The Prague Spring and the Self-Immolation of Jan Palach
‘We have,’ [the Chinese Ambassador] said, ‘a problem - I mean a proverb - in our country which says, “Better to be a tile intact than a broken piece of jade.”’ ‘That is a very good proverb,’ I say (…) ‘I wonder whether your Excellency could repeat it in Chinese?’ He screws up his face and begins with closed eyes. Then he stops. ‘No,’ he says, ‘I was mistaken in the problem. It is as follows: “Better to be a broken piece of jade than a tile intact.”’ - The Harold Nicolson Diaries
I believe that due to the number, proximity, and general sense of whimsy of the Old World players, a big part of our national identity is defined by how our country handled being invaded. It’s a formative experience that produces a whole range of responses, from “Never Again” (Prussian militarism) to “Not Again” (Belgian comfort food, I guess). I like to say that my people have perfected the twin disciplines of suicide by invader and population control by insurrection, but I realize that this flippancy is some sort of coping mechanism, and I do get choked up come August 1st, when this happens:
For better or worse, it’s part of my cultural DNA. Which is why I’m so intrigued by the Czechs. Even though our post-medieval historical trajectories were almost completely divergent, we both seem to have emerged on the other side of the long night in more or less the same spot, give or take a ruined capital. It makes you wonder about the road not taken.
In all fairness, Czechs can kick some ass. When they did take up arms, they ignited half of Europe in the process. In a rather curious coincidence — or bid for narrative cohesion — the two most famous displays of Czech attitude prominently featured throwing people out of a window. The first Defenestration of Prague (1419) involved an early religious reformer called Jan Hus and an Emperor’s broken promise to guarantee his safety. The second Defenestration happened almost exactly 200 years later, in 1618, and began the Thirty Years’ War … which was pretty much what it says on the box. Jan Hus stood on principle, and was burned at the stake for it. The Czechs responded with such force that an actual crusade was called on Bohemia. Take the mental image of a sword-wielding Templar gazing over sun-scorched Jerusalem, then dump his ass into an overcast Prague, and photoshop a firearm into his hand — that’s the degree of absurd we’re dealing with here. The ensuing war ended in a stalemate, but seeing as it was waged primarily in Bohemia, it thoroughly devastated the country. Similarly, the Thirty Years’ War — and especially the Battle of White Mountain (1621) — was a national disaster. In its aftermath Bohemia was severely depopulated, 80% of its elite dead or exiled, and the Kingdom relegated to the bottom of the Habsburg heap of possessions.
And so, the Czechs hunkered down, and turned to other things. Some became Germanized, others did not, but generally instead of fighting the system, they devoted their energies to carving themselves out a comfy niche within it. Were they successful? Several hundred years into that process, in 1883, two men were born in Prague, who would go on to offer some insight into the (Czech) man’s condition. The first one was Jaroslav Hašek, who created the character of the soldier Švejk — a good-natured and well-intentioned imbecile who could just as well be a devious asshole dead-set on not doing anything against his will and ridiculing all authority. The other one…. well, the other one was Franz Kafka.
With the Austro-Hungarian carcass finally blown up, the Czechs were once again free to pursue their destiny … for a full 20 years. In Munich, despite having been guaranteed safety (as French allies), they were sacrificed on the altar of Appeasement — the Emperor’s promise ever broken. A year later, in 1939, Czechoslovakia capitulated without firing a single shot. One of her weeklies published the following editorial: “We have now taken a great task upon ourselves: the task of being Czech. The gesture our men could have made on the 15th of March would merely be a suicidal one. It might be beautiful to spill your blood for your country in a heroic gesture. It might not even be that difficult. But we have to do something altogether different. We have to live. We have to save every man we have, every tiny bit of strength. We simply can’t afford the luxury of gestures. There’s but eight million of us — too few for suicides. But enough to live.”
Supposedly, as German tanks rolled down the streets of Prague, the Czechs refused to acknowledge them. There was no fear, outrage, or despair. Just sadness.
After the war, having been burned by the West one time too many, Czechs fully embraced the bleaker side of the Iron Curtain. Despite there not being any Soviet troops stationed in the country, in the first post-war elections communists took over 40 percent of the vote. Even Moscow was surprised by this rush to conform to the new status quo. Prague was home to the biggest statue of Stalin in the world, and the general relaxation of regimes that spread across the Eastern Bloc following the Great Leader’s death reached Czechoslovakia with a decade-long delay.
But reach her it did. Tentatively at first, but with growing self-assurance, Czechs once again began trying to shape the system from within. They started introducing adjustments to the socialist economy, moved the political system a notch towards pluralism, and even abolished censorship. The Prague Spring of 1968 was initiated by the country’s Communist leadership, but quickly picked up — and expanded on — by the general population. A wave of euphoria swept the nation. Apparently, you could have both a sense of security, and a relatively fulfilling life under the banner of “socialism with a human face.” The quiet stream had worn the rock.
The rock, in turn, dumped 600 000 Warsaw Pact troops into the stream in a full-fledged military invasion by Czechoslovakia’s “concerned allies.” The local communist leadership was shipped off to Moscow, and the reforms stalled and eventually abolished. By the end of 1968, the Prague Spring had been stamped out. As for the people…
As the story goes, there were ten of them: straight-A students with no family issues, no history of mental problems, nothing that could be used by the state-controlled media to undermine their integrity. The cream of the crop. And from among these ten, one was selected at random.
He was a 21-year-old philosophy student, and his name was Jan Palach, but he would come to be known as Torch Number One. On the 16th of January 1969, he left his dorm and headed downtown. He bought two plastic containers and a postcard, which he addressed to his friend, signing it “Your Hus.” He filled the containers with gasoline and went to one of the main squares of Prague. There he doused himself with their contents and lit a match. In one of the letters he had prepared in advance, he wrote: “If our demands — including the abolishment of censorship — are not met within 5 days, that is until the 21st of January 1969, and if they are not supported by the nation through a general strike, more torches will burn.”
Jan Palach’s agony lasted for 3 days. He kept pleading: “Please tell everyone why I did it.” People flocked to the hospital, and his funeral became a national demonstration — but it went no further than that. No general strike materialized. So one month later, 18-year-old Jan Zajic set himself ablaze on almost the exact same spot. Torch Number Two knew what was in store for him — he drank acid so he wouldn’t scream.
Roughly 30 people committed suicide over the next few months — though not all by self-immolation — to the point where the authorities broadcast an address urging citizens to stop killing themselves. Soviet troops were there to stay though. And the reforms were rolled back.
A doctor from the burn unit who spoke to Palach extensively — before his injuries made it difficult for him to breathe — said that he claimed his protest wasn’t even about at the Soviet intervention. He was pushed to it by the apathy he thought he saw in his compatriots’ eyes — their lack of despair or outrage, their resigned sadness. By the anguish of the road not taken and the proverb unreversed.
For more of Wojtek’s brilliant essays on European history, check out his archives).
Wojtek strongly urges you all to get your hands on “Gottland” by Mariusz Szczygieł - a collection of the most beautiful, hilarious, and insightful essays on a tiny European nation you’re ever likely to read
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