On January 16, 1969, 20-year-old Czech student Jan Palach self-immolated on Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest against the crushing of the Prague Spring and the invasion of Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Troops.
On the night of August 20-21, 1968, hundreds of thousands of troops from the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring, an era of political, cultural and economic liberalization initiated by the election of Alexander Dubcek.
The invasion and subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led troops crushed hopes of a liberalization of the communist regime, and kick-started the so-called “normalization era”.
On January 16, 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old student at Charles University in Prague doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square.
He left behind a letter with a number of demands, including the end of censorship and a halt to the distribution of Zpravy, the communist regime’s main propaganda newspaper. Naming himself “Torch No. 1”, Palach also claimed he was part of a wider network of students and faculty members who had pledged to self-immolate in an attempt to stir and “wake up” the Czechoslovak nation.
Palach died in the hospital three days later.
Initially buried in Prague’s Olsany cemetery, his remains were exhumed and cremated in 1973 by the Czechoslovak secret police (StB) to stop his gravesite from becoming a national shrine. The urn containing his ashes was only allowed to return to Prague in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution.
Meant to break the general feeling of apathy that sank in after the 1968 invasion, his act became a symbol of the Czechoslovak people’s struggle for freedom under communism. While his self-immolation did lead to a number of public demonstrations and acts of defiance against the regime, all his demands remained unheeded.
Palach’s suicide, which came a few months after 59-year-old Pole Ryszard Siwiec also self-immolated in Warsaw to protest against the invasion, was followed by similar acts, including from his friend Jan Zajic in February.
Protests marking the 20th anniversary of his self-immolation in January 1989, spearheaded by activists from the Movement of the Children of Bohemia, was repressed by authorities and erupted in violence in what became known as “Palach week”, considered one of the first events that led to the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia later that year.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.