There are many forms of protest, but few as radical as self-immolation, especially when committed by a 20-year-old student with all of life’s prospects ahead of him. Yet this is precisely what Jan Palach did on Wenceslas Square in January 1969. While his act did not result in an immediate resurgence of national uproar against the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the rust of normalisation that began setting in, it was seen by many as an inspiration for the first mass protest twenty years later, which lay the groundwork for the mobilisation of Czech society and the eventual November revolution.
Until the final year of the communist regime, dissent remained an activity of a relatively tight group of individuals. Although new movements such as the Peace Club of John Lennon and Czech Children had sprung up and Perestroika was forcing the Czechoslovak communist regime to seem more open to societal discussion, the party was still remarkably staunch in its commitment to keep to the old order, as opposed to many other eastern bloc countries at the time.
Jana Marco, who was a member of the Charter 77 movement and one of the organisers of what became known as Palach Week in, describes how she and her compatriots perceived the situation going into January 1989.
“From today’s perspective I see it much more optimistically than back then. It was dreary and complicated. No one would have guessed the eventual outcome and that November 1989 would come around. However, speaking for myself, I was optimistic. In December 1989 there was a gathering on Škroupovo Square in Prague’s Žižkov neighbourhood, where we were allowed to meet up. It was the first permitted gathering in fact.
“Then it was just a short while before Christmas and Palach Week in January, so it took place almost immediately after that. We were all encouraged by that first gathering on Škroupovo Square. I was always an optimist believing, that things would change and that what we were doing had purpose.”
Yet as the chartists and other dissenting organisations were preparing for the honoration of Palach’s sacrifice, Václav Havel received an unexpected anonymous letter. Its author said that he intended to follow Palach’s example and burn himself during the anniversary days.
Mrs. Marco says that she and her colleagues suspected it was an StB trick, but Havel had to react to it nonetheless.
“It’s true. We received this anonymous letter and we were about 90 percent certain that this was a police provocation – that the police want to stop us from going through with any action. However, we had no way of knowing for certain, so even if there was just a fraction of a chance that this was a real letter and that someone was thinking of doing such a thing, we knew we had to stop it. As the organisers, we discussed how we could prevent this and ultimately Václav Havel spoke out on the foreign radio broadcast, I believe it was Radio Free Europe, urging against such action.”
Havel in fact first brought up the subject of a radio broadcast with one of the primetime broadcasters of Czechoslovak Radio, which at the time was under the control of the regime. However, he said he would do no such thing.
One of the people who listened to Havel’s speech was Jakub Železný. Today one of the country’s most popular news presenters on Czech Television, in January 1989 he was a 15-year-old grammar school student. He says that Jan Palach was a great hero for him and his friends.
“This name was something special. My parents were involved in the 1968 events. They discussed it with me and sometimes I heard the name Jan Palach. The name is specific – Palach. It resonates. That is why, I think, we young people were on the streets in 1989, because of this man’s legacy. Because he did something absolutely specific, something we wanted to understand. And he did it for us, for the next generations. That is why lots of people involved in the Palach Week of 1989 were young people.”
The chartists had agreed to honour Palach on Sunday, the 15th of January, a day before the anniversary of Palach’s self-immolation. However, the State Security service was expecting them and arrested the leaders on their way to Wenceslas Square. Mrs. Marco was one of those taken by the police, but she along with the others was released after being interrogated. The next day, they agreed they would go to the statue of St. Wenceslas, close to where Palach committed the act, individually, so as to make it harder for the police to catch them.
“Some of us managed to get to the statue and others did not. Saša Vondra told me that he and Dana Němcová went together and were arrested around the National Museum, while Petr Placák says he was sitting in a nearby cafe, waiting for the right moment, but was caught just as he walked out. I managed to get there in the end. However, it turned into a rather comical situation. I laid down my bouquet of flowers. They picked it up and gave it back to me. Then I did the same thing and again they gave it back. Finally, when I laid the bouquet down the third time I was arrested. Gradually they caught all of us around Wenceslas Square and I was taken to Školská Street for investigation.”
Jana Marco was then sentenced to nine months in prison and remained incarcerated until October 1989 in the Všehrdy correction facility, located in north-west Bohemia.
However, the events did not end with the round-up of the main dissenters. In fact, Palach Week went into public memory as the first truly wide ranging protest that went on for days. Despite the police crackdowns, people were constantly coming back and others joining in, often packing much of Wenceslas Square in the process.
Eager to honour his hero, Jakub Železný went out onto the streets multiple times.
“I took part on Sunday the 15th, then Monday the 16th, Tuesday the 17th, Wednesday the 18th until Thursday the 19th. I remember the situation very well because we were there with my friend and were surprised by the number people there. Wenceslas Square was crowded by people on the upper part of the square. There were some police troops present, but I think they were surprised about the crowd too. We were there, we screamed something. We were very happy and nothing happened. I think this was the reason why people came the next day. Arrests took place, Václav Havel and some others were arrested on Sunday. However, people came back on Monday and then on Tuesday.
“This was something. This was surprising. This was something new. It was not organised. There was no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram. People were just talking to each other.“
There was also action outside of Prague. In the Moravian capital of Brno, around 500 people took part in a remembrance mass. Meanwhile, brutal police crackdowns continued and aside from batons, protesters also had to count on water cannons.
Even the 15-year-old rebel was seized.
“The police troop was on the line where the tram line in the middle of the square is. Suddenly they made a few steps towards the people. I saw it. I was just clapping a few times. Then, from the other side of Wenceslas Square, several young guys, not in uniform, came towards us. They came towards me, beat me down, pushed me down and kicked me. And they just said: ‘We saw you, you bastard! You were clapping. You go with us!’
“Many years later, I was thinking who were they? Because they were very young. And I read somewhere that the special, anti-terrorist force, the Red Berets, who were beating people later on November 17th, that they were testing out how to work in demonstrations during Palach Week in civilian clothing. Maybe these were the guys from that troop. I don’t know. Because they took me and handed me over to policemen, telling them: ‘Take this guy.’”
An excerpt from Czechoslovak Radio reporting on the protests at the time gives an idea on how the protests were portrayed.
“Just as before, today’s evening hours were marked by public gatherings on Prague’s Wenceslas Square attempting to disturb national peace and crying out slogans hostile to the state. Their provocations caused major complications in this part of Prague. Despite repeated calls from members of the Public Security service to disperse, the protesters did not listen. Public order units therefore took decisive action. Our correspondent, who is on location, reports that Wenceslas Square is now again in a state of peace.”
However, the regime’s handling of protesters caused problems abroad. The Czechoslovak delegation led by Foreign Minister Jaromír Johanes, was accused of breaking the Helsinki human rights agreements, while attending an OSCE conference in Vienna. As foreign media outlets criticised the crackdowns, the Czechoslovak government defended itself with claims that the protests were being organised from abroad.
On Wednesday, January 18, two members of an independent peace organisation met with a representative of Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who promised to hear out their complaints regarding how the police forces were handling the situation. Public order units were then told not to use force. However, this only encouraged more people to come, as Jakub Železný recalls.
“And that is why the biggest demonstration took place on Thursday, because people said: ‘Oh, they stopped beating us on Wednesday, so let’s join the demonstration tomorrow.’”
Altogether, around 1,400 people were arrested during the Palach Week protests. Many were also injured in clashes with the police. The ruling communist government even pushed through legislation that made it possible to hand out tougher sentences for those who “obstruct the authority of police officers” and broadcast several appeals from pro-regime minded members of the public, against similar protests.
Nevertheless, something had changed in the wider public perception. After being released from prison on May 17th, Václav Havel decided to capitalise on the increased public willingness to show disapproval with the regime. Together with his colleagues, he penned a petition titled “Několik vět” [A Few Sentences], whose seven points called for changes including the release of political prisoners, free assembly and opening up free discussion. The petitions name was the idea of Jiří Křižan and was inspired by a manifesto written by Czech reformist writer Ludvík Vaculík during the Prague Spring, titled “Two Thousand Words”.
Professor Jiří Přibáň from Cardiff University recently wrote an article in Právo on the events of Palach Week and their impact.
“It was an extreme success in getting and reaching out towards mainstream culture and ordinary citizens out of the dissident and rather limited community. Palach Week proved that it is possible to get bigger, larger and more effective political mobilisation. So despite the repression during Palach Week, or rather because of it, we had ‘Několik vět’ and tens of thousands of people expressing their revulsion, expressing their anger and expressing their wish for political and social changes at the end of the 1980s.”
By the autumn of 1989 the petition had been signed by around 40,000 people and their names were regularly broadcast on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.
Although he died in 1969, many who were there see Jan Palach as the man who set the road to freedom by his act.
Jana Marco has returned many times to Wenceslas Square since freedom was won in 1989 to lay her bouquet of flowers.
“Those people that went to pay their respects to Jan Palach in what started being called Palach Week perhaps went there because they realised that, since he was capable of such a sacrifice, the least they could do was come a few times to Wenceslas Square and make their opinion known simply by taking part in the event. The sacrifice of Jan Palach has such a strong symbolic meaning that it nudges us to behave strongly in certain situations.”
Jakub Železný has since taken part in events reminding the public and the younger generation that did not live through the events of Palach Week, of the virtue of Jan Palach’s sacrifice. He says he will fight vehemently against any who try to relativize his sacrifice and the regime that he opposed.
“Do not forget Jan Palach and let us not forget the communist regime. This was a stupid, brutal regime. It is written in our law that it was an illegal regime and so it was.”
Professor Jiří Přibáň sees a call never to accept conditions which are unbearable.
“It is a victory which is very painful for all of us that survive, because Palach’s sacrifice tells us that sometimes the living conditions can be so unjust and unbearable that an individual decides to go and sacrifice his or her life for the rest of society while the rest of society decides accepts it as something normal and something possible to adapt to it. I think it is a call to resistance against all politics of normalisation and adaptation of one’s life to general conditions of life as survival.”