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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.
The Prague Spring had been led by Czechoslovakia’s new communist party chairman, Alexander Dubcek, appointed in January 1968. While outwardly agreeing and promising to compromise, Dubcek did nothing to halt the growing movement of liberalisation.
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. 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.
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. 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 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.
For six days, as Palach’s casket lay in Charles University, tens of thousands of people came to pay their last respects. The authorities allowed these demonstrations and marches to take place, sensing the need of the people to voice their discontent.
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. 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. Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio. Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available. This entry was posted in Blog, Cold War and tagged Cold War, Suicide by History In An Hour. It was a silent and desperate protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, that had begun five months before, and against the Czechoslovak authorities' acceptance of the occupation.


The small and intimate service held in Vsetaty's local cinema on a grey January afternoon was in sharp contrast to Jan Palach's funeral thirty-three years ago, which became a symbol of Czech and Slovak protest against the Soviet occupation.
This ceremony was an intimate reminder of Jan Palach the person - a Jan Palach who friends described as a hard-working, quiet and intelligent, an ordinary, rather sensitive student from a small town, who believed in the basic principle of freedom with such passion that he was willing to sacrifice his life. Use Flickriver Badge Creator to create a badge linking to your photos, your group or any other Flickriver view.
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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.
It was in this atmosphere of hopelessness and demoralisation that Jan Palach made the ultimate sacrifice. During the summer of 1968, he was visiting the Soviet Union, returning to Prague only four days before the Soviet invasion of his country. Then, 16 January 1969, on his way to Wenceslas Square, he bought two plastic containers and filled them with petrol.
The doctor in charge of Palach managed to keep them at bay, permitting only his mother and older brother to visit.
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.
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.
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.
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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 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. 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. What he witnessed angered him, as it did most of his peers, and he took part in protests and strikes against the communist regime.
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. Protests and services of remembrance took place across the country, with people shouting anti-communist and anti-Soviet slogans. Palach’s grave in Prague, which was attracting far too many visitors, had become a shrine adorned with flowers, candles and poems. 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.
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.
An ambulance appeared and rushed the still conscious Palach, with 85 per cent burns, to hospital.
The authorities eventually removed the headstone and sent Palach’s ashes to his mother in his home village. His sacrifice has remained etched in memory both in the Czech Republic and abroad, and to mark the anniversary a small service of remembrance was held in Jan Palach's home town of Vsetaty, a few kilometres north-east of Prague.
In October 1990, following the fall of the Czechoslovakian state, the ashes were moved back to Prague.



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