Jan Palach. This name probably means nothing to you. Yet this person has a special place in the history of the Czech Republic.
A symbol of the struggle against communism and the presence of the USSR on the soil of what was still called Czechoslovakia, Palach alone represents the resilience of this people.
In the rest of this article, we tell you more about his story and why this young student became a real pebble in the shoe of the regime in power at the time.
Who was Jan Palach?
Jan Palach was born on August 11, 1948. He grew up just thirty kilometers from Prague, in the commune of Všetaty. A brilliant student, he was initially rejected by Charles University in Prague, before finally being accepted a year later.
The year was 1968, and the world seemed to be slowly turning upside down. As in France, demonstrations broke out in the Czech Republic. It became known as the Prague Spring.
The impact of the Prague Spring
The then president, Alexander Dubček, announces a number of reforms and intends to impose “socialism with a human face”.
With freedom of the press and economic cooperation with Western nations, he hoped to renew the country and give it a new lease of life.
Unfortunately, the USSR would have none of it. On the night of August 20-21, 400,000 soldiers, 6,300 tanks and 800 aircraft landed on Prague.
Jan Palach’s reaction to the Russian invasion
Like many Czechs, Jan Palach was marked by the reaction of the Communist regime. He decided to organize an occupation of the radio studios, in order to broadcast a call for a strike.
But he didn’t succeed. In January 1969, on the 16th, he decided on an action with greater impact. He set himself on fire in the heart of Wenceslas Square.
“Throw a coat over me, throw a coat over me!” he screamed before falling to the ground, inert. With second- or third-degree burns to 85% of his body, he died in hospital a few days later.
Why did Jan Palach set himself on fire?
While the Czech nation seemed to welcome Dubček’s promised return to freedom, it was surprised by Moscow’s reaction. Faced with Western silence and the harshness of the regime, the latter decided to react. His death would have a considerable impact on all Czechoslovak citizens.
On the day of his funeral, no fewer than 100,000 people turned out to pay their respects. A disavowal for Moscow, which had been trying to discredit him. The regime has, for example, suppressed a letter he allegedly wrote shortly before his death. In this letter, Jan Palach denounced the regime’s invasion.
Buried in Olsany, his body was finally exhumed by the Russian police in 1973. His ashes were finally brought back to the Czech Republic, a few weeks after the end of the regime. Today, his grave is a veritable shrine to which many people like to pay their respects.
What were the repercussions of this gesture?
This true sacrifice has inspired many people. The fight has intensified. In the Czech Republic, however, people opted for a softer approach, deciding, for example, to blindfold the statues of the nation’s heroes.
Two other young people, Jan Zajic and Evzen Plocek, made the same gesture on February 25 and April 4. Vaclav Havel came to Palach’s grave to pay his respects and lay a wreath of flowers. Arrested, perceived as a dissident and a danger to the regime, he was placed in detention.
This announcement signals the end of the Russian regime. Huge demonstrations were organized. The regime trembled. In the end, it was swept away by the many uprisings, also known as the “Velvet Revolution”.
Where is the Jan Palach Memorial?
A small memorial stands on the very spot where Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1969. If you walk along Wenceslas Square, you’ll find a small cross on the ground. It’s a moving and discreet way of celebrating this young student who took action to protest. So be sure to look underfoot and don’t step on it!