In August 1968, five European communist countries' armies invaded Czechoslovakia and terminated the Prague Spring, an era of the socialism with a human face (or some accelerating liberalization of communism if you wish).
Within months, almost all the people got used to the renewed neo-Stalinist conditions, opportunism, spying, restored censorship, and firing of the inconvenient folks (starting from those who led the liberalization in 1968) – the process of reversal of the Prague Spring has been termed "The Normalization" by Brezhnev and his comrades and those of us who are terrified by that process use the euphemism, too.
For some time, students kept on protesting but they figured out that no one dares to support them – no one apparently wants them to fight – which is why this student resistance faded away. There was one 20-year-old student of history and political economy, Jan Palach, who couldn't swallow the people's becoming spineless and passive in this way.
On Wednesday, it will have been 50 years from his January 16th self-immolation at the top of the Wenceslaus Square – not far from the St Wenceslaus statue and the National Museum (which is freshly renovated now).
Jan [=John] Palach was conceived in late 1947, 3 months before the communist coup, and was born in August 1948, half a year after the communist coup. His father Josef [=Joseph] used to be a small capitalist during the First Republic (confectionery), his wife Libuše could work at home. Josef brought up both sons, Jan and his older brother Jiří [=George], according to the ideals of the First Republic (the capitalist one).
The family could see some material deterioration after 1948 and was downgraded to the working class status. Although she was no commie, Palach's mother joined the communist party in 1957 – arguably to make it possible for Palach to study. Palach's father Josef died in 1962 when Jan Palach was just 14.
Five years ago, I discussed The Burning Bush, a movie about the reactions to his dramatic act (and especially about a lawsuit involving Palach's relatives). Last night, I watched "Jan Palach", a new movie about all the events prior to the self-immolation. That movie ended seconds after his drastic act, when he was lying on the street and most of his skin was burned out – which I found to be a bit strange ending.
So he was a sensitive, a slightly quiet, fine man – but otherwise a rather normal and handsome student. He's been to an international camp in Kazakhstan where he befriended various people from communist countries. Later in the movie, we can see him in a much more relaxed environment in France surrounded by some Westerners (a paid temporary job, I guess). Lots of languages could be heard in that movie. Most of the movie is about his interactions with his family, classmates, and his girlfriend (from the childhood years) Helena Zahradníková (it's not clear whether a romantic one but she loved him) who went through palsy or something like that (and his heart was too delicate for him to leave her). He also had an affair with a girl who was apparently more attractive for him, Eva Bednáriková, Helena's Slovak friend.
At any rate, everyone was resigning around him and he felt it was his moral duty to reverse it. So he prepared his tragic yet famous stunt. He acquired ether somewhere – probably to reduce the pain on his skin – as well as gasoline. He poured those liquids over his body, used safety matches and... the fire was rather spectacular. A man managed to extinguish it. Palach probably screamed and wanted to live. His survival instinct manifested itself in the hospital, too. But he was burned too much and died three days later, on January 19th. The funeral was a massive protest by all the people who opposed The Normalization – probably the last one.
Palach left a message saying that he was the Torch Number One. Unless something changes, he suggested, there would be numerous other young folks who would put themselves on fire. It could be your kids, he threatened, which is why you must stop this insane adaptation to the restored totalitarian system. And indeed, many other people self-immolated themselves later, starting with another student named Jan Zajíc [=John Rabbit].
Jan Palach (2018), a trailer
In fact, Palach wasn't the first one who burned himself to protest the invasion (although, I emphasize again, he really protested against the passivity of the Czechs, not the occupation itself). In September 1968, just a month after the invasion, a 59-year-old Polish accountant Ryszard Siwiec burned himself to protest the occupation of Czechoslovakia. He remained almost unknown – up to 1989 or so – which I find rather amazing given the fact that he did it on Warsaw's Decadal Stadium, in front of some 100,000 viewers. Some other Poles and even an East Germans did the same.
As you know, those protests didn't help. The totalitarian communism continued for more than 20 years and only decayed in the late 1980s, for reasons that had no direct relationship with the "torches".
At the top, I posted a picture of the staunchly patriotic and pro-European Italian group "Nomos: Terra e identità" ("The Law: The Land And The Identity") that has claimed Palach as "their beloved boy" already since his death in 1969. On Saturday 19th, the 50th anniversary of his death, they will organize a concert "The Land And The Freedom" in Verona. Lots of sources denounce them as "far right" or "neofascist" folks who have no right to "claim" Palach.
I am not sure. Palach surely was as "mainstream" politically as you can get. His act was "extreme" at the human level, not the political level. But at the same moment, I find it rather plausible that he would endorse the Italian group and the group doesn't really deserve any offensive labels. Palach loved freedom, perhaps because during his childhood, his grandfather who was sometimes babysitting Jan was attaching the boy by the rope, to simplify his job.
Well, the Italian press claims that the Czech press reported (I must have missed it) that in August 1968, Palach actually had a rifle and planned to shoot Russian soldiers en masse. That would push him closer to the Italian patriotic group but I won't be able to verify the claim. But if that rifle were really found after Palach's death by his brother, as the Italian press claims, it would be likely and lots of things would make more sense. Also, a witness Stanislav Hamr who have known Palach from the childhood recently claimed that Palach was no saint but rather a hyperactive guy who wouldn't spoil almost any fun, almost like another Mašín – brothers who emigrated and shot lots of people dead while doing so.
I remember that some teachers at the elementary school have talked about Palach's act often. Our teacher of Czech and Literature, Ms Ema Bezděková, finally concluded that it was cowardly to commit suicide in this way. It is more courageous to keep on living. Well, I surely sympathized with that. And sometimes I think it was only a cliché – but the sentence was also literally true because the life may sometime really suck more than some burning skin.
On the other hand, over the years, I did drift towards the view that Jan Palach was a hero of his own kind – surely a more courageous and morally clean guy than the silent majority that has bent their spines to please Mr Brezhnev and his comrades. In some respects, the situation has deteriorated between 1969 and 2019. At that time, such a drastic act was able to produce an impressive funeral (one could perhaps say that Palach has mastered the timing or marketing). If someone protested against the analogous proliferation of the totalitarian political correctness in the contemporary Academia and other big portions of the society, his or her death would probably remain invisible and the PC fascists wouldn't be ashamed of spitting on the "torch" after his or her death.
Incidentally, the commies had the decency not to spit on Palach publicly although they were far from openly worshiping him. But StB, the secret police, didn't have enough decency to avoid secretly damaging Palach's tomb and removing the wreaths. The communists just urged everyone not to repeat Palach's acts – they probably manipulated the blonde Eva to claim that before he died, Palach wanted to be the last one (the quote is disputed by everyone else).
Anniversaries of his tragic death were repeatedly used by the opposition to show its dissatisfaction with the communism before the Velvet Revolution. The last non-democratic anniversary of the Torch Number One, The Palach Week in January 1989, has ignited very important protests at the Wenceslaus Square. I remember that Radio Free Europe was rather excited about those changes. I still couldn't imagine that the political situation would start to change dramatically, not even in Summer 1989, but I was proven to be a pessimist in November 1989.