32nd anniversary of Palach immolation

16-01-2001

The 16th of January is one of the most significant dates in the modern history of the Czech people. Exactly thirty-two years ago, the young student Jan Palach walked to the top of Wenceslas Square and set himself on fire in protest at the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Palach died in hospital three days later, but the significance of his act lives on in the consciousness of the nation. Peter Smith has the story.

A girls' choir sings at a memorial service held last weekend in Jan Palach hometown of Vsetaty, just north of Prague. After Palach's death - on the 19th January 1969 - 500,000 Czech people attended his funeral, and internationally his name stands alongside others such as Franz Kafka and Vaclav Havel as the most well known in the country's recent history.

As a student Palach was by all accounts a fervent believer in the ethos of Czechoslovakia's First Republic, and his self-immolation became a symbol of popular opposition to the country's totalitarian regime.

Professor Erazim Kohak of Charles University believes than Palach epitomized the best values of the Czech people.

Palach is of course assured of his place in Czech history, but there is a school of thought that believes his act lacked reason - that it was less an act of martyrdom than a spontaneous display of a lonely young man's inner turmoil. Professor Erazim Kohak discussed the self-immolation of student Jan Palach, 32 years ago today.