Jan Palach – the student whose self-immolation still haunts Czechs today

Photo: CTK

In this edition of Czechs in History, we take a look at the controversial legacy of Jan Palach. This young Czech history student shocked the world after setting himself on fire in the centre of Prague in protest at the Soviet-led invasion of communist Czechoslovakia in 1968, which crushed the democratic reform movement known as the “Prague Spring”.

Photo: CTK
A crowd of a few hundred people brought Prague’s main thoroughfare Wenceslas Square to a brief halt last week to sing the Czechoslovak national anthem at the site where Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on 16 January 1969. He eventually died of his horrific injuries three days later.

The 20-year-old history student took this drastic action in an attempt to spur his fellow Czechs and Slovaks into actively resisting a return to hard-line communist rule in the country after the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces five months previously.

Palach’s extreme act of resistance briefly became a focal point for opposition to the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people. One of those who was there was former dissident Jiří Navrátil, who remembers it as a moment of national solidarity during a particularly bleak period in the country’s history:

“It was really a very special event, because only two or three times in my life have I been a member of a society which was of one soul and one mind. It was fantastic and admirable. It was not only unforgettable but impressive, and it still is for me to this day.”

Although Jan Palach is now just a symbol to most Czechs, Jiří Návrátil actually knew him personally. He remembers Palach as an idealistic young man who was an enthusiastic supporter of the Prague Spring and the idea of creating “socialism with a human face”, which the leaders of that era advocated.

Jan Palach
“I have to say he was a very, fine, nice and intelligent young man. It was the beginning of 1968. We were all full of hope. That was naturally very naïve of us, because it is not possible to make a better communism. But this generation from the 1960s was of the opinion that it is possible to do something with this stupid idea.”

Filmmaker Ivan Biel recorded memorable footage of Palach’s funeral and has just co-authored a film on his legacy. While conducting detailed research for this documentary, he also feels he got to know Palach a little bit.

In his opinion, the young student had been deeply disillusioned when the Soviet-led invasion brutally crushed the ideals of the Prague Spring, and this prompted him to protest in such an extreme manner.

“Palach was a very intelligent young man. He had an analytical mind. He studied things deeply, and that’s why he as so concerned. He had a very strong social and political consciousness. He wasn’t right wing at all, quite the opposite in fact. The ideals of socialism were his own, at least at the beginning. But I think the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia changed everything. Suddenly, he saw what was happening. And not only that, he also saw the impact it had on Czech society.”

Palach claimed he chose such an extreme form of protest in order to arouse his fellow citizens from their apathy and to shock them into taking action against what was happening in their country.

Despite the huge turnout at his funeral, however, the Czechoslovak nation quickly resigned itself to its fate, and it was to wait another 20 years before it finally rid itself of the yoke of communism in November 1989.

November 17th 1989
The fact that Palach’s actions failed to achieve their desired effect means that his legacy is a complex one, with many today viewing it as nothing more than a brave but ultimately futile gesture.

In the seminar room of Prague’s Arabská secondary school, students gather to discuss Jan Palach.

I asked some of these young people, most of whom were born after the Velvet Revolution, if they think Palach’s sacrifice still means something today:

Student (Female): “I have talked a lot with my grandmother and granddad about this, because they were both at Jan Palach’s funeral. They said it was a huge ceremony. My dad told me how he had read Jan Palach’s words in a newspaper and they said: ‘It is better to die standing than to live on your knees’. I agree with that.”

Student (Male): “I have talked about it with my parents and my mother, for example, thinks it was a total waste of his life and that he could have been more useful if he could have done something while he was living instead of this deed. But I think that he had his ideals and he thought that this would be the best thing to do.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
Student (Female): “It may sound cruel, but I think what he did was a bit useless. It certainly had some symbolic value for the people, but his sacrifice didn’t achieve what he had hoped for. He had hoped he would bring about a big change in the nation or that they would overthrow the system. But the people just went to his funeral and then went back to their homes and did nothing. So I think it may have been in vain.”

There are others, however, who say Palach’s deed gave future generations an example of self-sacrifice for them to follow.

Jakub Jareš is a historian who has co-written a new book on Jan Palach and the impact of his actions on Czechoslovak society. According to him, Palach definitely inspired many prominent dissidents who came of age in the 1960s and 70s and who played a key role in bringing about the end of totalitarian communism.

“I think he was a kind of symbol for the people who lived through these times. For example, Tomáš Halík, the Catholic priest and dissident, wrote in an essay that he remembered Jan Palach the whole time when he was being interrogated by the secret police. He was able to resist telling them anything, because Jan Palach had set an example of what he had to compare himself to. So I think his example was very important.”

Jan Palach was also a key point of reference in the events leading up to the fall of communism. In January 1989, thousands of student demonstrators organised protests known as “Palach Week” on Wenceslas Square to mark the 20th anniversary of the young man’s death. It turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the Velvet Revolution the following November.

Ivan Biel believes that this event proves that Palach’s deed was of some value, even if it took some time for it to bear fruit:

“It was a shock for the nation and the initial response was really exactly what he wanted. The people awoke, but they only did so for a few weeks. After that it all died down again. But, after 20 years, in 1988-89, young people suddenly took Palach’s name and Palach’s message as their own. We then had Palach’s week and basically I see 17 November 1989 as a continuation of Palach’s work.”

Student Rosta Valvoda currently attends the same faculty as Jan Palach. He believes that his legacy should not be forgotten even though the dark days of communism are quickly receding.

He thinks Palach’s memory should be cherished as a person who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his fellow citizens. Such selflessness, he says, should serve as an example to contemporary Czechs as they continue to rebuild a civic society that was all but destroyed by forty years of communist rule:

“I think Jan Palach’s legacy should still be completely borne in mind. It’s clear we are in a totally different position. We are in a democracy now. But people are still corrupt and I think we still need to oppose this. We still need to secure the freedom we have. His sacrifice is definite in a way. You are not expected to make the same sort of clear-cut sacrifice, but I think you are expected to sacrifice for other people by doing something in our everyday lives that is not for your own profit but for the benefit of others.”