January 16 marks exactly 54 years since Czech student Jan Palach’s self-immolation at the top of Wenceslas Square that would lead to his death in hospital three days later.
Through his sacrifice, the student of Charles University, who was only 20 years old, hoped to rouse his fellow citizens from apathy and resignation months after the Soviet-led invasion that had crushed the Prague Spring.
About half-past one, Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire near the fountain at the National Museum in Wenceslas Square in Prague. After several minutes, those passing managed to extinguish the living torch.
The seriously burnt student was taken to the Faculty Hospital in Vinohrady, but the injuries were so serious that he had no hope of surviving.
He left a letter at the site explaining the motives of his terrible act: “As our nation is living in a desperate situation, and its reconciliation with fate has reached its utmost stage, we have decided that in this way we will express our protest and shake the conscience of the nation …ˮ He died three days later, on 19 January 1969.
Palach called himself “Torch no. 1” in his letter, giving the impression that he was a part of a larger group which in fact did not exist. But several others followed his example in Czechoslovakia and other eastern bloc countries.
“People must fight against the evil they feel equal to measure up to at that moment,” Palach said before he died in hospital on Jan. 19.
Palach’s death did not change the gradual, almost total resignation in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. For almost twenty years, the name Jan Palach could only be whispered in public.
His life story immediately got into “forbidden” songs or strongroom literary works. Only after a change in relations in the autumn of 1989 could historians, documentarists or artists officially and freely present it.
Palach was not the only person to protest via self-immolation. Student Jan Zajíc followed on Feb. 25, 1969, also on Wenceslas Square. In April in the town of Jihlava, Evžen Plocek set himself on fire, though this was less publicized.
A memorial bronze cross on a small rise in the sidewalk is in front of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square.
There is a square in Prague named after Palach, náměstí Jana Palacha, where the Rudolfinum concert hall; Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (VŠUP); Museum of Decorative Arts In Prague (UPM); and Philosophical Faculty of Charles University are located.
There are also streets and places named after him in other Czech towns, as well as in Luxembourg, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Bulgaria.
Embers of change
Jan Palach did not die in vain. Two decades later, a group called the Movement of the Children of Bohemia — a self-described “monarchist-anarchist” initiative — took inspiration from his activism and called for new protests.
These activists, like the thousands of others who would prove crucial to putting an end to Soviet rule in Czechslovakia, had been children when Palach set fire to himself in 1969. But on January 15, 1989, they took to Prague’s Wenceslas Square to commemorate his incredible protest and the sacrifice he had made.
They flocked to the square every day for a week, in what later became known as “Palach Week