This plaque memorializes Jan Palach with a replica of his death mask. I found it on the front of the Charles University philosophy building, which faces Jan Palach Square in Prague.
Palach was born in Vsetaty, a small town a few miles outside of Prague. At an early age he developed a childhood disease from reading too much about Czech history and culture. The virus of intense idealism that burned within his mind would ultimately prove fatal.
As a child Palach was particularly fascinated with Czech heroes named Jan, of which there were many. There was Jan Amos Comenius, the 17th century philosopher known as the "teacher of the nation." And there was Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 for refusing to renounce his criticism of the corrupt Catholic Church. Another Czech hero was Jan Zizka, the brilliant, one-eyed Hussite general whose band of rag-tag peasant rebels defeated Roman Catholic armies five straight times before he was killed on the battlefield in 1424.
So when the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush the Prague Spring—a brief flowering of reform, freedom and creativity—young Palach was angry and distraught. Despite months of principled non-cooperation with the Soviet authorities by both the people and the Czechoslovakian leadership, the hard-line communists eventually began to take back control of the country. As the freedoms of the Prague Spring dissipated into the cool autumn air, the nation slipped into a deep despair.
As a philosophy student at Charles University in Prague, Palach participated in strikes and demonstrations in the fall of 1968, but one by one the reforms of the Prague Spring were systematically abolished as the pressure from Moscow continued. Imbued with historical perspective and a profound sense of responsibility, Palach felt a need to do something dramatic. "Someone should have reached out to the conscience of the nation, to wake the people from their sense of hopelessness, to stand up for the nation against the unending illegality," he said to a friend and former teacher at the end of 1968.
On January 16, 1969, 20-year-old Jan Palach stood on the steps of the National Museum and poured gasoline on his body. He struck a match and blazed his way into Czech history. A public transportation worker stationed in Wenceslas Square ran to Palach and smothered the flames with his coat, but it was too late. The boy was burned over eighty-five percent of his body and died three days later.
Before he died he was able to speak to his family and the hospital staff. "We need space to live," he told his tearful mother. To the doctors and nurses he said: "In history there are moments when it is necessary to do something. Now is the time for it." And he expressed hope for what his selfless act might achieve when he said "Perhaps it will awaken a kernel of strength in the nation."
Palach's death did indeed awaken the nation. The day after he died, 200,000 people trekked to Wenceslas Square to lay wreaths on the museum steps. Despite the continuing Soviet occupation, 800,000 mourners turned out for the funeral march through the streets of Prague. Alan Levy describes the procession in his book So Many Heroes:
When the ceremony was over, the bells of 150 churches in Prague tolled, the organ played Dvorák, and the pallbearers slid the coffin into a plain black hearse. A fleet of black Volga taxicabs had been reserved for the family, but the mother said "I can still walk" and then so did everyone else. The empty black taxis at the front of the procession had an impact of their own, like riderless steeds.
Palach's dramatic protest had international impact as well. Others around the world tried similar actions, including a Hungarian student who set himself ablaze on the steps of the National Museum in Budapest. Thousands marched on Soviet embassies in Western Europe to protest the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Pope compared Palach to the early Christian martyrs.
The sacrifice of Jan Palach did not immediately end the Soviet occupation. No single act by one person could have done that. But his life flowed into the stream of history to inspire others to seek truth and consecrate it through committed action. Inevitably, his death inspired the dissidents who struggled for freedom during the dark days that followed the Soviet occupation, and the students who finally toppled the communist regime in 1989.
Palach's death was like a work of art. People, and often society, protest against a work of art because it forces them to make comparisons—making them smaller if they don't tend toward greatness, freedom and truth. It provokes them and places such great demands upon them that it puts them to shame…A hero illuminates truth, which is why he is exposed to fire and sacrifice.