* 29 October 1929, Jihlava, Czechoslovakia
† 9 April 1969, Jihlava, Czechoslovakia
We followed the Soviet Union on our way towards socialism. Since we followed the Soviet Union closely, we were always looking at its back. When it went astray, so did we. Perhaps, had we been looking ahead, at our destination, and farther and had we realized that both of us had been wearing different shoes on this journey, we would not be as exhausted as we are now.
Evžen Plocek, 5 March 1969
On Good Friday, 4 April 1969, a thirty-nine-year-old factory worker, Evžen Plocek, poured two bottles of solvent over himself in a passageway leading to Jihlava’s Piece Square (Náměstí míru) where he set himself on fire.
Evžen Plocek was born to a working class family on 29 October 1929 in Jihlava. He was raised in a religious environment. Together with his older brother František, he attended meetings of the Christian sport organization Orel (Eagle), and he also participated in Scout activities. As early as in 1943, he started training to be a toolmaker in the factory Lionel Werke in Jihlava after attending elementary and secondary school. Three years later, already a member of the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement (RTUM), he transferred to the new National Enterprise Pal (later renamed to National Enterprise Motorpal Jihlava), where he worked without interruption until his death. After serving the obligatory military service from 1950 to 1952, Evžen Plocek married Zdena Dolníková, who had an office job in the same enterprise. One and a half years later, their son Jiří was born.
In 1955, Plocek became a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPC) and subsequently left the tool room for a paid position as the chairman of the RTUM factory committee. In 1960, he graduated from a two-year correspondence course in foreign trade at the University of Economics in Prague and subsequently left the position in the trade union and started to work in the trade and technical assistance section, of which he became the head.
Evžen Plocek was an active proponent of reforms in the Communist Party and Czechoslovakian society. In spring 1968, he became a member of the district committee (DC) of the CPC. In the end of June 1968, he was nominated to central party bodies and as a delegate to the 14th CPC congress. The congress took place just after the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Plocek attended it. He reacted to the development after the invasion very emotionally and publicly criticized it.
Despite great disappointment from the suppression of the reform movement, Plocek did not consider the situation in Czechoslovakia to be a lost cause, as can be seen from an emotional and impassioned letter that he wrote after returning from the 14th congress held on 30 August 1968. “Violence has won for the time being – but it has never destroyed our ideal. (...) We shall understand the positions of our representatives. These are positions of martyrs. I have never seen so much love for our homeland, freedom and communism as I have seen in the capitol of such a wretched country.”
In the beginning of March 1969, he gave a critical speech in the plenary session of the DC CPC in Jihlava. He talked about the influence that the party had on society after the invasion saying that “ideological work was like growing in a greenhouse”, about “socialism” lacking appeal to the Czechoslovakian youth, and about faults relating to the cooperation with the Soviet Union. He discouraged closing the party behind a wall and encouraged activity. He believed that “people are still waiting for the party to speak out (...), that there is the actually existing leading role of the party.”
Eva Kantůrková writes in her report Withheld victim… that the turning point in Plocek’s behaviour came after the looting of the Prague office of Aeroflot within the anti-Soviet demonstration during the night of 28 April 1969 that spontaneously started after the Czechoslovakian ice hockey team beat the Soviets during the Ice Hockey World Championships in Stockholm. A police provocation likely sparked the looting. According to the minutes of the meeting of the presidium of the DC CPC in Jihlava on 28 April 1969, he reportedly commented on it at the time as follows: “I won’t be at the same party with those primitives at the helm.”
Banning the Politika (“Politics”) weekly, a theoretical and political publication run by the Central Committee of the CPC, was one of his immediate motives – besides the overall political situation and the reformists losing their leadership positions. “To tell the truth is revolutionary”, an interbellum communist motto, was its headline. This is what Plocek wrote in one of the two leaflets he brought along to Jihlava’s Náměstí Míru (“Peace Square”). He wrote “I am for the human face, I hate heartlessness - Evžen” on the other leaflet. Just after 6 p.m., Good Friday, 4 April 1969, in a passageway leading to the square, he poured over himself two bottles of solvent bought in a nearby shop. There was a fair in the square at the time. He left the leaflets at a shooting gallery and set himself on fire. Among the merry-go-rounds, people took him for just another amusement. Only later did they start putting out the fire.
Evžen Plocek died on 9 April 1969 in Jihlava hospital. Two days later, a funeral was held, marching from the Motorpal complex. Reportedly, the funeral turned out to be a major manifestation with two to two and a half thousand people attending the ceremony and three thousand more people attending the burial in Jihlava cemetery.
Besides two incomplete reports, nationwide media had not covered the event at all. According to Eva Kantůrková, federal prime minister Oldřich Černík personally ordered the Jihlava officials not to provide the press with information. However, the Jihlava press widely quoted a public announcement by the presidium of the DC CPC. It made the political motivation of Plocek evident, but also contained allegations that he suffered from “depression caused by the recent events” that supposedly contributed to his self-immolation. Also due to this, the leadership of the local CPC rejected his act as being reckless. Censorship ensured that his self-immolation did not attract noticeable attention outside the Jihlava region.
He only received the attention of the general public towards the end of the 1980s when the dissidents from the Movement for Civic Freedom revived his memory.
Plocek is commemorated by a small memorial next to the Marian column in Masaryk square (former Náměstí míru) in Jihlava.
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KLUKAN, Petr: Zamlčená oběť. Almanach ke 40. výročí sebeupálení Evžena Plocka z Jihlavy, Jihlava 2009.
LEDERER, Jiří: Jan Palach. Zpráva o životě, činu a smrti českého studenta, In: BLAŽEK, Petr – EICHLER, Patrik – JAREŠ, Jakub a kol: Jan Palach ´69. FF UK – ÚSTR – Togga, Praha 2009, s. 231–345.
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