Friday, 22 November 2019

More important than life

By Michal Komárek |
Respekt |
16 January 2009

People joined the hunger strike protest announced by the university students in reaction to Palach's death. (ČTK)People joined the hunger strike protest announced by the university students in reaction to Palach's death. (ČTK)

People joined the hunger strike protest announced by the university students in reaction to Palach's death. (ČTK)People joined the hunger strike protest announced by the university students in reaction to Palach's death. (ČTK)

Many people have a clear opinion when it comes to Jan Palach. For a long time, discussions - if any - were held in pubs and homes on whether he was a hero, martyr or a desperate victim of his own helplessness and what consequences his act brings us. But now, 40 years after he poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire in protest against the resignation the nation had accepted after the occupation in August 1968, things seem to be different. A group of students from the Philosophical Faculty in Prague has put together a large collection of essays, studies and documents about Jan Palach. The book is a breakthrough piece in terms of quality and quantity. It also shows that today's generation of students is able to think about Palach and his era while being surprisingly open-minded and tolerant.

Ordinary boy

Around noon, he bought two plastic containers with blue lids for CZK 36 in a household equipment store in Prague's Na Poříčí. A little later, he filled them with four litres of petrol at a Benzina filling station in Opletalova street. The serviceman recalls him as "a very pale young boy as though absent-minded and dressed in dark clothes". Shortly before 2:30pm, he arrived at the bottom of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square, opened the containers, poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire.

It was 16 January 1969. People in Czechoslovakia at that time began to give up on the ideals of the Prague Spring and the hopes that the totalitarian regime would change and began to believe there was nothing they could do against the Soviet occupation. The young boy in flames was Jan Palach, and he wanted to reverse this resignation. He hoped it was possible to force people into resistance.

The study Pochodeň č. 1. Rekonstrukce činu Jana Palacha [Torch number one. Reconstruction of Jan Palach's act] written by historian Petr Blažek includes testimonies, which so far have not been published. The study is part of the book called Jan Palach '69, which was prepared by students born some 15 years after Palach's death.

They have no memories of the act nor do they feel guilty. "I think the Czech society doesn't accept Palach. They don't know what to think about him. It could be because life has an absolute value. It is the only criterion for Czechs as well as for other nations in the west. That's why a suicide is always considered a wasted chance," said 25-year-old history student Jakub Jareš, one of the initiators and co-authors of the project. "Even I have no clear opinion about Palach. I don't see him as a hero, someone we should follow. But he is very important for me. He was quite an ordinary boy with an extremely developed sense of fairness and keeping his word and promise. There was a moment when this became more important for him than his own life. This is a memento because life does not have an absolute value without taking into account how it is lived."

Five years ago, Jakub Jareš attended a commemorative gathering organised regularly by the Philosophical Faculty's student council. "There was an older man, I didn't even know who he was, and he was telling us how bad it was that there were no books about Palach. That was a big motivation for me," Jareš said.

The students were surprised. First they thought they only didn't know about the books. Later they found out that literature about Palach really did not exist. In the early 1990s, an old essay by Jiří Lederer came out, and the Philosophical Faculty published a tiny anthology. But that was it. Two years ago, the students formed a five-member editorial staff and created a book consisting of historical studies and essays by authors such as Ladislav Hejdánek, Tomáš Halík or Martin C. Putna, and studies concerning reflections on Palach's motifs in literature and music and an edition of documentary films and DVDs about Jan Palach.

"What I consider most important about the whole thing is that students learn to understand history through Palach. And they are taking a different approach than our generation," said literature historian Martin C. Putna. "I hope this means the Czech Republic is experiencing something similar to what happened in Germany in the 1960s: A new generation is eager to learn about the past. This could be a turning point in our understanding of the past."

Understanding why

Martin Putna is rather strict in judging Jan Palach in his essay. "Palach's act is often described as that of a victim. He himself is described as a martyr. But none of these is correct," he said. "Being a victim means sacrificing life for someone else. Palach instead wanted to become a martyr himself. Of course, in 1969 he was clearly supporting freedom and truth. But his act doesn't deserve to be followed. And I think it isn't good either. It doesn't work as a moral memento for me."

A student of philosophy, Palach, burned himself alive five months after Soviet occupation.  (ČTK)A student of philosophy, Palach, burned himself alive five months after Soviet occupation. (ČTK)

Students differ in opinion on Palach and what he did. "It is not disrespectful to tear down Palach's hero aura. There is no point in growing a cult of Palach; it's clear that his act is complicated and it can hardly be viewed from only one angle," said Michala Benešová, a student of Czech studies, who together with her colleague Veronika Jáchimová wrote a study for the book. "The point is to unveil the past through the various views and begin to understand why Palach did it and why the society reacted the way they did."

Patrik Eichler, a history student who also took part in the project, believes the book could help initiate a dialog among various opinion groups. "For me, Palach was someone who didn't look at Prague Spring as a political process that would only bring cosmetic changes to the totalitarian regime or that would be just a dispute within the communist party, but he looked at it as an attempt to create a new type of democracy. Democracy that was not quite functioning even in western Europe; one example is the political regime under de Gaull, which was highly authoritarian. Many people refuse my point of view as being too left of centre," said Eichler. "But we are trying to avoid the cliché. There are three basic political approaches in the book – democratic left-wing, democratic civic right-wing and Catholic right. All three have a long tradition and a big potential. But a serious unbiased discussion using the arguments of all three is still missing."

Such a discussion took place at the time of preparing the book Jan Palach '69 and in the book itself, as it involves different generations as well as political and philosophical opinions. "One important thing that we all agree with is that Palach is the symbol of not giving up the idea of a public sphere," said Patrik Eichler.

The book was officially introduced on Thursday during the opening of an exhibition about Jan Palach in Prague's Karolinum, organised by the Faculty of Philosophy in collaboration with the National Museum. A commemorative act will take place in front of the National Theatre on Friday around 2:30pm, the time when Jan Palach set himself on fire.

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.