Student photo of Jan Palach

Mid-afternoon, 16th January 1969, passers-by near the National Museum at the top of Prague’s principal boulevard see flames shoot up near the museum fountain. A human being is afire. He runs a short way down the boulevard and collapses. A tramline switchman who smothers the flames sees to his horror that the burned figure is a young man.

The young man was Jan Palach, a student at Charles University, and a letter in the briefcase he left near the fountain explained that he and others had decided to awaken the nation from its apathy following the Warsaw Pact invasion. The letter called for abolishing censorship, ending the occupation paper Zprávy and mounting a general strike and threatened more immolations if these demands were not met. It was signed, “Torch n° 1″.

Jan’s letter, which he left at the site where he set himself afire

Jan was rushed to a near-by hospital with third-degree burns on eighty-five per cent of his body. He remained lucid and resolute until he died three days later. His body lay in honour in the Carolinum, the seat of Charles University, and tens of thousands queued to pay their respects. Tens of thousands lined the route of the funeral procession six days later too, in what became a silent protest against the occupation. But it remained silent. Talks between workers and students who began a hunger strike on the site of Jan’s self-immolation faded away, and there was no general strike. A month later, another student, Jan Zajic set fire to himself, but the secret police were ready, and little was made of his death and his funeral.

Twenty years later, though, remembering Jan’s courage prepared ground for the Velvet Revolution. How? Here is what happened. Several dissident organisations, including Charter 77, circulated invitations to citizens to assemble at the statue of Saint Wenceslaus, the nation’s patron saint, 15 January in memory of Jan Palach. The statue is just below the National Museum where he poured gasoline over himself and lit a match. Demonstrations followed spontaneously every day for a week on a scale unprecedented in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. They were put down with unusual brutality by the police and the People’s Militia, a force under the direct control of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The week of demonstrations and their harsh suppression became known as “Palachiáda”. The violence was so indiscriminate that retirees, and supposed regime sympathisers, such as members of the proletariat and members of the Communist Party were seriously injured. Citizens were shocked and angered to a degree unprecedented in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. Factory employees who were told to sign manifestos condemning the demonstrations signed statements condemning the police and the Party instead. There is a fine line where police violence stops being a deterrent to civic demonstrations and anger overcomes fear. The regime was poised on that line, a line which vibrated until the Velvet Revolution.

The violence and the repressive measures that followed prepared for the November revolution in a more direct way too. University students who had demonstrated were photographed, arrested, interrogated and subject to their schools’ disciplinary commissions. There were attempts to kick them out and lock them up. They started forming networks to protect themselves. Faculties dispersed throughout Prague in that atomized society began to be connected, and the students began to feel empowered. So much so, that they skilfully arranged a permit for a major demonstration to commemorate another Jan in November, Jan Opletal, the first student casualty when the Nazis occupied the country in 1939. They were expecting several thousand at the campus on Albertov, south of the city centre. But there were an estimated thirty to fifty thousand, unheard of, undreamt of. When the demonstrators were later attacked by police and red berets, groups of students decided that very night to strike. The following day, Saturday, they were already occupying faculties and couriering a video of the attack to outlying areas to counteract Communist propaganda. They became a vanguard, and the population followed in which became the Velvet Revolution.

People queuing in the Old Town Square to pay respects to Jan Palach

Militiamen arresting demonstrators, January 1989.

Credit: S Humpalova

Water canon dispersing demonstrators, January 1989

Student-led demonstration, attacked by police in the evening, setting off the Velvet Revolution

Credit: Bejsovec

On the fiftieth anniversary of Jan Palach’s act two years ago, he was remembered as a national hero. Ceremonies were held throughout the country, and speakers found new meaning in his courage and passionate call to action at a time when democracy seems to be weakening. In Prague, banners bearing his name hung from the National Museum, visible all the way down the main boulevard (see photo at the head of this posting). The boulevard itself was the site of a day-long programme and an exhibition which traced his life from childhood and included details of his self-immolation and death. In the evening a candlelight procession took the programme to the Old Town Square to music from the Dvořák’s Symphony from the New World. New memorials were unveiled at the Carolinum, where his body had lain in honour and at the high school from which he graduated.

The Prague ceremonies took at their inspiration Jan Palach’s timeless last words:

“A person must fight against wrongdoing as much as he is able.”

Death mask memorial, façade of the Charles University faculty where Jan Palach studied, mounted in 1990.

Credit: Balles