Students commemorate the death of Jan Palach


It is now 35 years since the young history student Jan Palach died after setting himself on fire in protest at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Last Thursday, students from Prague's Charles University, where Palach had been a student, held a candlelight procession through the city to commemorate his sacrifice.

Jan Palach, photo: CTKJan Palach, photo: CTK The busy motorway at the top of Prague's Wenceslas' Square was brought to a standstill last week, as hundreds of students gathered around the spot where Jan Palach set himself alight in January 1969.

The incident was one of the most famous acts of resistance against the years of communist oppression in the former Czechoslovakia. Palach, who by all accounts had been a quiet, hard-working history student, set himself on fire in protest at the passive way in which Czech society seemed to be accepting the communist's return to power following the Soviet invasion, which brought the Prague Spring to a brutal end.

After a short speech from the Dean of the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, where Palach was studying before his tragic death, the students laid flowers on the spot where Palach made his sacrifice and held a minute's silence by candlelight in honour of his actions. The ceremony was organised by the Student Council of the Philosophy Faculty to mark the 35th anniversary of Palach's passing. I asked Rostislav Valvoda, one of the student organisers, why they were holding the event:

Prague's Wenceslas' Square, photo: CTKPrague's Wenceslas' Square, photo: CTK "Well, I think it's really important to show people that even in the past there was a person who could make a sacrifice, not just for the sake of his own private good but for something more general. I think we should make people aware of this."

Despite Palach's sacrifice, and the fact that huge crowds turned out for his funeral in recognition of what he had done, the communist's grip on the country continued for another twenty years, which begs the question: Did Jan Palach's death actually achieve anything? Lukas Teply, who is himself a history student like Palach, certainly thinks so:

"What he achieved was that - at a time when it was needed most - Czech society, particularly the young people, began to consider its moral values once again - people began to think about such things. I believe that the new generation of opposition was born at this time..."


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