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The First Torch: The Life and Legacy of Jan Palach

The First Torch: The Life and Legacy of Jan Palach


“Given that our nations have found themselves on the brink of hopelessness and resignation, we have decided to express our protest and to awaken the national conscience,” wrote Jan Palach to the Czechoslovak Writer’s Union. “Our group is composed of volunteers who are determined to set themselves on fire for our cause. I had the honor to draw number one, and therefore I have earned the right to write these first letters and to make my appearance as the first torch.”

The letter, entitled Torch No. 1, from which the above quote is excerpted was slipped into a mailbox in Prague on January 16th, 1969 by Jan Palach, a young man of 20. After stating his intentions, he went on to demand of the Writer’s Union the abolition of censorship in communist Czechoslovakia and an end to the publication of Zprávy, the communist regime’s official press organ. His manifesto mailed, he walked to Wenceslas Square in the center of the city.

Standing next to a fountain, Palach then doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire.

“When I saw the man burning, the flames were so massive that I could only see his facial expression… Before I could do anything, the burning young man ran from the wall under the National Museum to the railing near my car, and jumped over the railing on the edge of the pavement,” said Josef Kříž, a witness to Palach’s self-immolation.

Barely alive and covered in third-degree burns, Palach was rushed to a hospital. He died a week later.

Palach’s grisly act of public protest shook a nation that had been invaded by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact vassals just six months before.

Little more than a year before Palach lit himself aflame, Czechoslovakia appeared to be on the brink of a new flowering of liberalism; Alexander Dubček, the newly-minted First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) and a known reformer, announced his policy of “socialism with a human face.” Despite its name, this policy was almost completely in line with the beliefs of Western European social democrats, and was thus anathema to KSČ hardliners and their puppetmasters in Moscow.

On August 20th, 1968, the Warsaw Pact commenced Operation Danube. Under the odiously imperialist justification of the Brezhnev Doctrine, 250,000 soldiers from the communist regimes of Eastern Europe rolled across the Czechoslovak border. At the height of the occupation, the number of troops occupying the beleaguered country would be nearly double the initial invasion force.

“Palach’s protest evoked a strong response from Czech society, which was still reeling from the invasion of Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops in August of 1968. Tens of thousands of people turned out for a memorial march the day after Palach died,” Dr. Flagg Taylor, professor of political science at Skidmore College and a specialist on the democratic opposition movement in Czechoslovakia, tells Dissident. “They marched from Wenceslas Square to Charles University Faculty of Arts building, where Palach had been a student. His funeral on January 25th brought out similar numbers.”

“The regime monitored events closely and deported some journalists who covered them. Yet Palach’s action took place before the installation of the so-called ‘normalizaton’ regime led by Gustáv Husák,” says Taylor, referring to Dubček’s neo-Stalinist successor as boss of the KSČ. “The regime denounced Palach’s act and one communist functionary even suggested Palach had been manipulated into the deed by hostile Western elements.”

Several months later, Husák’s “normalization” reinstituted an ironclad communist rule and quashed, as completely as possible, the memory of Dubček, Palach, and the Prague Spring ideals for which Palach had sacrificed himself. Clearly, the regime feared a resurgence of the popular discontent with communism that had been forcibly squelched by the Soviet invasion.

Palach’s legacy lived on, however, and two decades later returned to the fore of civil society opposition in Czechoslovakia—with dramatic consequences.

On January 16th, 1989—twenty years after the immolation—Charter 77 and other Czechoslovak dissidents applied for a permit to hold a gathering to commemorate Palach. “They were refused but thousands made it Wenceslas Square, thus beginning a struggle between demonstrators and authorities in what would become ‘Jan Palach Week,’” Taylor says.

“There were violent clashes between the protestors and the police—that latter wielded water cannons and truncheons. Václav Havel was arrested while trying to make his way to the square. This was a key and defining moment and protests became larger, more consistent and more widespread after Palach Week.” By the end of that year, the communist government in Czechoslovakia had fallen and the country was finally free.

Jan Palach lived “in the truth,” as Václav Havel once said, and died a martyr to his beliefs and the cause of liberty everywhere. Unbeknownst to him, however, his actions would inspire dissidents across the Soviet world—and still echo today in a popular movement in Tibet that is shaking the world’s largest communist state to its core.