Some of my posts are planned well in advance. When visiting the Museum of Communism I knew I'd be writing a post on it. Some posts are more spontaneous. It was only when writing the Museum of Communism post and finding myself mentioning Vaclav Havel and Frank Zappa that I decided to write about Plastic People. Other times themes become apparent to me only over time and this post is an example, tying together the Museum of Communism with last week's post on the lonely Tank Man who courageously confronted a tank column outside Tiananamen Square in 1989.
The link is the death of Jan Palach, a 20 year old student who, without letting anyone know in advance, set himself afire in Prague's Wenceslas Square on January 16, 1969 to protest the demoralization of the Czech people in the wake of the Soviet invasion of August 1968 which crushed the Prague Spring government of Alexander Dubcek. Palach died three days later. The act received world-wide publicity (I remember watching coverage at the time) symbolizing the plight of all peoples under communist domination and inspiring dissidents in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Palach's grave became a pilgrimage for those who resisted the regime until 1973 when the State removed his body cremating it to stop the visits.
Palach's self-sacrifice and its aftermath is the subject of a recent three-part HBO Europe documentary shown on Czech TV. Directed by the Polish director, Agnieszka Holland, who also made the shocking, disturbing and moving drama of WWII and the Holocaust, Europa Europa (1990), Burning Bush brings to light the surprising story of a defamation suit brought against Communist Party officials in the wake of Palach's death. Though doomed to failure it was one of the first actions by Czech dissidents to resist the regime and the lawyer representing the Palach family, Dagmar Buresova, eventually became the first Minister of Justice in post-Communist Czechoslovakia.
The series has been edited for a limited film release and is being shown at the Film Forum in NYC. It was reviewed by AO Scott of the NY Times who wrote:
"the film does a remarkably persuasive job of capturing the nightmarish and sometimes grimly comical quality of life under totalitarianism"
Palach was not the only self-immolation in protest of the Soviet invasion. A month after his death Jan Zajic also burned himself in Wenceslas Square and six weeks later Evzen Plocek did the same in the main square of another Czech town. Only after the fall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe was it realized that the first self-immolation protesting the Soviet action took place in Poland in September 1968. Ryszard Siwiec, a 59 year old veteran of the WWII Polish Home Army burned himself in front of 10,000 people at an event in Warsaw. The story was suppressed in the Polish press and to the extent there was any public mention, people were told it was an accident caused by spilling vodka and smoking but Siwiec left a written note explaining his motives and after the fall of the Polish regime in 1989 his story was told in a documentary and today he is honored in his country.(Siwiec's self immolation, from Wikipedia).
Palach's memory served as a rallying point for dissidents for the next twenty years. On the 20th anniversary of his death a coalition of opposition groups planned Jan Palach Week in Prague. The most prominent group, Charter 77 issued a statement on the meaning of Palach's act:
“He died because he wanted to shout as loud as possible. He wanted us to realize what was happening to us, to see what we were really doing, and to hear what we were saying in those times of reputedly inevitable concessions, “reasonable” compromises, and hopefully clever tactical ploys. We started forgetting that something has to resist even the greatest pressure, something fundamental that cannot be bought or sold, but that is absolutely essential for maintaining our human dignity.”In conjunction with the week, Vaclav Havel, spokesman for Charter 77, issued an appeal against any further acts of self-immolation.
The State banned the planned memorial service in Wenceslas Square and arrested opposition leaders, including Havel, who was imprisoned for four months. Nonetheless crowds gathered in the square for several days until dispersed by water cannon and security forces. Ten months later the communist regime was overthrown in the Velvet Revolution.
You can learn more about Jan Palach at the memorial website established by Charles University which he attended.
Today there is a memorial in Wenceslas Square to honor Jan Palach and Jan Zajic.