The Meaning of Act
“Palach’s self-immolation is impalpable, substandard. It defies common ethical evaluation. It evokes great emotions, many questions, debates and often opposing assessments. He is both condemned and glorified.”
Jindřich Šrajer (2009)
Several decades have passed since January 1969 but Jan Palach’s self-immolation still evokes thinking about fundamental issues of human life. Many people tried to explain the meaning of his self-immolation from various points of view. Their explanations often reflect the contemporary social situation that influenced their perception. Naturally, the specific interpretations are based on different religious, philosophical, political or ethical views. Many of them attempted to answer the fundamental question related to Palach’s self-immolation – does man have a free will to make decisions about his life and can he sacrifice it for the others if he decides to do so in order to wake them from their resignation and make them act according to his political plan? We look at some of these interpretations as examples of possible thinking about Jan Palach and his legacy.
Aesthetician and critic Jindřich Chalupecký distinguished two approaches to Palach’s self-immolation. The first accepted the facts as they were (or appeared to be); this approach was emotional, irrational and direct. The latter interpreted the act vicariously and rationally; it brought and admitted conspiratorial explanations, including alleged deception of the naive young man as it was falsely described by Communist MP Vilém Nový. However, Chalupecký emphasized that the reaction of most people took place according to the scenario of primitive rituals, with sacrifice of a young innocent man playing the main role. There was no room for rational thinking. This fact proves alleged last words of Jan Palach in hospital which were in fact intentionally put together from his various isolated and difficult-to-understand statements. Moreover, the smooth result contradicted to his political requirements.
Those who attended the silent funeral procession on 25 January 1969 were obviously very pensive. None of them attacked the government, despite the appeal in Palach’s farewell letter signed as “Torch No. 1”. “Palach’s self-immolation broke the shell of modern rationalization and stripped the deep foundations of archaic consciousness,” Chalupecký described the reasons for this paradox. In this context, the self-immolation can be interpreted as an act violating the causality of historical events. Compared to self-immolation, the urgency of everyday political conflicts is absolutely insignificant.
Many interpretations of Palach’s self-immolation have religious dimensions transcending the contemporary political horizon. According to them, the meaning of his protest needs to be assessed not only through the immediate failure concerning enforcement of the raised demands or the failure of the then Czechoslovak society but it must be seen primarily as a timeless call to live a full life. It is quite characteristic that philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek saw Palach’s sacrifice as “a symbol of the fact that we should sacrifice our whole life to things that should happen, should be done, must be done for people around us, for the community, for the whole society”. In his speech delivered in the Olšany cemetery during Palach’s funeral, evangelic priest Jakub S. Trojan placed Palach among great religious leaders, such as Jan Hus, Jan Amos Komenský, Jeroným Pražský, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer or Martin Luther King. In his opinion, it was “an act of pure love” that “will forever be an encouragement to people who are tired or weak, it will be their hope”. A Catholic priest and university professor Tomáš Halík takes a similar approach. He perceived Palach’s legacy as a commitment to moral integrity and not surrender to the “normalization” regime.
Nevertheless, Palach’s self-immolation was also criticised by various people believing that this form of protest and its consequences are not compatible with European traditions. These critics usually see suicide as an unacceptable way of leaving the human world.
These are the arguments of two Palach’s critics who – ironically – proceed from different ideological premises. Anarchist Ondřej Slačálek refused Palach’s self-immolation as an act of suicide that cannot be followed. “Ethical assessment of acts of individuals in the western world is based on the fact whether or not they should be followed,” he said. In his opinion, Palach’s protest cannot be seen as a real form of resistance. Moreover, he described the efforts to commemorate Palach’s legacy as attempts to hide behind “deathly icons”. Josef Mašín who participated in anti-Communist resistance refused Palach’s self-immolation with similar words when he stressed its military perspective: “Imagine military troops or resistance groups that go into battle armed with cans of petrol or are ordered to kill or cripple themselves when encountering the enemy.”
Salesian priest Jindřich Šrajer who looked at the act from the perspective of Christian ethics showed that it was neither a classic suicide nor martyrdom in Christian sense but he emphasized the importance of Palach’s self-sacrifice for the others. He also recalled that his legacy still appeals to many people around the world. At the same time, he expressed doubts about appropriateness of this form of protest: “Considering Palach’s personal motives and his ideal as well as the historical and culture-political context and the impact of his act, we can call it a heroic act of a (proxy) self-sacrifice. His act is to be appreciated but in terms of general respect for life, it cannot be generally recommended to follow.”