Who exactly was Jan Palach?

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In what has now become an annual event every 19th January, official envoys from Czechia, accompanied by KSU members climbed up the stairs of Student’s House, turned right and laid down a bouquet of flowers beneath a plaque located half way between the canteen entrance and the common room. The plaque, unveiled in 2004, is dedicated to the memory of Jan Palach.

Jan Palach

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Jan Palach

Palach, a student of history and politics at Charles University, committed self-immolation in order to protest the Soviet invasion that brought the Prague Spring to a forceful close. But what is the Prague Spring, and why did he feel compelled to do this?

Prague Spring

Although in 1968 Czechoslovakia was technically a sovereign state, the Soviet Union still exerted massive influence in practically every aspect. This was accomplished through both sheer military presence, and by propping up a one party state system which was controlled by a Soviet-allied communist party.

Like the rest of the Soviet Union, these satellite governments were authoritarian and repressive and created dissent among their citizens. This sentiment, coupled with an economic downturn in early 1960’s Czechoslovakia, resulted in a new generation of Czechoslovakian socialists. This shift saw the reformer Alexander Dubček elected as the First Secretary of the very Communist Party the Soviet Union had intended to use to maintain its control of the country.

Dubček sprang quickly, and unleashed his idea of “Socialism with a human face” that saw a greater embrace of democratic values, and a shift away from the centralized economy that was the bedrock of the Soviet Union. Following Dubček’s liberalizations, a period termed the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakians were granted for the first time since 1948 freedoms of press, speech and movement.

Infuriated, the Soviets initially attempted negotiations, before finally launching Operation Danube – an invasion force of 250,000 infantrymen, 2,000 tanks and 800 aircraft.

The invasion successfully managed to force Dubček to resign. His replacement was the staunchly pro-Moscow Gustáv Husák, who managed to undo all of Dubček’s reforms in the non-ironically termed “normalization era”.

Back to where it started

For Palach and many other Czechoslovakians, the idea of life in an authoritarian and oppressed society was unbearable, even more so after managing to enjoy a few months of relative freedom. His sacrifice was ultimately testament to a sentiment that many who have rallied against dictators and tyrants have harboured in equal measure throughout the years – captured most succinctly by the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who is accredited with saying “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.”

And although on the face of it, it seems that the Prague Spring was successfully repelled by brute force, its spirit undoubtedly lived on and played a part in the eventual dismantling of pro-Soviet rule and the emergence of a liberal and democratic Czech Republic.

Written by

Charles Mercieca

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