A fierce controversy about the meaning of Jan Palach's immolation has flared up in the Czech Republic

23. 2. 2013 / Daniel Řezníček

On 16th January, 1969, a university student Jan Palach burned himself to death on the Wenceslas Square in Prague in protest against...

How this sentence should end has become a highly contested issue in the Czech public sphere in recent weeks. The current right-of-centre coalition government is aiming to pass a bill that classifies 16th January as a new red-letter day. At the moment, there are 9 red-letter days in the Czech Republic. These differ from the public holidays in that people do not take paid leave on these days and their significance is thus predominantly symbolic.

During the first hearing in the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament, Miroslav Grebeníček, an MP for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) which some say to be insufficiently reformed and too similar to its totalitarian predecessor, attacked the bill's explanatory report for being `misleading'. He criticised the part of the report which states that `Palach's act of protest aroused a significant echo not only in Czechoslovakia, but primarily abroad. In the West, Jan Palach has become a symbol of struggle against the totalitarian communist authority.'

While acknowledging the significance of Palach's legacy, Mr Grebeníček claims that Palach did not fight communism. Vojtěch Filip, the chairman of KSČM supported his colleague by pointing out that Palach sympathized with the reform-minded Communists who enjoyed massive support during the Prague Spring of 1968 and their concept of `socialism with a human face'. Thus, Palach's act should be seen as a protest against the Soviet invasion and the far too quick resignation and submission on the part of the Czechoslovak population as well as the leading reform Communists.

Many of the coalition's MP left the chamber in protest. Miroslava Němcová, the Chamber's chairperson and a MP for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) which is the coalition's leading party, accused Mr Grebeníček of distorting the facts. Jana Černochová (ODS), one of the authors of the explanatory report, said KSČM had once again shown its persistent fanaticism and demagogy. Grebeníček's statements were also challenged by Petr Blažek, a historian and a member of the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, whose impartiality and historical objectivity has often been put in question.

According to Jan Čulík from blisty.cz, many older people who experienced the Prague Spring at first hand seem to share the opinion of Mr Grebeníček and Mr Filip, while most younger people's view is consistent with the explanatory report's language. It seems justifiable to say that it is indeed incorrect to see Palach as an anti-communist. However, in a debate with Čulík, Karel Dolejší points out that the issue is not what Palach believed in but what he has become a symbol of; the issue is not `communism' but `totalitarianism'. According to him, Palach has become a symbol of struggle against totalitarianism regardless of his views.

On the occasion of the 44th anniversary of Palach's tragic act, BBC Europe produced a three-part mini-series mapping the aftermath of his self-immolation and the times of the impending `normalization' in Czechoslovakia. The mini-series, which is the channel's most ambitious project to date was directed by Angieszka Holland and had its international premiere at the 43th International Film Festival in Rotterdam.


Obsah vydání | Sobota 10.12. 2016