A day in the life

Jan Palach

As many good and bad things that happened in the last century, it all began in 1968. The Czechoslovakian people wanted more reform than was granted by the leading Communist Party and of course the Soviet leadership. The great reformer Alexandr Dubček did promise to intervene, but failed to take any apparent steps. Therefore, the diplomatic pressure was replaced by a military solution. On the eve of 21 August 1968, Czechoslovakia was occupied by the armies of five Warsaw Pact countries. An event we now know as the Prague Spring.

He was a student of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague and set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square on 16 January 1969. By this shocking act, he wanted to arouse the Czech public from lethargy following the August invasion of Czechoslovakia. Palach’s protest caused extraordinary reaction both in the Czech Republic and abroad. To this day, Jan Palach’s name is known worldwide.

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. Then he rushed past my car and a MB 1000 car, which was on my left, into the road and disappeared behind a tram heading from the lower part of Wenceslas Square to the museum. Testimony of Josef Kříž, a witness to Palach’s protest, 17 January 1969

International attention focused on Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring and especially after 21 August 1968 – an occupied nation in the heart of Europe aroused worldwide sympathy. Jan Palach’s self-immolation in January 1969 again attracted the attention of foreign countries. The world was moved by the exceptional nature of the form of his protest, unknown in Europe until then.

Jana Palacha

Jan Palach’s shocking protest was seen by many witnesses. Jan Palach took off his coat near the fountain railing and took a bottle labelled “Ether” out of his briefcase. He opened it with a knife and smelled it. Near the fountain, he then poured the petrol over himself and set himself on fire. He jumped over the railing and ran between the parked cars towards the St Wenceslas statue. He was almost run over by a passing tram. Probably because of that, he turned towards the “Food Shop” (Dům potravin) where he fell on the road, and some random witnesses put him out with their coats. At Jan Palach’s request, they opened the briefcase left near the fountain and read his letter. After a few minutes, a Ministry of the Interior ambulance just happened to being passing by and stopped at the scene. He had suffered second and third degree burns on 85 per cent of his body, which is life-threatening in most cases. Yet Jan Palach, who was given analgesics, was interested in the reactions to his act.

Afraid of another act, the police tried their best to get names, locations or other leads to prevent them. In his critical condition, Palach was not capable of making a coherent statement. On 19 January 1969 at 3:30 p.m., Jan Palach was declared dead. In the evening, his corpse was transported to the forensic medicine building, where the sculptor Olbram Zoubek managed to take a cast of Palach‘s face for his death mask. An autopsy was also performed here; the immediate cause of death was “impending pneumonia resulting from the burns”.

Czechoslovakia being a Communist country, the state security service was put on the highest alert since the occupation in August 1968. The Federal Office of Press and Information instructed editors to publish only official announcements. Sixteen foreign journalists were deported.However on 25 February 1969, Jan Zajíc, a student from a technical school in Šumperk, Northern Moravia, Czech Republic, doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in one of the houses on Wenceslas square in Prague. He consciously followed up on the self-immolation of Jan Palach a month earlier. He failed to run out of the building and died on the spot. 

November 1989

During Communist rule in the country, you were not really in liberty to support, talk or even think about Palach's motives. Af course this all changed after the Wall came down. After November 1989, Jan Palach could be remembered freely and publicly for the first time. On 20 December 1989, the square in front of the main building of the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague was once again renamed after him (it was renamed in honour of Jan Palach quite spontaneously in January 1969). The plaque made by sculptor Olbram Zoubek with a replica of Jan Palach’s death mask was placed on the Faculty building.