Czechs are marking the 48th anniversary of the self-immolation of student Jan Palach, a brave protest against the loss of freedom and gradual apathy following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. One of the most painful moments of the country’s modern history, Palach’s suicide remains a powerful memento that democracy must be nurtured and defended.
Forty-eight years ago Czechs were undergoing one of the most painful periods in the country’s history. The country’s hopes of freedom and democracy, that flourished with Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring reform movement, had been brutally dashed by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops and Czechoslovakia was on the threshold of a hard-line period of communist “normalization” intended to bring the country in line with the rest of the communist bloc.
It was at this time that a group of students resolved to make the ultimate sacrifice in support of democracy. Jan Palach, a student of history and political economy at Charles University, led the way. On Jan 16, 1969, he set himself on fire at the top end of Wenceslas Square. He died, in terrible pain, three days later. As he had hoped, his sacrifice briefly roused the nation. His funeral on January 25 became a symbol of national unity and protest against the invaders and Palach’s legacy lived in people’s hearts fuelling the protest movement that eventually ended 40 years of communist rule. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, one of the first to lay flowers at the site of Palach’s suicide on Monday, said his brave act was an important part of Czech history and must never be forgotten.
“What Jan Palach did in early 1969 was an incredibly courageous and at the same time incredibly tragic act of protest. He tried to stop the onset of “communist normalization”, he tried to jolt the nation into awareness and appeal to people not to relinquish the freedoms they acquired in the course of the Prague Spring reform movement.”
A series of remembrance events are taking place around the country in the course of the next three days – marking the painful period between Palach’s suicide and death when the nation held its breath and prayed for him and students went on a chain hunger strike in support of his message. 48 years later Czech students have once again gone on a chain hunger strike, mirroring the events of 1969. Student Dusan Šulc is among those who launched the event.
“The hunger strike started at midnight tonight and each participant joins it for 12 hours. Originally twenty of us were going to take turns until Jan 25, the day of Palach’s funeral – but as it turned out there are so many who want to join that it has become a “parallel” chain hunger strike.”
Palach’s Alma Mater, Charles University in Prague, has organized a commemorative ceremony on Palach Square on Monday evening and a debate on Palach’s cultural, political and spiritual legacy on January 19th, the day of his death.
On Wednesday members of the platform Bez komunistu.cz –Without Communists.cz will light a candle of hope at Jan Palach family home in Všetaty and bring it to Prague, where a commemorative ceremony is planned to take place on Thursday at the top of Wenceslas Square, in memory not only of Jan Palach but also Jan Zajíc, who set himself on fire on the same place a month later and others who made the same sacrifice in the spring of that year.