The sounds of 1968 and 1969: Jan Palach and the abnormality of normalization

Jan Palach’s funeral

This is the second of two special programmes in our series In Their Own Words, bringing the dramatic events of 1968 and 1969 in Czechoslovakia to life through the radio archives. Last week we ended a few days just after the Soviet-led invasion on 21 August 1968 that brought the reforms of the Prague Spring to a violent end. This week we pick up the story, as the process that came to be known as “normalization” began, and we tell the moving story of Jan Palach, who gave his life in the hope of persuading people not to come to terms with the gradual drift back to hardline rule.

Semafor - Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr | Photo: APF Czech Radio

On the airwaves, 1968 ended very much as it had begun. For New Year’s Eve, Czechoslovak Radio chose the same format as the year before, with the light-hearted musical cabaret of the Semafor Theatre.

But behind the scenes, the Soviet-led occupation in August had changed everything. The Soviets were only too pleased for the radio to give the impression of normality, hiding what was really happening. A gradual, almost imperceptible drift back to hardline communist rule had begun. The process came to be known euphemistically as “normalization”.

Alexander Dubček | Photo: ČT24

Ironically, the word was first used by Alexander Dubček, under whose leadership the reforms of the Prague Spring had begun. It was August 27 1968, a week into the Soviet-led invasion. Along with other reformists in the government, Dubček had been taken by force to Moscow, After five days they returned, bullied into signing a protocol accepting the presence of foreign troops. Dubček’s dream of “socialism with a human face” had been brought to a violent end, but in his words there was still a hint of hope.

“The normalization of the situation is a basic requirement for us to be able to focus our efforts once again on continuing along the path to change, in which you and we have believed, and if I am not mistaken, in which you still believe.”

At first there was an illusion that what Dubček spoke of as “normalization” may help to preserve some of the reforms. At Czechoslovak Radio, the damage from the Soviet tanks was repaired and staff went back to work. Initially no one was sacked. Even the reintroduction of censorship was only very tentative at first, and in the autumn of 1968 the radio broadcast several programmes that very openly discussed the implications of the invasion. One of the most interesting, on October 10, was a response to the huge numbers of intellectuals fleeing the country. One of the speakers was Petr Pithart, who 22 years later was to become the first post-communist Czech prime minister. While stressing everybody’s basic right to choose where they live, he appealed to the country’s elite not to abandon ship.

Petr Pithart | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

“It’s precisely in situations like this that we most need these people, not because they are irreplaceable, but because their names are associated with a certain trust and faith in the values they represented and wrote about in their articles. I’m beginning to have fears that this faith could very rapidly dissolve if many or most of those who enjoy people’s respect decide to go abroad or not to come back to Czechoslovakia.”

Petr Pithart’s fears were well-founded. As the process of normalization continued and tens of thousands of people fled the country, a sense of bitter disillusionment and powerlessness spread.

The tragedy of Jan Palach

Jan Palach | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

On January 16 1969, Czechoslovak Radio broadcast a disturbing item of news:

“Today at around 3 pm, 21-year-old J.P., a student at the Philosophical Faculty suffered serious burns on Wenceslas Square. He poured an as yet unknown flammable liquid over himself and set his clothes alight resulting in severe burns.”

A later news bulletin carried further details:

“In a letter that was found with him, he stated that through this act he wanted to express his disagreement with the distribution of propaganda and with censorship.”

The student was Jan Palach and his act of self-immolation was a protest - not so much against the Soviet invasion of five months before as against the growing sense of apathy in Czechoslovakia in the face of the occupation. He wanted to shake his compatriots into action.

“A burning person came running past me. I took my coat off and ran after him. I tried to throw the coat over him. He fell onto the road, I covered him with my coat, others came and did the same. It was an terrible sight.”

Jaroslava Moserová | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

With dreadful burns and slipping in and out of consciousness, Palach was rushed to the nearby Vinohrady Hospital. One of the doctors who treated him was Jaroslava Moserová, who many years later, after the fall of communism, was to become a prominent Czech diplomat, writer and politician.

“I was one of those who did the first care, who cleaned the burned areas. Of course I shall never forget it, nor the days that followed. We were all very unhappy, not only over his fate, but over the fate of the nation, because he did it for the nation. I think was clear for everyone, from the very first. I wasn’t with him when he was being taken upstairs to the intensive care unit, but one of the nurses who was with him said that he kept repeating, ‘Please tell everyone why I did it.’ I spoke with him for quite a long time because he was able to speak right after the admission. Later on he started having great difficulties in breathing so he no longer could talk. But the reason he did it was quite clear. It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation but the demoralisation setting in, the people who were not only giving up but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralisation. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street – silent, with sad eyes, serious faces – when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, all the decent people who were on the verge of making compromises. I’m sure. It certainly had a huge impact on young people and students in this respect.”

Jan Palach was to live for another three days. The psychiatrist Zdenka Kmuníčková spent some time at his bedside and recorded a few minutes of their conversation. Struggling to speak, he repeated why he had carried out such a drastic act.

“I wanted to express my disagreement with what is going on here and to make people wake up.”

In the letter that was found with him, Palach had written that he was part of a group and that other “human torches” would follow.

Zdenka Kmuníčková | Photo: Marián Vojtek,  Czech Radio

Zdenka Kmuníčková – and others who visited him - tried to persuade him to make some kind of statement, so that others would not to follow his example. But on this point, Palach remained steadfast.

“It is still possible,” he said, “but that all depends on what standpoint representatives of the government and the party adopt.”

A few hours before he died Palach asked to see the student leader Lubomír Holeček. By this time he was almost unable to speak, but Holeček was able to put together a statement, which he read on the radio. According to the statement, Palach had appealed for others not to follow him:

“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.”

A manifestation in memory of Jan Palach  (1969) | Photo: Jaroslav Kučera

The student leader Holeček was someone whom Jan Palach respected. Only fairly recently a letter was rediscovered which he had sent to Holeček a few days before his self-immolation. In it, he had suggested that students try to seize the Czechoslovak Radio building in order to broadcast appeals for a general strike. The letter is a reminder that Palach’s protest was not just a passive act of desperation, but an appeal for active political protest.

On the afternoon of January 19, the radio announced that Jan Palach had died, succumbing to third degree burns on more than 85 percent of the surface of his body.

After Palach’s death

A gathering in memory of Jan Palach  (1969) | Photo: Miloň Novotný

The whole country was in shock. Such a drastic and violent sacrifice had little precedent in modern Czech and Slovak history, and perhaps for just that reason Palach immediately became a symbol of the country’s lost liberty and a rallying cry for those who still hoped to save something of the reforms of 1968. Those in power had to be cautious; they were well aware that Palach’s legacy could be explosive.

Immediately after his death on January 19, there were huge demonstrations in Prague.

Jan Kavan | Photo: Zdeněk Vališ,  Czech Radio

One of those who led the protests was the young student activist, Jan Kavan, who, thirty years later and in very different times, was to become the Czech Republic’s foreign minister.

“We are prepared to fight for his demands, for a change in the atmosphere which led him to take such a decision. Our first answer was to organize the first demonstrations. 150,000 young people took part in the demonstration and tens and thousands of the Prague population were in the streets waiting for it.”

The Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda was in an impossible position, and his hands were shaking as he addressed Czechoslovak Television viewers one day after Palach’s death. He began by saying that, as a soldier, he admired Palach’s courage, but he warned people not to use his sacrifice as a starting point for further protests.

“It only takes a small spark to start a great fire, which can cost thousands of lives. I beg you not to underestimate that danger.”

Václav Havel | Photo: APF Czech Radio

One of those who spoke out with a very different message, was Václav Havel, at the time already one of the most active and articulate campaigners for democratic reform. His words are preserved in the archives, but they were not aired by Czechoslovak television or radio.

“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.”

And here is an unnamed friend and fellow student of Palach, with a further warning.

“We have the impression - and there are clear signs - that some people are trying to distort and misuse this case, by suggesting that this student was a psychopath or something like that. As his fellow students and student representatives, we totally reject that. We know that he was a very rational and thoughtful young man, and that anything like that is quite out of the question.”

Funeral of Jan Palach | Photo: Miroslav Huček

For Jan Palach’s funeral on January 25 1969, many thousands took to the streets of Prague. Several politicians and public figures spoke, promising to respect his legacy, a promise that was ignored in the years that followed. His fellow student, Zdeněk Touš, also spoke.

“In the name of students and all honest people in this country, I swear that we shall never give in or betray you, that we shall continue our struggle until we have achieved your and our idea of life in freedom.”

Over the next twenty years, freedom in Czechoslovakia continued to be pared down and any public references to Jan Palach disappeared. Even his grave was removed from Prague’s Olšany Cemetery.

But Jan Palach was not forgotten. It was in his name that students once again took to the streets in January 1989, on the twentieth anniversary of his sacrifice. Times were changing. Mikhail Gorbachev was in power in the Soviet Union, bringing sweeping reforms, and once again, in the spirit of Jan Palach, Czech students had the confidence to protest in the streets against Czechoslovakia’s inflexible leadership.

Palach Week,  January 1989 | Photo: Czech Television

The police used water cannon and truncheons to suppress the demonstrators, but the protests had given confidence to those who calling for change. The momentum grew, and further student demonstrations on 17 November 1989 set into motion a chain of events that let to the fall of the communist regime. On 20 December 1989 the square in front of the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University where Palach had studied was renamed Jan Palach Square.

Just over a week later, Václav Havel became president.

In 2002, 33 years after the death of Jan Palach and 13 years after the fall of communism Jaroslava Moserová, who had treated him in the hospital in Vinohrady, talked to Radio Prague about his legacy.

“What I regret very deeply is that so many people the atmosphere of the time and what he did. He is not remembered enough. He may even be more remembered abroad than here, and I regret that very much. I was very happy when I was invited this year to an Italian university where the students themselves decided they would call a new college ‘The College of Jan Palach’. People should remember, but human memory is very short. People don’t want to remember what makes them feel guilty.”

Jan Palach’s nightmare comes true

August 1968 in Liberec | Photo: Václav Toužimský,  Czech Centres

To give an idea of what normalization meant in practice, I have prepared two recordings, both from Radio Prague’s sound archive. The first is from 1968, on the day of the Soviet invasion. With a sense of shock and outrage, the reporter is describing events as tanks roll into the city of Liberec.

“Sad news has reached us from the North Bohemian town of Liberec, where deplorable incidents and conflicts with the occupation armies have taken place today. The clash is reported to have ended with six dead and 47 wounded Czechoslovak citizens.”

Exactly a year later, on 21 August 1969, there were demonstrations in Prague to mark the anniversary of the invasion. They were put down brutally by the authorities. What is unnerving in this second report, is that we hear exactly the same reporter, expressing support for the police clampdown.

“Crowds of gawkers began to form and in order to cope with the confusion riot units had to use batons, tear-gas and water from fire-hoses. This continued on Thursday afternoon and evening. However, police and army units and People’s Militia had been well prepared and by Thursday night the situation was fully under control. So after those few excited days, we are now able to pose the question – what is the result of all this? On the one hand the sum is discouraging – five people dead, a number of wounded, material damage in the streets and on public installations. On the other hand, the result is a failure for the forces that are openly hostile to socialism. The bulk of the population – the workers in the first place – could not be persuaded to stage a massive strike or some other national demonstration.”

Memorial to Jan Palach at the top of Wenceslas Square | Photo: René Volfík,

Such was the nature of the political changes in Czechoslovakia after 1968, and it was exactly what Jan Palach had feared. People were bullied and cajoled into making compromises, until gradually things returned to a normality that was anything but normal.

Perhaps memories of Jan Palach are continuing to fade. But he is still remembered. There is a small memorial to Palach at the top of Wenceslas Square, close to where he set himself on fire. Many people pass by without even noticing it, but there are nearly always flowers placed in front of it and candles burning. A further step in remembering Jan Palach came in 2019 when a museum was opened in the house where he grew up in the village of Všetaty, a few miles north-east of Prague (, where you can find out more about his life and legacy.

Palach Museum in Všetaty | Photo: Michaela Danelová,

Jaroslava Moserová talks of Jan Palach and his legacy

Here is the full text of an interview about Jan Palach that I recorded with Jaroslava Moserová in January 2006, on the anniversary of his death. This was one of her last interviews before she died in March of the same year. She had an exceptional career as a writer, translator, a diplomat and politician – a member of the upper house of the Czech parliament, the Senate. But back in 1969 she was working as a burns specialist in Prague, and she was the doctor who gave Jan Palach his first surgical treatment when he was taken to hospital on 16th January.

Jaroslava Moserová | Photo: Czech Television

"At that time, when Jan Palach set himself on fire, when he decided for this ultimate sacrifice I was working in a burns centre, the only burns centre in Prague, which is very near the National Museum where it all happened. So he was brought to our burns centre, to our hospital. I was there and I happened to be the one who did the first surgical debridement, and at that time Jan Palach still could talk. So we did talk... yes, we did."

He must have been in extraordinary pain, with the scale of the burns he had.

"Well, yes and no, because skin - when it's really destroyed by heat - does not hurt, because the nerves are destroyed as well. It was more his whole body, his bones, his joints, he must have felt extremely ill, but the skin, when the burn is very deep, does not hurt."

And he spoke. What was he talking about? I believe he was very concerned about how people were reacting to his act, that people should understand why he had done it.

"As the nurses told me, already when he was in the elevator and being taken up to the intensive care unit, he kept telling the nurses, 'Please try to make them understand. Please tell people why I did it.' When people say that he did it because of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies, that's not really so. He did it because of the demoralization that was setting in. He was a young man, he had some hopes in the Dubček Prague Spring, he had some illusions that it might even work, and he saw, as we all saw, how so many people of talent and courage suddenly emerge from nowhere during the Prague Spring. And then so many of these people disclaimed the statements they made during the Prague Spring, so many of them gave in and sold their souls. That was what he couldn't bear, what he wanted to stop. He wanted to do something that couldn't be played down, that couldn't be kept secret, that would necessarily attract public attention, and he really wanted to shake the conscience of the nation."

Do you think he did the right thing?

Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

"I can never sanction suicide, but it did have the effect he wanted. It did serve the purpose he wanted it to serve. It can never be repeated of course and I'm very angry when I hear of a similar case, because it belittles what he did. It cannot be repeated. Jan Zajíc of course deserves the same respect as Palach because it was the same period."

That was just afterwards, wasn't it? He was the second of the so-called "human torches".

"But he's not mentioned so often because he died immediately, while Palach lingered for those days and the first days, as I said, one could speak with him. I must say that it did bring him solace and it did bring him some... happiness I suppose is too much to say, because we kept bringing him messages from people, from factory teams, from miners, from universities, from all kinds of people, saying that they understand. So he knew it was not in vain.

Do you think he knew that he was going to die?

"Yes, he did. He certainly did. I think that he would have liked to stay alive, but that he was absolutely reconciled to the fact that he was going to die, because very often he started to suffocate, because his breathing was affected. The heat did a lot of damage all the way down to the lungs, so he was condemned. He could not live."

His act - to set himself alight in that way - it seems the act of a fanatic. Did you have the impression that there was something of the fanatic in him?

"No, there wasn't, and I am convinced of this. I am really convinced. I spoke with him long enough and I heard his reactions to things. No, he was an absolutely normal, rational, balanced young man, I'm absolutely sure of it, who knew what he was doing, why he was doing it."

There is something that troubles me in what Palach did – that it seems to be an act of desperation.

"I do understand. It was an act of revolt against a desperate situation. There was desperation in it, of course, but he saw nothing else, he could think of nothing else that could somehow make a difference, that could somehow stop it or at least slow down the process of demoralization which was setting in and which was unbearable. That is why I think that he should never be forgotten. That is also why I think that it should be remembered and it should be recorded, and testimonies should be collected of the demoralization, of the falsehood, of the lies, of the suppression of truth, but mainly of the falsehood, lies, hypocrisy that was forced onto decent people by the regime, because that will be forgotten. The generation that experienced it will die out. The documents, testimonies, will disappear."

And how could this demoralization happen so quickly? Palach died just five months after the Soviet invasion. There had been all this hope and optimism that seemed to be extinguished like a candle.

"It was because, incredibly quickly, people we had respected until that moment started disclaiming what they stated during the Prague Spring and started backing out, and that was awful. For a young person that actually believed that the Prague Spring could succeed, it must have been unbearable."

Can you give me some examples of what was going on?

Red pioneer scarf on a propaganda poster

"For instance, a friend's son was crying because his father didn't want him to wear the Pioneers’ red scarf to school [the Pioneers were the communist children’s organization]. And the father said, 'It's a question of principle and my child is never going to wear a Pioneer's scarf. I simply do not want to see this red scarf round your neck. It's a question of principle and no way shall you wear this scarf. It's out of the question.' So the child didn't and then some days later the child's teacher, a non-party member, very well loved by all the kids, an extremely good teacher, asked the father to come for a talk. He told the father, 'Look, if your boy doesn't come with a Pioneer’s scarf, I can understand why you don't want him to, but if he doesn't come, I'll be fired.' So the same father told the same child, 'Tomorrow you will wear the Pioneers’ scarf.' Isn't that awful?"

What do you think Palach's legacy should be for us today in the Czech Republic, or even worldwide?

"...that one should never betray one's own conscience, that one should never sell one's soul, give in, give up to something which one despises and cannot accept and agree with. That applies even now."

At any cost?

"At any cost. Not at somebody else's expense but at a personal level I would say at any cost."

The tomb of Jan Palach in the Olšany cemetery | Photo: Michaela Danelová,