On This Day

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Czech students carry black-draped flags and a portrait of the dead student Jan Palach during a mass demonstration in Wenceslas Square, Prague, Jan. 20, 1969.

On This Day: Prague Police Suppress March Honoring Czech Martyr Jan Palach

January 26, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 26, 1969, Prague police broke up a peaceful march honoring Jan Palach, who 10 days earlier had set himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Prague Students Honor Jan Palach

In January 1969, Czechoslovakia was under Soviet occupation following an August invasion to crush the liberal reforms of Alexander Dubcek’s government. On Jan. 16, intending to stir a Prague on the “edge of hopelessness,” 20-year-old Czechoslovak student Jan Palach staged a dramatic protest of Soviet occupation and repression.

“Entering Wenceslas Square in the bustle of mid-afternoon traffic, Palach carefully removed his overcoat, poured a small can of gasoline over himself and struck a match,” wrote Time. “Instantly, to the horror of several dozen passersby, he turned into a human torch. Despite a bus dispatcher's frantic effort to smother the flames with his overcoat, Palach's body was ravaged. He died three days later.”

According to a note in Palach’s coat, he hoped for an end of censorship and a ban on the Soviet newspaper, Zpravy. Dr. Jaroslava Moserova, who treated Palach for burns at the hospital, told Radio Prague, “When people say that he did it because of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies, that’s not really so. He did it because of the demoralization that was setting in.”

In the following weeks, Czechoslovakians who attempted to honor Palach’s sacrifice were beaten and harassed by police. Prague resident Ivan Plicka described to Radio Prague that on Jan. 19, “policemen were catching and beating all people with flowers, trying to put their flowers at the Saint Wenceslas statue.”

On Jan. 26, an estimated half-million people gathered for Palach’s funeral procession. Hundreds of students congregated at the Wenceslas statue, many holding lit candles and bearing wreaths.

Others painted over the sign for Red Army Square with “Jan Palach Square” and wrote “Do not be indifferent to the day when the light of the future was carried forward by a burning body” on the statue. When the group began chanting, “Russians go home,” police in central Prague used clubs and tear gas to break up the demonstration.

Biography: Jan Palach (1948–69)

Jan Palach was born on Aug. 11, 1948, to the owners of a candy shop that was later taken over by Communists. He grew up in the town of Vsetaty and attended college in Prague beginning in 1966. He, like many students, was a strong supporter of the Prague Spring reforms of 1968. In the fall of 1968, he transferred to Charles University in Prague, where he took part in strikes protesting Soviet occupation.

Palach’s Legacy

Two other Czechoslovaks would duplicate Palach’s self-immolation in the following four months. Student Jan Zajic, who participated in a hunger strike following Palach’s death, set himself on fire on Feb. 25 near Wenceslas Square. On April 4, Good Friday, Evzen Plocek set himself on fire in the main square in the city of Jihlava.

It would be another 20 years before Czechoslovakia broke free from Soviet repression. On Jan. 17, 1990, less than a month after the Velvet Revolution overthrew the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, Prague’s Red Army Square was renamed Palach Square in “an act as symbolic as Jan Palach’s self-immolation 21 years ago,” according to The New York Times.

“I had a feeling then that after 20 years, the great Jan Palach’s ultimate sacrifice was beginning to take on its full meaning,” Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel told the 10,000-strong crowd gathered at the square.

Background: “Prague Spring” and the Warsaw Pact Invasion

Just over a year before Palach’s suicide, Alexander Dubcek took control of the government and instituted a series of economic and democratic reforms that ushered in “Prague Spring,” a period of liberalization in the socialist state. Over the next eight months, the Czechoslovakian people celebrated their freedom and dreamed of a new democratic era in the country.

In August, however, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded and forced Dubcek to renounce his reforms. Over the following months, his reforms were gradually repealed as the country returned to strict Communist rule.

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