The fight for freedom, for moral principles, self-sacrifice and protest in those desperate times led to the moral unification of a repressed nation, which twenty years later defeated the totalitarian regime.
The anniversary of Jan Palach’s death inspired a new generation of students to start protests that led to the eventual fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, part of the eventual destruction of the Iron Curtain.
In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček’s government during what was known as the Prague Spring.
Prague-born Jan Palach decided to sacrifice himself in protest of the invasion and set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square, on 16th January 1969. Palach died from his burns several days after his act, at the hospital.
As his gravesite was growing into a national shrine, the Czechoslovak secret police set out to destroy any memory of Palach 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 25th October 1990 the urn was officially returned to its initial site in Prague.
On the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death, protests 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 15th and 21th January 1989 were suppressed by the police, who beat demonstrators and used water cannons.
‘Palach Week’ is considered one of the catalyst demonstrations which preceded the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia 10 months later.
N: John, why’d you do this to yourself?
J: I wanted to express disapproval and to awaken the people.
N: You wanted to awaken the people, and express your disaproval of what’s going on?
N: And how in particular?
J: By self-immolation.
N: Self immolation? You planned that together with someone?
N: With whom, Johnie?
J: Well, that’s my own business.
N: I know it is. But, are there others?
N: But, how’d it happen? What’s going on?
J: What do you mean?
N: You told me a while ago that there will be others.
J: I don’t think I did. It’s possible others might follow.
N: And all of them are going to do it like you did?
J: I don’t know that.
N: And, … you don’t you know how many are going to follow your example?
J: I don’t.
N: But what do you think, Johnie, shouldn’t the others be at least partially stopped?
N: What do you think?
J: Why should they?
N: You think they should be allowed to try these things like you did.
J: Perhaps(?) on the last day.
N: (? inaudible) You’re saying not until the last day?
J: (? inaudible) What I’m saying is it’s still a possibility. Because so that the leading representatives of the state and the party … their opinion (gasp). (pause with a short tune in the background)
N: And what do you think of it? Doesn’t it hurt real bad? Isn’t it horrible? Shouldn’t the others stop?
N: Do you think they should continue?
J: On one hand, it does hurt ..
J: I said it hurts, on one hand, but ..
N: Go on. You think the others should suffer like this too?
J: ..(gasping, inaudible).. Master Jan Hus died at the stake too.
N: Pardon me.
J: Jan Hus also died at the stake.
N: And you’re all determined to end up like this?
J: That (?doesn’t) depend on the situation.
N: What does it depend on?
J: That depends on the situation (stammer, mumbling).
N: Well, and when do you plan to stop? What would make you stop?
J: When the censorship is over.
N: And what else?
J: The prohibition of spreading news.
N: That’s what you want, right? When you’ve got that, they’ll stop … following in your footsteps, will they?
J: They will.
N: And John, when do you think someone else will do this next?
J; That, I don’t know.
3rd person: You don’t know Johnie, or you’re forbidden to tell?
J: (deep gasp)
N: Johnie, does it hurt really bad?
J: Quite a lot.
N: Quite a lot, hm..
N: What are you saying?
J: The one who …(inaudible)
J: One must fight just that kind of evil they can fight