“Given the fact that our nations are on the verge of desperation and resignation, we have decided to express our protest and stir the sleeping conscience of the nation.”
From Palach’s letter to the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, 16 January 1969
In October 1968, Jan Palach enrolled in the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. According to his friends, he took part in a few street protests in the autumn of 1968. In November 1968, he actively joined the occupational strike, which ultimately was not successful. Some of his friends and schoolmates later stated during interrogations that this period was a turning point in his life.
The sources show that, for a rather long time, Jan Palach was thinking about a radical act that would arouse the public. He was considering various forms of protest, as we can see mainly from his plan to occupy the main building of the Czechoslovak Radio and broadcast an appeal for a general strike. In January 1969, he sent this plan to the student leader, Lubomír Holeček, at a student meeting of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. This document has recently been found in a file of the State Security (Státní bezpečnost) who had confiscated it from the Charles University archive at the beginning of the 1970s. In connection with the unsuccessful occupational strike, Palach suggested in this document that a small and determined group of students should take the initiative and arouse the public. There are also theses in this document that Palach later used in his letter called “Torches No. 1” (Pochodně č. 1). He demanded, for example, that censorship be abolished.
Apparently, Jan Palach did not get any answer to his appeal, and that was presumably one of the reasons he decided for another form of protest. This form was clearly more shocking than the violent occupation of a building; at the same time, it did not require long and complicated preparation. The investigators learned that it took Jan Palach only a few hours to make all of the preparatory steps. On 15 January 1969, he took part in the funeral of his uncle, and the day after, he left Všetaty for Prague. He arrived at the Spořilov dormitory on 16 January 1969 probably around 8 a.m. In his room, he wrote a draft and then four almost identical letters signed “Torch No. 1” (Pochodeň č. 1). He directed the letters to his schoolmate from the University of Economics, Ladislav Žižka, to the student leader from the Faculty of Arts, Lubomír Holeček, to the Union of Czechoslovak Writers. He brought the fourth one to the place of protest in a briefcase. In the letters, he mentioned that he is a member of a group of people who have decided to immolate themselves to arouse the public from lethargy. He demanded two things connected with freedom of speech – abolishing censorship and a ban on the distribution of “News” (Zprávy), printed materials of the occupation soldiers published since the end of August 1968. He demanded that people start an on-going strike to support these demands. If the demands were not met by 21 January 1969, “other torches” should catch fire. In all probability, Palach also drafted a letter at the dormitory in which he explained his act. Compared to the final version, there are a few other demands in this draft – for example, the resignation of pro-Soviet politicians.
Palach left the dormitory around 11 a.m. It is not quite clear what he did in the following hours. On his way to the city centre, he probably posted the three letters. Before that, he had presumably bought stamps and a postcard showing the Lesser Town Square; on this postcard, he wrote a short greeting and sent it to his friend, Hubert Bystřičan. He probably sent the postcard together with the letters. We know that, between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., he bought two plastic containers and had them filled up with petrol on Opletalova Street. With the full containers and the briefcase, he probably headed directly for the National Museum. He deliberately chose a place in the centre of Prague for his act, where there were many people all day long. He came to the fountain a few minutes before 2:30 p.m.