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On this Day, in 1968: Pole Ryszard Siwiec set himself on fire to protest Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

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On September 8, 1968, Polish accountant and former Home Army resistance member Ryszard Siwiec became the first person to self-immolate in an act of protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops.

Born in 1909, Siwiec studied philosophy at Lwow University and later found employment as an accountant in Przemyśl. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War II, Siwiec joined the Home Army, Poland’s underground resistance movement.

Disillusioned with life in communist Poland, he published anti-government leaflets under a pseudonym and took part in the March 1968 protests. Changing his will several months before the crushing of the Prague Spring, which Poland took part in, it has been suggested that Siwiec had been planning his suicide long in advance.

On September 8, 1968, just a few weeks after Soviet tanks rolled down Wenceslas Square in Prague, Siwiec attended the harvest festival organised in Warsaw’s 10th-anniversary Stadium. Attended by over 100,000 people, including numerous journalists and the Polish political leadership, the event was likely chosen to reach maximum publicity.

Surrounded by banners reading “For our freedom and yours” and “Honour, Fatherland”, Ryszard Siwiec self-immolated shortly after a speech by Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka and during a mazurka dance, an unfortunate timing which could partly explain why his act went largely unnoticed.

“Hear my cry”

Transferred to a nearby hospital after the flames were extinguished, he died four days later, on September 12 at the age of 59, leaving his wife and five children behind.

“People who still have a spark of humanity and feelings, get a grip of yourselves!”, Siwiec can be heard saying in a recording he left behind. “Hear my cry, the cry of a grey ordinary man, a son of the nation, who loves his own and other people’s freedom above all else. It is not too late!”.

Although witnessed by several people and even caught on camera, Siwiec’s tragic act of protest was quickly suppressed by the authorities, who pushed defamatory stories to tarnish the Pole’s reputation, including by alleging mental illness and drunkenness. As a result, his self-immolation did not spark any genuine debate and remained relatively unknown within the general public.

Although briefly covered by Radio Free Europe in 1969, his story became more widely known from the 1980’s, and an award-winning documentary, Hear My Cry (Usłyszcie mój krzyk) was released in 1991. Several memorial plaques were unveiled in his honour during the following years, including in Warsaw, Przemyśl, and Prague.

Four months later Siwiec’s death, Czechoslovak student Jan Palach would commit a similar – and more widely known – act to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia and apparent apathy of the population: on the morning of January 16, the 20-year-old Czech doused himself in petrol before setting himself on fire on Wenceslas Square. He died in the hospital three days later.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.