Czech martyr Jan Palach’s enduring legacy, 50 years after his self-immolation

Похороны Яна Палаха, Вацлавская площадь, январь 1969 г.

Fifty years ago on January 16, a young Czech university student named Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself alight at the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Three days after staging this desperate attempt to rouse a demoralised Czechoslovakia in the face of Soviet occupation, he died in a burns clinic. Though his immediate political goals failed, Jan Palach inspired and steeled the resolve of countless others to fight for freedom during the two decades of ‘Normalisation’ that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Jan Palach’s funeral | Photo: archive of Czech Radio
Newsreel: “Prague: The people of Czechoslovakia mourn deeply. Jan Palach, (not yet) 21 years old, a philosophy student, had taken his life in a most terrible way in protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. With hundreds of thousands of people lining the route, his mother’s tears of grief were shared so openly by all who knew so well what Jan Palach’s sacrifice had been for. There was an odd stillness over the city as the young martyr’s coffin was born to a Prague cemetery….”

In death, Jan Palach would become known as “the conscience of the nation”, hailed as a martyr of exceptional courage and character. Hundreds of thousands gathered in the freezing January rain to watch the funeral procession of the hitherto unknown student, who was buried after a ceremony at Charles University organised by his peers – few of whom actually knew him.

Newsreel: “Jan and many of his fellow students held a growing fear that their countrymen were getting accustomed to the Soviet occupation. Jan set himself ablaze. His death was the spur he’d hoped it would be. Jan Palach was quietly laid to rest. His family did not mourn alone. The Czech nation will not quickly forget the selfless act of a young man who died for his country’s freedom.”

Jan Palach died for that cause in agony, with third degree burns over 85 percent of his body, from head to feet. Slipping in and out of consciousness, under heavy medication to ease his suffering, his main concern was what the reaction had been to his act of self-immolation.

In four nearly identical letters dated 16 January 1969 and signed “Torch No. 1”, he had warned that other “torches” – fellow protestors – were ready to follow his example and set themselves alight if their initial demands were not met: to end censorship and cease publication of the occupation newspaper called Zpravy, which had no legal basis to publish.

The psychiatrist Zdenka Kmuníčková spent some time at his bedside in the burns ward and recorded his conversation. His lungs were damaged in the fire, and both he and the attending doctors knew he would die. Struggling to speak, and at times gasping for breath, Jan Palach repeated his reasons for doing what he did.

Q: “Jan, why did you do this to yourself?”
JP: “I wanted to voice my disagreement with what is happening here and make people wake up.”
Q: “You wanted to awaken the people, and express your disapproval of what’s going on?”
JP: “Yes.”
Q: “And how, concretely?
JP: “By burning ourselves.”
Q: “By burning yourselves… You agreed on this with someone?
JP: “Yes.”
Q: “With whom, Honza? Are there more of you?”
JP: “Yes.”

Kmuníčková and other doctors tried to persuade Jan Palach to make some kind of statement to dissuade others from following his example of suicide as the ultimate act of protest. So too did the prominent student leader Lubomír Holeček, whom Palach didn’t know but had asked come see him in hospital.

By that time, Palach was only hours away from death and almost unable to speak. But Holeček put together a statement that was attributed to Palach, which he was allowed to read out on the radio.

“My act fulfilled its role. But no-one else should follow me. Students should try to save themselves, and devote their lives to fulfilling our goals. They should fight alive.”

Jan Palach died on January 19. Hunger strikers gathered on Wenceslas Square in his honour that day, and mass anti-communist demonstrations followed. His funeral on January 25 was by far the largest mass gathering in Czechoslovakia since the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion the previous August. No-one from the government dared make an appearance, for fear of provoking the Kremlin.

His death ignited a rash of other self-immolations over the following months: by a student named Jan Zajíc, in Prague; brewery worker Josef Hlavatý, in Pilsen; construction worker Miroslav Malinka, in Brno; and by toolmaker Evžen Plocek, a reform communist, in Jihlava.

Jan Palach | Photo: public domain
At the time, the authorities were unsure whether “Torch No. 1” had, in fact, acted alone, says historian Jakub Jareš of Charles University, who co-authored a ground-breaking book on Jan Palach in 2009.

What can you say about his character? I’ve read that he was quite introverted, quite a serious young man, lost his father early; that he was somewhat religious but did a ‘brigade’ in the Soviet Union in 1968, which had quite an influence on him as well…

“I would say, first of all, that he was very sensitive and very political. We know that he really enjoyed Czech history and his dream was to study history at the Faculty of Arts (philosophical faculty). We think – and the people who knew him said – he was quite an introvert, with not so many friends. But we have only these testimonies… He left no diary or something that would let us see inside his head.”

Do we know if he was aware of the Polish man who self-immolated some months earlier, Ryszard Siwiec (in protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia)?

“I don’t think so, and we don’t have any source of evidence that would prove this. I know this is an issue in the new film by Robert Sedláček, called ‘Jan Palach’, where there is this link. But from the historical perspective, we cannot say so. And I think it was not the case, as Siwiec’s case was unknown (for decades) even in Poland. He self-immolated, but the Polish government succeeded in silencing this protest.”

A recording emerged of Jan Palach from his hospital bed, where a nurse and doctor are talking to him about why he did it, and it others would follow him – because he signed his letters as ‘Torch No.1’. Has it now been definitely settled that there was no ‘Torch No.2’ or ‘Torch No. 3’?

“There was none. I would say it was his wish to have some people follow him – but definitely not in the same way. He was hoping others would protest for the freedom of the Czech nation in a different way. He just wanted to provoke people to do something. And that’s why, as a kind of tactic, wrote in these letters that there was a group of people who would protest in the same way. But there wasn’t. He was really a solitary activist, a solitary protestor. Jan Zajíc, who came after him (self-immolating on the 25th of February) was inspired was Palach.”

Jan Palach’s grave,  photo: archive of Czech Government
Would you say he was quite sophisticated, savvy, beyond his years? He was only twenty when he did this, wrote those letters, setting out very specific, seemingly achievable demands – to end censorship and distribution of the occupation newspaper, which had no legal basis to be publishing?

“He was considering the number of demands, and actually shortened the list. At the beginning, he was asking for more – for certain people in the Communist party to be excluded from the Central Committee. But then he decided to ask for these two specific demands, which were from his perspective easy to achieve. But none of his demands were fulfilled.

“And this is the question, still, whether his protest – from the political perspective – was naïve. From the moral perspective, it is still an open question whether he died in vain or not. Because he inspired the people. And the question now is whether the inspiration brought some (lasting) good to the Czech society or not. This is what we are experiencing right now, I would say.”

What was the reaction of the communists at the time? Hundreds of thousands turned out for the funeral procession of Jan Palach, and it was an event known throughout the world. How did they try to change the narrative – to get people to forget him, or understand his act in a different way?

“It started already in January 1969 and came from the Soviet Union, from Brezhnev, who sent a letter to conservative communists in Czechoslovakia, with an interpretation that Palach had been exploited by people who wanted to continue with the ‘chaos’ of the Prague Spring, and that he had actually used so-called ‘cold fire’ – but someone changed the substance, and he actually self-immolated by accident.”

“This was the Soviet interpretation, which was later forced through by the Soviet media. But in Czechoslovakia itself, it was rather about silencing him – there wasn’t even a negative commemoration of Jan Palach during the ‘Normalisation’ period. It was silenced.”

It was only discovered recently that, shortly before his self-immolation, Palach had written to the student leader Lubomír Holeček suggesting students try to seize the Czechoslovak Radio building and broadcast appeals for a general strike; that Palach had considered many avenues of active political resistance before resorting to self-immolation to “awaken the nation”.

Historian Petr Blažek, who co-wrote the book “Jan Palach 69” with Jakub Jareš, said in an earlier interview with Radio Prague that this letter places Jan Palach’s suicide in a new context.

“I think that this document is interesting because it sheds light on the way that Palach was thinking about formulating his final letter, and his final set of demands. It shows us that he was considering trying to occupy the radio building. And it shows us that he was considering different forms of protest, and that his immolation, which was a very radical thing to do indeed, did not take place on the spur of the moment.”

Among those Jan Palach clearly did inspire were numerous eventual signatories of Charter 77, the informal civic initiative pushing the communist regime to honour provisions of human rights treaties to which Czechoslovakia was a signatory. Among them was a playwright named Václav Havel, who already in 1969 was an active campaigner for democratic reform, and recorded a statement which survives, but unsurprisingly, was not aired by Czechoslovak state media.

“Jan Palach’s act is an extreme expression of the pain we all feel, one man crying out on behalf of us all. This is also the reason why it is a deliberate political act. The only right way to respond is in the spirit in which it was intended, as an appeal for activity, for a real struggle for all that we sincerely consider to be right, as a warning against apathy, scepticism or despair.”

Jiřina Šiklová | Photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio
Jiřina Šiklová is another Charter 77 signatory who drew inspiration from Jan Palach – a student of hers at Charles University. As a reform-minded communist who had embraced the Prague Spring, she left the party after the Soviet occupation, and could only find work in menial jobs.

For years, she worked as a janitor at Prague’s Thomayer Hospital while continuing to do research and publishing under pen names. She also became deeply involved in copying, publishing and distributing samizdat, smuggling texts by dissidents and other forbidden texts both in and out of Czechoslovakia.

“I think that at that moment (in 1969), it had an extreme influence, but it was only for a short time. It awoke in the people the better part of their character. You should take it in the context of this culture – to make this visible suicide in Europe or central Europe is something quite different than in other parts of the world. And I think it had an influence, yes. … I think in all societies there should be values for which you are willing to die for.”

Did you personally ever find strength or inspiration from Jan Palach?

“Inspiration… I thought, and I think to this day, that it is our duty to speak about it, to remember, and how his act was important as a symbol for the society. I sent hundreds and hundreds of texts abroad – it was not import/export, but something similar; smuggling. And I think that it had some influence on me, if he could do this, Jan Palach, why can I not have frozen legs while I’m waiting near the synagogue for somebody who is arriving from the West – bringing samizdat, letters and correspondence?”

Former dissident Tomáš Halík, who was secretly ordained under communism, was inspired to become to become a Catholic priest by Jan Palach, his classmate. In an earlier interview for Radio Prague, Father Halík said he had also opted not to emigrate in 1968 because of his profound act of sacrifice.

Tomáš Halík,  photo: che,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.5
“For me the death of Jan Palach opened another dimension of Czech history. It was not only a question of politics but a question of moral and spiritual values. His act didn’t change the history in that very moment, but he changed the lives and conscience of some people, including me and my friends.”

“I felt obliged to stay with my nation and to live not only for myself, my family and my career but also to sacrifice my life in a different way. I think it was the beginning of my decision to become a priest in the underground church. It was perhaps my personal answer to the challenge of Jan Palach.”

Jan Palach was also a key point of reference in seminal events leading up to the fall of communism, with rallies in his name crucial in mobilising support outside dissent circles. In January 1989, thousands of demonstrators, mainly students, organised protests known as “Palach Week” on Wenceslas Square to mark the 20th anniversary of the young man’s death. Many consider it to have been a dress rehearsal for the Velvet Revolution the following November and the ultimate testament to his legacy.