33rd anniversary of the death of Jan Palach

33rd anniversary of death of Jan Palach

Saturday was the 33rd anniversary of the tragic death of the twenty-year-old Prague student, Jan Palach. On the 19th January 1969, Jan Palach died in a Prague hospital from burns sustained when he had set himself alight on Wenceslas Square three days earlier. By David Vaughan.

33rd anniversary of death of Jan Palach,  photo CTK
It was a silent and desperate protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, that had begun five months before, and against the Czechoslovak authorities' acceptance of the occupation. "In history there are times when action has to be taken," Jan Palach said from his deathbed. He hoped that his death would stir Czechs into refusing to accept the grim reality of what the communists cynically called "normalisation", but tragically normalisation was to stay for another twenty years. His sacrifice has remained etched in memory both in the Czech Republic and abroad, and to mark the anniversary a small service of remembrance was held in Jan Palach's home town of Vsetaty, a few kilometres north-east of Prague.

The small and intimate service held in Vsetaty's local cinema on a grey January afternoon was in sharp contrast to Jan Palach's funeral thirty-three years ago, which became a symbol of Czech and Slovak protest against the Soviet occupation. Tens of thousands had walked behind his coffin, as it was carried from the philosophy faculty where Palach had studied, to the cemetery in the Prague district of Vinohrady. For two decades, the communist authorities tried to wipe out the memory of Jan Palach, even removing his remains from Prague, in the paranoid fear that his grave could become a physical symbol of resistance. Historians, politicians, journalists and ordinary Czechs alike will long debate the impact of Jan Palach's sacrifice and his place in the nation's history, and some still argue that he was nothing but a naive romantic. But Saturday's quiet service in the very ordinary little town of Vsetaty, was a reminder of a very different aspect of Jan Palach's death. Most of those attending were friends and relatives, or just townspeople from Vsetaty, altogether no more than around a hundred people.

This ceremony was an intimate reminder of Jan Palach the person - a Jan Palach who friends described as a hard-working, quiet and intelligent, an ordinary, rather sensitive student from a small town, who believed in the basic principle of freedom with such passion that he was willing to sacrifice his life. Perhaps it was a good thing that this year's memorial ceremony was on such a modest scale without any grandiose political speeches, but at the same time it would be a tragedy if the difficult and painful legacy of Jan Palach was forgotten.

More information about Jan Palach