January 1989: Palach Week sees rise in open opposition to Communists

Palach week

Palach Week, which occurred 10 months before protests that toppled Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, began 35 years ago, on January 15, 1989. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed – but still signaled a growing willingness to reject the regime.    

What became known as Palach Week, the most significant street protests in Czechoslovakia prior to the Velvet Revolution, began on Sunday January 15, 1989.

Palach Week,  January 1989 | Photo: Czech Television

The initial aim was to commemorate the self-immolation of student Jan Palach in central Prague exactly two decades earlier.

Co-organisers Charter 77 had announced in advance their intention of laying flowers in tribute to Palach. The Communist authorities duly banned the event – and were waiting, says historian Jan Adamec.

“There were almost 7,000 police officers and members of the People’s Militia surrounding Wenceslas Square. Twenty-five representatives of the opposition wanted to lay flowers at the place where Jan Palach set himself on fire. But they were detained before they could go to the place.”

Palachův týden 15. - 21.1.1989 (Náměstí Rudoarmějců / Jana Palacha, Václavské náměstí)

Members of the anti-Communist opposition went back on the Monday and were again prevented from laying flowers.

To the surprise of both the Charter 77 group and the regime, people continued to go back on subsequent days.

Jan Adamec | Photo: archive of  Jan Adamec

On January 18 the security forces even allowed a peaceful gathering on Wenceslas Square.

Things took a violent turn that Thursday, however, when the police waded in with truncheons, water cannon and tear gas. Jan Adamec continues.

“People came, but this time the police reacted the opposite way from the day before. The police escalated the brutality and they were really willing to beat, to punish, to intimidate people. Lots of people were detained.”

Among those picked up was Jakub Železný. Today he is a newscaster, but back then he was a teenager.

Jakub Železný | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio

“Suddenly they made a few steps towards the people. I saw it. I was just clapping a few times. Then, from the other side of Wenceslas Square, several young guys, not in uniform, came towards us. They came towards me, beat me down, pushed me down and kicked me. And they just said, We saw you, you bastard! You were clapping. You go with us!”

No fewer than 1,400 people were arrested during Palach Week, including Václav Havel, who was subsequently jailed.

However, says Jan Adamec, the repeat demonstrations showed both the opposition and the Communists that Czechoslovaks beyond the small cohort of dissidents were willing to risk open rejection of the regime.

Indeed, tens of thousands signed the Charter 77 petition A Few Sentences, which was launched in June.

“Those were people who were not from the inner hard centre of Charter 77 or other opposition organisations – this was from a kind of broader society. And the Communist Party noticed this. It knew perfectly well that something different had happened, that the discontent in society was growing.”

By the end of that year that discontent had reached a crescendo – and the Communists were on the way out after four long decades.

This period TV report captures something of the atmosphere of Palach Week, though naturally framed in Communist language.