and severely restricted freedom of speech, assembly and travel abroad. Husak also called out the army to suppress protests in Prague and Brno on the first anniversary of the invasion.

Palach was initially buried in Prague's huge Olsany cemetery. His grave became a place of pilgrimage for many, covered with flowers and burning candles. The secret police (StB) secretly exhumed his remains one October night in 1973. Five months later he was re-interred in his native village of Vsetaty north of Prague which also became a pilgrimage site.

Palach remained a symbol of the desire for a return to free expression and democratic principles throughout the two decades of normalization. The twentieth anniversary of his death in 1989 turned into a week-long confrontation between thousands of protesters and the police.

What came to be known as Palach week marked the beginning of the end of Communist totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia. Police arrested dissidents, including playwright Vaclav Havel for trying to lay flowers in Palach's memory in central Prague. Havel's trial and imprisonment provoked an outpouring of support at home and abroad for his release. Four months after Palach week, Havel was freed after serving half his sentence. Ever larger mass demonstrations were held in May, August and October. The opening of the Berlin Wall erased lingering fears of harsh repercussions among doubting Czechs and enabled the Velvet Revolution. By the end of 1989, Communist rule had completely disintegrated, Dubcek had returned from internal banishment and dissident Havel was president of a free Czechoslovakia.

On the 21st anniversary of Palach's death in 1990, the first time Czechoslovaks could mark the event without fear of police interference, 5,000 people attended the unveiling of a bronze death mask of Palach and the renaming of Red Army Square (Namesti krasnoarmejcu) as Palach Square, the name it bore briefly in 1969. Palach's ashes were ceremoniously re-interred in Prague's Olsany cemetery in October 1990. By the following June, the Soviet Army had left for good, more than 22 years after Palach's fiery bid to secure its departure.

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