Jan Palach Week
“He died because he wanted to shout as loud as possible. He wanted us to realize what was happening to us, to see what we were really doing, and to hear what we were saying in those times of reputedly inevitable concessions, “reasonable” compromises, and hopefully clever tactical ploys. We started forgetting that something has to resist even the greatest pressure, something fundamental that cannot be bought or sold, but that is absolutely essential for maintaining our human dignity.”
From Charter 77 on the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation, 15 January 1989
A public commemoration of Jan Palach returned to Czechoslovakia in 1989, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his protest and death. On Sunday, 15 January 1989, a commemorative gathering at the statue of St Wenceslas was organized by the following opposition movements: České děti (Czech Children), Charta 77 (Charter 77), Mírový klub Johna Lennona (The John Lennon Peace Club), Nezávislé mírové sdružení (The Independent Peace Association), and Společenství přátel USA (The Society of Friends of the USA.
The situation was exacerbated by an anonymous letter from 9 January 1989, which was addressed to the opposition spokesman, Václav Havel. An unknown author informed of his intention to take a cue from Jan Palach and set himself on fire in protest against the current political situation on the eve of the anniversary of Jan Palach’s death. Václav Havel asked Czechoslovak Television to let him deliver a short televised address in order to discourage any potential followers of Jan Palach’s. As his request was rejected, he turned to foreign radio broadcasters (Radio Free Europe had not been obstructed since December 1989), which accepted his request and broadcasted his appeal. Dana Němcová, Charter 77 spokeswoman of that time, acted in a similar way.
The planned memorial ceremony in Wenceslas Square was officially banned, and representatives of opposition movements were arrested. However, people assembled in the square despite the ban and kept demonstrating there for several days. The mob was being dispersed with water cannons and special security troops. On 21 January 1989, at the end of “Jan Palach Week”, the authorities together with security forces blocked the national pilgrimage to Jan Palach’s grave in Všetaty.
Both Václav Havel and Dana Němcová were accused of incitement and obstructing a public official because of their radio addresses. Václav Havel was sentenced to nine months imprisonment in a strict-regime prison. Other opposition activists arrested in Wenceslas Square were put on trial with him. The opposition movements launched a campaign for their release, which helped to bridge the gap between the activists and the wider public. The considerable support inspired Václav Havel to write a manifesto called Několik vět (Just a Few Sentences) after his release.
More than 1400 people were arrested during the January anti-regime demonstrations that initiated the future downfall of the Communist regime. Party representatives were put under considerable international pressure at this stage considering that their actions against peaceful opposition gatherings were occurring at the same time as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The conference was held in Vienna, and the Czechoslovak delegation was repeatedly criticized for its failure to comply with their international commitments on human rights.