American Cinema Foundation
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Freedom Film Festival 1999: In the Name of Freedom

Eva Zaoralová, Program Director
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

This January, our country commemorated the 30th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach. On the 16th of January 1969 at about 2:30pm, Jan Palach, a student at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University, covered himself with petrol and set himself alight on Wenceslas Square in Prague. Although people tried to extinguish the fire, the young man died a few days later. He left behind him a declaration in which he explained that his self-immolation was a protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

As is well known, tanks from the Warsaw Pact armies arrived in the country on the 21st of August 1968 to suppress the reform movement and tighten the grip on the Communist regime which had become more relaxed during the universally recognised "Prague Spring."

Jan Palach had hoped to force the public out of a passivity which had gradually overcome it after the defeat of attempts to re-introduce principles of democracy and free press. For an action such as this, he could not choose anything more effective than the drastic gesture of self-immolation. People were appalled. They were shaken and shocked at this incredible act; for many it was incomprehensible. Judging by the letter he left, the conversations he had with doctors and journalists before he died, and from the testimony of his family, friends and professors, it was clear that this was not a gesture undertaken by a psychopath but the premeditated action of a person intent on sacrificing his life in the name of honour, justice and freedom. Jan Palach's funeral became a huge nationwide demonstration and the police, at that time firmly governed by the new company of "orthodox" officials from the Czechoslovak Communist Party, could only look on speechless at the dignified mourning of the silent crowds walking through the streets of Prague behind Palach's coffin.

Palach's protest, at least for a time, did have its effect. People seemed to be ashamed of the lethargy with which they were afflicted; they appeared to straighten their crooked backs and reached deep inside themselves for any remnants of courage to fight back before all resistance was finally quelled by persecution and fear for their existence. Jan Palach's example inspired others, student Jan Zajíc and technician Evzen Plocek. The new, so-called normalisation regime, however, had learned to be more careful and did not allow any more human torches to incite the nation to protest. The remains of Jan Palach, whose grave in a Prague cemetery was visited daily by people bearing flowers, were secretly transferred outside Prague.

Two decades later, in January 1989, what became known as the Palach Week signified a substantial step toward change within the totalitarian regime. Mass protests on Wenceslas Square at the site where Jan Palach had set fire to himself lasted from the 15th to the 19th of January. While, in the press, at that time fully censored, the daily demonstrations were characterised as "a futile attempt at provocation," they in fact required the presence of more than 2,000 policemen and thousands of militiamen. At that time I lived not far from the place where Jan Palach burned himself to death and every day I had to prove to the police cordon around the empty Wenceslas Square that I actually lived there, just so I could get home.

When the thousands of policemen managed to break up the demonstrations, the Politbureau thought they would be able to deal with any similar situation in the future. November 1989 proved that the Communist Party chiefs had underestimated how events would develop. People who came this January to honour the memory of Jan Palach were not disturbed by any disciplinary forces. Flowers were laid by President of the Republic Václav Havel, the Prime Minister and other politicians at the site where Palach had carried out his act of protest. Even so, at that moment, yet another youth demonstration, this time against some of the policies of the new democratic government, was in progress a few hundred metres away.

A number of people were incensed at this defamation of such a significant anniversary, this expression of lost historical memory. It may be, however, that somewhere up in heaven, Jan Palach, seeing these young people who have grown up in a completely different era and have never known subjugation, said to himself that he didn't die in vain. In his integrity and strictness, he probably wouldn't have supported all the ways that this generation chooses to enjoy its freedom. Where the idea of freedom itself is concerned, however, that is another matter altogether.