Document sheds new light on Jan Palach’s suicide forty years on

Jan Palach

It is 40 years ago this Friday that student Jan Palach set himself alight following the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. Palach’s suicide turned him into a symbol of national resistance, and to this day, Czechs and Slovaks remember what he did for his country. On the eve of this 40th anniversary, historians have just discovered a document which sheds new light upon his actions.

Jan Palach
This Friday marks the 40th anniversary of student Jan Palach’s self-immolation. It was right here on Wenceslas Square that the twenty-year-old set himself alight in protest against increasing public apathy following the Russian invasion of 1968.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Palach’s death, three historians have compiled a collection of his letters from the days leading up to his suicide. In their research, they came across one document, written days before his death, calling on students to revolt en masse against censorship, which had been reinforced, and the curtailment of civil liberties.

Petr Blažek is one of the editors of this new compendium, he talks about this interesting new find:

“It’s a document that Jan Palach wrote to student leader Lubomír Holeček at the start of January 1969, suggesting that the students at Charles University in Prague should rise up and occupy the Czechoslovak Radio building on Vinohradská Street. He wanted the students to capture the radio and broadcast calls for there to be a general strike.”

Palach’s suggestion was dismissed and no such broadcast was ever transmitted from one of these Český rozhlas studios.

Petr Blažek
The document itself has quite a story, taking researchers decades to find. I asked historian Petr Blažek, why exactly it had taken so long to unearth:

“The document was seized by the StB in 1970 as part of their investigation into the radical student group ‘Youth for Revolution’. A lot of the members of this group came from Charles University and knew about Palach’s suggestion, and were even planning to occupy the radio to mark the first anniversary of Palach’s death. After the revolution, the letter was overlooked because it was filed alongside a much more famous document – Palach’s final manifesto, and no one catalogued this document properly.”

The new discovery is being hailed as important by historians working on the period. For his part, Petr Blažek says it 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.”

Palach’s self-immolation turned him into a symbol of national resistance. Over the next week, a series of events, including a special mass, will commemorate his bold deed.