In this edition of Czechs in History, Nick Carey takes a look at the life and death of Jan Palach, the philosophy student who committed suicide in 1969 in protest at the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
By this time the Prague Spring, when the Czechoslovak Communist Party introduced a sprinkling of liberal reforms, was in full swing. But it was not to last. Moscow was infuriated by the liberalisation of Czech media and cultural life, and on August 21st, 1968, just ten days after Jan Palach's twentieth birthday, the armies of the Warsaw Pact took action.
The Prague Spring was quickly stamped out. The era of normalisation, where the people of Czechoslovakia were forced to toe the party line or face severe repression, was ushered in. Like many others in the country, Jan Palach was outraged at the violation of his country's sovereignty, and at the lack of resistance his people had shown to the invading Warsaw Pact troops. He joined a small group of students determined to protest against the invasion and to rouse the Czechoslovak people into action. The course of action they chose was a radical and extreme one: JP was Jan Palach. Before the flames could be put out, Jan Palach had suffered terrible burns on more than 85 percent of his body. Despite emergency treatment in hospital, he died three days later.
The reaction to Jan Palach's death was phenomenal. According to some estimates, up to 500,000 people attended his funeral. Jan Palach left a note giving the reasons for his public suicide, in which he called himself Torch One. The note said that others would follow him in committing the same act, until the occupying armies left the country. According to a fellow student, Palach asked before he died that no-one follow him in committing suicide. A month later, however, another student, Jan Zajic, killed himself in the same way.
But it didn't take long before doubts were raised over the wisdom of Jan Palach's act, and what it could achieve. According to philosophy professor Erazim Kohak, this was because the Czechs were unable to face up to Palach's challenge in the era of normalisation: The Communist Party circulated a number of malicious rumours about Palach, including allegations that he was in the employ of the CIA and, most frequently, that he was mentally ill. This rumour in particular, says Erazim Kohak, was never substantiated: Commentator Vaclav Pinkava says that Jan Palach's act of self-immolation was not just a challenge to the Czechoslovak people, but a burden that they had to carry throughout the era of normalisation: Nevertheless, the people did remember Jan Palach. Every year prior to the Velvet Revolution, flowers would appear on his grave. His name was known to everyone, despite the best efforts of the Communist Party to belittle his suicide: Although often uncomfortable with the nature of his public protest, Palach was at the same time admired by the Czechs for his commitment to his cause: When the twentieth anniversary of Jan Palach's self-immolation arrived in January 1989, anti-Communist demonstrations in Prague were brutally suppressed by the police. When the Velvet Revolution began in November of the same year, Jan Palach's name was evoked by the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets. According to Vaclav Pinkava, his death and the suffering of others became a symbol of opposition to the regime: But in the years following the Velvet Revolution, Jan Palach has become largely forgotten. At a ceremony in his home town of Vsetaty in January to mark the anniversary of his self-immolation, only a few, predominantly local, people turned up to pay their respects. This, says philosophy professor Erazim Kohak, is largely due to the consumer mentality that was introduced during the normalisation era: The challenges that face the Czechs today are vastly different to those of Palach's day. There is no occupying army, there is no Communist regime. This divide is often too wide for young people today to comprehend the significance of Palach's act: But the name Jan Palach is still known to the vast majority of Czechs who can remember the events of August 1968. And despite the unveiling of a monument to Jan Palach and fellow student Jan Zajic on the thirtieth anniversary of Palach's suicide in 1999, Vaclav Pinkava says Jan Palach's memory will continue to fade as those who are old enough to remember 1968 pass on: