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Wenceslas Square (Prague), January 16, 1969.
Young student Jan Palach pours petrol over himself and lights a fire.

In and outside Czechoslovakia Palach's self-cremation makes a huge impression. Some days later, over half a million people pay him his last respect along the funeral procession route.

Backgrounds: Power to Alexander Dubcek
A year before Palach's sacrifice, Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party. Dubcek emphasized the severe crisis of the country. The party's Action Program of April 10, 1968, pointed out the earlier regime's mistakes and the country's economic and social abuses. The Program proved Dubcek's wish to reform. The Communist Party would be bound to democratic rules of play. Very explicitly, the Action Program mentioned freedom of gathering, freedom of speech and free travelling abroad.

SU comes into play
In this so-called Prague Spring society breathed a completely new atmosphere. Jan Palach was amazed by the possibility to discuss problems openly in the streets! To the Soviet Union the Prague Spring was unacceptable however. The ghost of western democracy had penetrated the Eastern bloc. On July 14 the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, East-Germany and Hungary decided the Czechoslovakian situation to be intolerable.

Ten Commandments
It lasted until the night of August 20/21 when soldiers of these five countries invaded Palach's Czechoslovakia. The Soviets then discovered that it was hard to return to the old situation. Peaceful resistance of the people was the most important factor. They acted towards the occupying troops according to the Ten Commandments:
  1. You don't know anything
  2. You don't take care of anything
  3. You don't tell anything
  4. You don't have anything
  5. You don't know how
  6. You don't give anything
  7. You can't do anything
  8. You don't sell anything
  9. You don't show anything
  10. You don't do anything

This psychological warfare caused demoralization among the soldiers and a sense of courage and pride among the people.

No politician was prepared to ride the pro-Soviet waves, which freed the way for Dubcek to return. He had to compromize constantly however. When Dubcek was forced to dismiss another Prague Spring hero, Josef Smrkovsky, it was clear to everyone that 'normalization' (as the Soviets called the return to the pre-Dubcek period) was unavoidable.

Jan Palach witnessed the changing attitude in society. He was still fully behind the Dubcek reforms and watched in despair how the Czechoslovakian people underwent their curtailed freedom submissively. He had to do something. Palach's deed was well-considered and utterly ostentatious. He wanted to wake up people, fight the feeling of hopelessness and make sure they would shake off all passivity. If the Czechoslovakians would strike for example, Palach thought, the men in power would have to follow the people's will. Wake up! Fire.

The Czechoslovakian people identified themselves strongly with Palach's protest. In national history, Jan Palach has earned a meaning parallel to that of Jan Hus, the theologist who was sent to the stake because of heresy in 1415. Still this development could not turn the tide. In April 1969, Alexander Dubcek was forced to resign and the Prague Spring was definitely over.

Twenty years after
Jan Palach's sacrifice seems to have been meaningless. In the short run it might have been. In the long run it had a huge meaning. Twenty years after, on January 16, 1989, Czechoslovakians commemorated Jan Palach on Wenceslas Square. The thought of the Prague Spring freedom resulted in a major demonstration against the communist regime, which was overthrown eventually.

(I wrote a large part of this article in 1995 as a student. I have to thank my Czechoslovakian-born professor Hans Renner for his contagious enthusiasm)

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