On 16 January 1969, Jan Palach inhaled a bottle of ether, soaked himself in petrol, and lit himself on fire. When a few Czechs used their coats to put out the fire, he asked one of the bystanders to open his briefcase and read his suicide note.1 It was signed, Torch Number One, the first of many. The Prague Spring was over, but Alexander Dubček was still the First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Normalization had not started yet. And while Soviet tanks occupied the streets of Prague, there was no guarantee that the Czech and Slovak peoples would peacefully accept this new and uncertain status quo. Palach had hoped that his sacrifice would be an inspiration to his nation to resist and assert themselves.
The Czechoslovak Communist Party attempted to suppress all coverage of Palach’s death. Fellow student Lubomír Holeček was on trial as a collaborator for stating on Czechoslovak Television (CT) that Palach’s actions, while admirable, should not be repeated.2 While CT did mention the self-immolation, the suicide note went unmentioned. In spite of those efforts, his funeral on 25 January 1969 attracted up to 500,000 people.3 The Czechoslovak Communist Party was so concerned that General Secretary Alexander Dubček went onto the radio to ask that the funeral proceed in a peaceful and orderly manner.4 They needn’t have worried: the funeral marked not just the death of one man, but the death of the idealism that had marked Prague Spring.
Did these acts matter? One student interviewed by Radio Praha in 2009 said no. He had hoped he would bring about a big change in the nation or that they would overthrow the system. But the people just went to his funeral and then went back to their homes and did nothing. So I think it may have been in vain.5
Some of those who lived through normalization, however, saw the value of such acts. Although he was not a catalyst for change in 1969, Palach’s actions strengthened the dissident movement within Czechoslovakia and beyond its borders. Palach’s death inspired Catholic priest Tomàš Halík to return home from Great Britain and work as part of the underground church under Cardinal Tomášek.6 I'm not a born hero,” Halík later wrote, “maybe I couldn't do it without a memory of John.7 Unable to return from Great Britain because of his participation in Prague Spring, Ivan Hartl worked with a number of British collaborators to establish Palach Press, a publishing house for uncensored news and dissident literature.8 In 1989, dissidents including Havel organized “Palach Week” to both remember his death and protest against the communist regime. These January protests, while only gathering around 2,000 people, helped set the stage for the Velvet Revolution later that year.9
The events of Palach’s death has been captured in two films– 2013's Burning Bush by Polish director Agnieszka Holland and 2018's eponymous Jan Palach by Czech director Robert Sedláček– and a number of biographies. The fiftieth anniversary of his death was commemorated with vigils, an international conference at Charles University, and a traveling exhibition titled “The Power of Action”.10
However, the question of whether these actions mattered becomes more complicated when we consider the fact that Palach was only Torch Number One. On 25 February 1969, a high school student named Jan Zajíc set himself on fire as Torch Number Two. Choosing the anniversary of the Communist Party’s 1948 overthrow of the Czechoslovak Republic, Zajíc wrote, “I have therefore decided to rouse your conscience as torch number two. I do not do so because I want to mourned, or made famous, or because I have gone mad. I have decided to go through with this act because it is time you finally rally yourselves and stop being led along by a few dictators!” Zajíc died on the spot.11
Reports vary on how many torches there were. The Jan Palach website refers to a 1969 study by Milan Černý stating that there were 29 attempts at self-immolation in early 1969, “but only three of them (Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek) were ‘undoubtedly altruistic in nature and motivated politically’.” When Josef Hlavatý set himself on fire on 25 January 1969 in Pilsen, television and radio coverage emphasized his recent divorce and ignored his activism in the Prague Spring. His funeral was silent and sparsely attended.12
How much does a man’s life, or his death, matter? In the end, normalization continued for twenty years. People heard about these events, then returned to watching the latest serial by Jaroslav Dietl. The Czech historian, Emanuel Mandler, argued that “ethical radicalism... would be untenable for the population” and he seemed to be proven right.13 However, the acts of Palach, Zajíc and others resonated in the writings of Havel– particularly “Power to the Powerless”– in the music of Plastic People of the Universe, in the tenets of Charter 77, and in the protests of 1989. Each fire was a statement that demanded to be seen, whose impact was like so many things impossible to measure, but also impossible to ignore. Protests continue in 2019 over the corruption of the prime minister, as thousands continue to march for democracy and justice. On the fiftieth anniversary of Palach’s death, Tomàš Halík declared at Mass that Palach “became the absolute light that was supposed to illuminate the truth about ourselves in the dimness of half-truths and illusions”.14 Because of their deaths, the ideals they lived for continue.