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Speaking With Fire

DW staff (ls)January 16, 2009

Jan Palach woke the people of Czecholslovakia when he set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square forty years ago to protest the Soviet invasion of his country. To many, he is still a hero.

Jan Palach
Palach hoped his actions would lead to change in his countryImage: dpa

It was the most drastic protest against the Soviet-led invasion which crushed the communist reform movement -- the so-called Prague Spring in 1968.

At 2:30 in the afternoon on Jan. 16, 1969, 20-year-old university student Jan Palach poured gasoline over himself in Wenceslas Square and set himself on fire. His self-immolation is viewed as a symbol of the despair felt by the people in Czechoslovakia under Moscow's oppressive hand.

A streetcar worker was the first to react to the flames and used his coat to cover Palach and extinguish the flames. The philosophy student was taken to hospital, where his first words were reportedly: "I'm not committing suicide!"

Covered in burns, he was interviewed by a psychiatrist who worked for the Czechoslovakian secret police. The doctor asked Palach if he was in pain. "Enough," he said. "People have to fight against evil when they can," he continued in a choked-up voice. Palach died three days later, refusing pain medication until the end.

Suffering for a cause

In his farewell letter, Palach mentioned a group of people who had all decided to burn themselves as a political protest. He was the first and there were more burnings in the weeks and months following.

Large demonstration on Wenzelsplat on November 27, 1989
Prague has seen many protests come and go, but Palach won't be forgottenImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

His act even spurred copycats as recently as in 2003 when a series of self-burnings as a form of protest broke out in the nation.

Palach's burial was attended by artists, politicians and friends. Some 200,000 people took part in a funeral march for him through Prague.

"Palach's death was immediately understood by society," Vaclav Havel, playwright and later president of Czechoslovakia, said in an interview at the time. "Everyone wants to do something extreme when everything else is so helpless."

Havel himself was arrested in 1989 for laying flowers by a statue in honor of the 20th anniversary of Palach's death.

A hero for some

"In his state of helplessness, he offered the only thing he had -- his life," said Jakub Trojan, the evangelical pastor at Palach's burial.

The 40th anniversary of the young student's act in downtown Prague and his death are marked by numerous memorial events.

As one Czech university student recently told Deutschlandfunk broadcaster, Palch is viewed "as a hero, because he was prepared to sacrifice his life due to the political situation. I can say that I'm proud to be a student in the same faculty that he studied in."

Palach's life and death are also the subject of a 600-page book that has just been published.