One man’s inflammatory stand against an evil regime

By Ollie Heppenstall

In January 1969, a student at Charles University in Prague died after setting himself on fire outside the national museum as a protest against the conclusion of what has become known as the Prague Spring.

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Jan Palach’s death mask

The term Prague Spring refers to the seven months of peaceful protests against the invasion of the Czech Republic by the Soviet Union, following First Secretary Alexander Dubcek’s attempts to reform the way the country was governed.

The reforms aimed to bring more rights and freedoms to citizens of Czechoslovakia as well as loosening restrictions on the media and on travel.

Jan Palach was a student of history and political economy at the university, and was outraged at the conclusion of the protests.

His decision to self-immolate on Wenceslas Square, and the reasons for doing so, have become famous.

In a letter addressed to public figures, he asked for the abolition of censorship and for the Zpravy newspaper to be taken out of circulation as well as for Czechs and Slovaks to go on a general strike in support of the demands.

His example was followed by another two students; Jan Zajic underwent self-immolation on Wenceslas Square having taken part in a hunger strike in support of Palach in 1969, while Evzen Plocek committed self-immolation in the city of Jilhava in protest of what he saw as Soviet aggression.

Palach’s exploits are commemorated in Charles University’s museum, where his death mask and student ID book are both on display.

Palach’s act has become a defining moment of both modern European and Czech history; the most jarring and violent form of protest against a regime that ruined the lives of millions.

This theme of resistance runs through Czech history itself; from Jan Hus resisting the Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th century, to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942 by Czech paratroopers and to Palach’s fiery defiance of the Communist regime.

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