Almost every year, Czech students set themselves on fire near Wenceslas Square in Prague. It must be said that, in most cases, this is not a suicidal act. More specifically, this odd tradition is meant to remember Jan Palach, a student who protested by means of self-immolation against the Communist regime and the Soviet invasion in Prague. The hero of 1969 became a symbol of never-ending resistance.

Although most of the recent self-immolators do not get seriously hurt (except for specific cases, such as in 2003, when six Czech students burnt themselves to death), Palach died due to extensive burns, a couple of days after his self-immolation, in January, 1969.

Unfortunately, Palach did not succeed to overthrow the Communists, but his self-immolation did certainly damage the regime. What followed was a series of shocking self-immolations, for instance during his funeral in February, when another student, Zajic, burnt himself to death, and in April, when Plocek, also a student, engaged in a similar act. The first large-scale event occurred in January 1989, exactly 20 years after his death, during what was to become “Palach Week”, when heavy protests challenged the position of the Communist regime, and ‘prepared’ the Velvet Revolution of that same year.

Every year Czech students in Prague set themselves on fire, in commemoration.

It must be mentioned that Palach had not been the first anti-Communist self-immolator. As a matter of fact, a year earlier, Siwiec initiated a similar protest in Poland, during a Communist festival on the 10th-Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw where at least 100,000 people could witness his horrific self-immolation. Students from other Communist countries, especially from Romania and the Baltic SSR’s, followed Siwiec’s and Palach’s example.

Nowadays, Palach’s brave act is still being commemorated – with or without fire. Nevertheless, in Prague, self-immolation has not only become a matter of political protest, but also one of remembrance to the heroes of the past.

(Image by nemomemini)

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