Palach Week: January protests that foreshadowed revolution of November 1989

Following his suicide, Jan Palach was adopted by Czechs as a national hero, while the communist authorities tried – in vain – to erase all trace of what he had done. When Czechs gathered to mark his death 20 years later in 1989, they were met with tear gas and unprecedented police brutality. The clampdown resulted in a week of protests, which some say led to the Velvet Revolution in November that year.

When Czechs gathered to commemorate Jan Palach’s death twenty years ago, as they have this Friday, they were met with hostility by the communist police. The authorities closed down metro links to the central meeting point, Wenceslas Square, and used tear gas against those who turned up. The crackdown provoked a week of protests, in which dissident and historian Petr Placák took part:

“Not very much happened to me during those days, actually, as my life span in the battle was rather short. I was arrested the first day even before I got to the place where people were gathering. On the second day I did manage to lay a wreath on Wenceslas Square with a ribbon commemorating Jan Palach, but then I was arrested immediately alongside around ten other people and all of us were taken off to prison.”

Those who have written about what has come to be known as Palach Week, 15-21 January 1989, have suggested that it set the tone for that whole year, which culminated in the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution. What does Petr Placák think?

“The police brutality was condemned by people who had, until then, stayed silent. A wider and wider range of people joined in with the opposition. They came from artistic and academic circles, and they electrified the whole society. And so, for me, it was only a question of when the revolution was then going to happen.”

Mr Placák, who has spent his life writing and campaigning against communist injustices, even suggests that Palach Week brought about the fall of President Gustav Husák’s regime:

“Without Palach Week and the protests on August 21 1988, I think that what happened on November 17 would have been unthinkable. Palach Week paved the way for the Velvet Revolution, undoubtedly.”

Petr Placák, photo: CTKPetr Placák, photo: CTK Petr Placák was five when Jan Palach set himself alight. How has his interpretation of what the young economics student did changed over the years?

“My opinion has stayed more or less the same, but nowadays I am totally convinced that what he did was in no way motivated by any personal problems that he had. He was really unimpeachable on all sides. And it is this spotlessness of character which is his legacy, and which is still important today.”

Jan Palach’s death mobilised Czechs when it happened some forty years ago, and again in 1989. This Friday, people have again gathered at events all over Prague to continue to honour his name.