Remembering Jan Palach

  • 18 Jan 2021
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Jan Palach (11th of August 1948 – 19th of January 1969) was a Czech student of history and political economy at Charles University. He committed suicide by self-immolation as a political protest, a symbolic act often taken to be a central event that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“People must fight against the evil they feel equal to at that moment.”

~ Jan Palach, 17 January 1969

In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček's governmnet during the so-called Prague Spring. A group of Czech students including Palach made a suicide pact intending to sacrifice themselves in protest of the invasion. Prague-born Palach was the first to set himself on fire, in Wenceslas square, on 16th of January 1969. According to Jaroslava Moserová, a burns specialist who was the first to provide care to Palach at the Charles University Faculty Hospital, Palach did not set himself on fire to protest against the Soviet occupation, but did so to protest against the "demoralization" of Czechoslovakian citizens caused by the occupation.

"It 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. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, all the decent people who were on the verge of making compromises."

Most of the other students did not go through with their part, after the well-published pleas Palach made on his deathbed about the degree of pain they faced. Palach was initially interred in Olšany Cemetery. As his gravesite was growing into a national shrine, the Czechoslovak secret police set out to destroy any memory of Palach's deed and exhumed his remains on the night of 25th October 1973. His body was then cremated and sent to his mother in Palach's native town of Všetaty while an anonymous old woman from a rest home was laid in the grave. Palach's mother was not allowed to deposit the urn in the local cemetery until 1974. On 25 October 1990 the urn was officialy returned to its initial site in Prague. On the 20th anniversary of Palach's death, protest ostensibly in memory of Palach (but intended as criticism of the regime) escalated into what would be called "Palach Week"

The series of anticommunist demonstrations in Prague between 15 and 21 January 1989 were suppressed by the police, who beat demonstators and used water cannons, often catching passers-by in the fray. Palach Week is considered one of the catalyst demonstrations which preceded the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia 11 months later.

After the Velvet Revolution, Palach (along with Zajíc) was commemorated in Prague by a bronze cross embedded at the spot whrere he fell outside the National Museum, as well as a square named in his honour. The Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek, who left Czechoslovakia the following year, named an asteroid which had been discovered on 22 August 1969, after Jan Palach (1834 Palach). There are several other memorials to Palach in European cities, including a small memorial inside the glacier tunnels beneath the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland.

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