On 16 January 1969, a 20-year-old Czechoslovakian student, Jan Palach, staged a one-man protest on Prague’s Wenceslas Square by dousing himself in petrol then setting himself on fire. Three days later, on 19 January, he died of his injuries. Palach’s protest was against Czechoslovakia’s authoritarian rule, re-imposed after the brief but significant period of liberalization, the Prague Spring, of the previous year.
The Prague Spring had been led by Czechoslovakia’s new communist party chairman, Alexander Dubcek, appointed in January 1968. Although claiming to be loyal to his Soviet masters in Moscow, Dubcek ushered in a period of political and cultural freedom unheard of in the previous twenty years of Czechoslovakian communist rule. The Soviet leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev (pictured), became increasingly concerned with what they considered Dubcek’s treachery and Czechoslovakia’s counterrevolution and demanded he reversed the reforms.
While outwardly agreeing and promising to compromise, Dubcek did nothing to halt the growing movement of liberalisation. Dubcek had gone too far, and so Brezhnev decided to act. On 21 August 1968, Soviet troops appeared in Czechoslovakia and on the streets of Prague to quash the ‘Prague Spring’ and to reassert stricter communist rule. Dubcek was initially arrested, restored briefly to power, albeit heavily monitored, before being replaced by Gustav Husak, a hardline alternative, loyal to Brezhnev and the communist cause. The Prague Spring was over.
The country had had a taste of freedom and now, during the bleak days of communist rule, the loss of freedom was a bitter pill to swallow. It was in this atmosphere of hopelessness and demoralisation that Jan Palach made the ultimate sacrifice.
Born in a village thirty miles from Prague on 11 August 1948, Jan Palach’s parents had owned a sweet factory which was confiscated by the communists. Young Jan was fond of chess, historical novels and running. A school friend described him as having a ‘nice and friendly nature … quiet, pensive, and very well-read.’
As a student, Palach studied history and economics at Charles University in Prague. During the summer of 1968, he was visiting the Soviet Union, returning to Prague only four days before the Soviet invasion of his country. What he witnessed angered him, as it did most of his peers, and he took part in protests and strikes against the communist regime. But these demonstrations were achieving little and Palach began thinking up ways of staging a more radical protest that would stir the hearts of his countrymen, ideas that included occupying the premises of the radio station and calling for a general strike. He soon came up with the more drastic idea of self-immolation and together, with his friends, they struck a pact to set themselves on fire. Palach was the first but by no means the last.
In his suicide note, entitled ‘Torch no.1’, of which Palach wrote and posted four copies to various friends, he demanded the end of press censorship and called on the people to strike. Then, 16 January 1969, on his way to Wenceslas Square, he bought two plastic containers and filled them with petrol.
Several people witnessed Palach’s fatal act. At 3 pm, he removed his coat and set himself on fire. With his clothes in flames, he jumped over a railing and ran towards the St Wenceslas statue and was almost run over by a passing tram. When he fell, passers-by tried to smother the fire with their coats. An ambulance appeared and rushed the still conscious Palach, with 85 per cent burns, to hospital.
The hospital transferred Palach to a burns’ clinic which was soon inundated with news reporters and policemen, the latter keen to know who his accomplices were. The doctor in charge of Palach managed to keep them at bay, permitting only his mother and older brother to visit.
The doctor quoted Palach, saying that the protest ‘was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in; that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization.’
Jan Palach died of his burns at 3.30 pm on Sunday, 19 January 1969.
Funeral and Protests
A friend of Palach’s, a student sculptor, managed to make a death mask of Palach’s face. Soon, students and young people gathered under the St Wenceslas statue on Wenceslas Square, carrying banners bearing large photos of Palach and protesting in the form of a collective hunger strike. They managed four days in the winter cold. A shrine to Palach was erected on the square with photographs and candles in his memory. His death mask was put on public display.
For six days, as Palach’s casket lay in Charles University, tens of thousands of people came to pay their last respects. His funeral took place on 25 January 1969, attended by up to 750,000 people and providing a perfect opportunity for a mass demonstration against the regime. Protests and services of remembrance took place across the country, with people shouting anti-communist and anti-Soviet slogans.
The authorities allowed these demonstrations and marches to take place, sensing the need of the people to voice their discontent. But soon, marches were broken up as the regime reasserted its control. Palach’s grave in Prague, which was attracting far too many visitors, had become a shrine adorned with flowers, candles and poems. Guards were placed at the graveside to deter further visitors. The authorities eventually removed the headstone and sent Palach’s ashes to his mother in his home village. It took her a year to receive permission to bury her son’s ashes. In October 1990, following the fall of the Czechoslovakian state, the ashes were moved back to Prague.
Palach’s act was copied numerous times in the coming months, most notably by 18-year-old Jan Zajic who, on 25 February 1969, also set himself on fire. In his suicide note, entitled ‘Torch no.2’, Zajic wrote, ‘I am not doing this to be mourned, nor to be famous, and I am not out of my mind, either. With this act, I want to give you the courage to finally resist letting yourself be pushed around by a few dictators.’
Following the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, a bronze cross (pictured) honouring both Palach and Jan Zajic was embedded into the ground on Wenceslas Square, as if melting into the pavement, on the exact spot where Jan Palach had staged his desperate protest.
Gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century. Also available in paperback and ebook formats.