Jan Palach 2 : Media Portrayals

The story of Jan Palach and his dramatic action of self-immolation captured a lot of hearts. Many people and media outlets wanted to retell the story and help the world become aware of his actions, and message. From documentaries, music videos to simple references Jan Palach became world known as one of the heroes that actively stood up against communist Czechoslovakia.

One of the most acclaimed documentaries that told of his story and the days following his suicide, is The Burning Bush by Agnieszka Holland. Holland is a Polish born director who having had studied in Prague at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU), had knowledge and interest in the Czechoslovak revolution and Jan Palach.

Many bands and musicians also wanted to portray or dedicate and tribute their songs and music videos to Palach’s actions including Kasabian’s song “Club Foot”, Francesco Guccini’s song  “La Primavera di Praga”, “The funeral of Jan Palach” by the Zippo band.

As well as documentaries and songs, statues were also erected to commemorate Palach.  Though statues and art might not be considered media, they still serve the same purpose of informing and reminding the masses of a person or event creating a collective memory. Andras Beck unveiled a statue in the city of Melnik dedicated to Palach on the 40th anniversary of his death. This statue is currently in France.

beck_andras_palach1970

Mwen Fikirini

Jan Palach

Jan Palach was a student at Charles University in Prague that committed suicide in 1969 in protest against the invasion of the Soviet forces marking the end of the Prague Spring. His act of self-immolation was meant to remind the Czech people of their demoralisation, it was said a resistance group was set up for the purpose of acting out until these demands were met. Many different people some who spoke to Jan and knew him reflected upon their meetings with trying to explain why he did what he did. Many people spoke of his protest against demoralization of the Czech people and his hatred of the Soviet regime. These demands were abolition of censorship, the banning of Zprava (the official newspaper of the Soviet forces) also calling for the Czechoslovak people to strike in support of these demands.

The people of Czechoslovakia united in their sympathy for Palach and their realisation of what their government was doing to them.

“Last night, students in Vienna took to the streets to express their solidarity with Czechoslovak students. Equipped with dozens of banners, they organized a silent procession.”

Svobodné slovo daily, 25 January 1969

 

The world also sympathised with the Czech people, many newspapers reported of his suicide and even officials from around the world sent their condolences. Pope Paul VI paid tribute to Jan Palach’s memory in his message of 26 January 1969 when he stated: “We can uphold the values that put self-sacrifice above others to the supreme test, but we cannot approve the tragic form taken on behalf of their aims.”

Palach was buried at Olsany Cemetary, because of his politically charged suicide his gravesite became a national shrine. This scared the communist party as they did not want an anti-communist martyr, so the StB exhumed and cremated his remains sending them back to his mother. The urn with the remains was not returned until 1990.

Memorial

P1010732In 1989 people began airing their grievances in peaceful marches, these protests were named “Palach Week”, the police tried to quash these anti-communist demonstrations. Since they knew news of them might spread disobedience and revolt through the country, the Velvet Revolution occurred and less than a year later communism had fallen. In Tim Cresswell’s book Place an introduction, he states there can be “many manifestations of place” (2004:3), in Prague this can be related to Jan Palach’s (and Jan Zajic’s) memorial. After the revolution they were commemorated through a bronze cross embedded in Prague outside the National Museum, for the people this is a sign of hope and honour to their memory while for the communists it was a significant sign of the revolutions both Velvet and Prague Spring as well as the end of communism. Different spaces are made meaningful by different individuals making them places “a meaningful location” (Cresswell, 2004:7) because they become attached in a variety of ways.

When considering place it is also important to highlight that John Agnew (1987) defined place as having 3 components making it a meaningful location these are location, locale and sense of place. Cresswell also discusses the issue of gaining a sense of a place from filmic representations of the place, this relates to hyper reality. If you look into the previously linked BBC video of Jan Palach’s funeral which was broadcasted across the world, it is important to realise to the western world this was one of the few representations of war torn Czechoslovakia. This sense of place proved to be very different to what we came across when we travelled to the Czech Republic.

As well as this memorial, Jan Palach was also honoured through different places, streets and squares being named after him in Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, France, Poland, Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, United Kingdom and even Mauritius.

References

Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing Ltd:Oxford

Mwen Fikirini

The Czechoslovak State Security (StB)

The Czech state security known as the StB Státní bezpečnost (Czech)/ Štátna bezpečnosť (Slovak) was active between 1945 and 1990. The sole aim of this force was to deal with any issues that could be considered anti-communist; this usually meant arresting, torturing and even executing any citizens that spoke up against or protested the communist regime.

The StB were used as an instrument by the communist party to show their power, they intimidated, spied and even forged false allegations and evidence against anti-communists. Their aim was to keep any talk against the party and therefore chance of uprising at a minimum. One of the many visible actions they took against the Czechoslovakian people was by trying to destroy or erase any signs of their revolutionary actions against the regime. One of these was the self-immolation and suicide of Jan Palach in 1973, the StB tried to destroy any memory of his action by trying to stop the demonstrations that occurred at his funeral as well as exhuming his body after burial and cremating it. An anonymous body replaced his at the grave site, reassuring the communist party that they had deprived the Czech and Slovak people of a martyr. It is not until October of 1990 when the cremated remains were returned to their rightful resting place. Actions such as this were seen as normal for the StB, as it was very important for them to keep the communist agenda.

The StB now

Though the StB was dismantled and dissolved in 1990, their headquarters still remains in Prague. It is currently being used as the police headquarters.Image

Some members of the public that we spoke with felt that this was not a coincidence as some members of the StB still held powerful positions in companies, businesses and even the police force. This is not meant to be the case, as with its dissolving in 1990 former members of the StB and associates were banned from specific and powerful roles such as that of a police office, government official etc.

Support for the opinion that this rule has not been adhered to exists in a lot of sources some of which can be seen at the bottom of this post, showing that perhaps the StB still has former members in powerful positions.

http://www.jrnyquist.com/bolshevik_inquisition_3.htm

http://www.prague-tribune.cz/2003/9/7.htm

                                                             Mwen Fikirini

Jan Sladek about the Plastic People of the Universe

Jan Sladek is a  lecturer at Charles University- Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. During our stay in Prague, we had the pleasure to meet and interview him. One of the very first questions was about the Plastic people of the universe as we were very interested in finding out what’s his opinion regarding the way the communists treated the dissidents. Here is what he said:

Source: Museum of communism

Source: Museum of communism

“This is a paradigm case of the totalitarian regime. Harriet a famous thinker of the 21st century, had this idea about totalitarian regime. She said “in a normal democratic regime you can separate private sphere, public and state sphere. Example in universities you have private, public and state universities. You can have your private life and have public.  For example, I am a teacher and lecturer, and if I go to a political party I will try to get some share of the state power… that is how it works.

In totalitarian regime one of the best pictures you can find in 1984 by Howell, it basically sees no difference between this. In Howell there is a quote where he said “sex is an empty state thing”, that is to say your private intimate thing is seen by the state as an offensive.  This is what happen to Plastic People of the Universe- a bunch of crazy guys making songs or singing songs de-picturing the consummate society. There was a great joke about this consummate in a country with shortage economy. A group of people who say we are consuming in the society, they didn’t even have strong anti—regime or anti political quotes but the regime was so sensitive to its opposition and felt it everywhere.

Even these things that are seen as just a normal, public expression is seen offensive and felt as an ethic on the state. Even the fact that the people choose to have long hair (which is a private thing)… the regime felt it  has a state opposition. what happened was that they went into trials, most of them went to jail, this was what triggered the opposition and charta 77, which was the appeal to the court for human right and the appeal was based on the ground that Czech Republic sign a treaty saying as a country that they would defend civil liberty.

This is one of the trigger and one of the pictures of how silly the regime reacted to any kind of unconformity to identity. Fighting against music group and make it triggers the biggest opposition in the Czech republic/Czechoslovakia at the time “I think this a joke of history”

To conclude this, even though we have many face of communism and many face of dissident,  one thing was sure that the regime in Czech republic was very sensitive, it was very paranoid and this is what basically, with together in the shortage economy lead to the end because if you go against people who play music then no one feels safe in the country because they were not politicians and they were not political. So if you fight this people will be afraid, and when people start getting afraid due to what they say, insecurity comes in.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

The amazing story of Vratislav Brabenec (Plastic People of the Universe)

The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) is the most representative rock band from Prague, Czech Republic (1968–1989).

This avant-garde group went against the Communist regime and due to its non-conformism, its members suffered serious problems such as arrests. Banned and jailed under Czech communism, the Plastic People of the Universe helped to bring the regime down in 1989.

Vratislav Brabenec (saxophone, clarinet, vocals, composition, lyrics) and a member of The Plastic People of the Universe- told us his incredible story.

Vratislav Brabenec

“Communism is something like a religion…

It is known that the communists and the Bolsheviks and the soviet institutions were built like a catholic church. Same structure. “ I know about you, you can’t go higher because we know your sins. More sins you have, more important you are for us”. They know everything about you. […]

For me, the 70s were very bad, because I was part of a band, the Plastic People of the Universe… we had lots of concerts […] and because I was a musician, I was in jail for 8 months.

I was working as a landscape architect for the historical garden; one day they came and put me with the other people, in interrogations (very heavy interrogations) and they put me in jail.

They didn’t want to put in jail people that were workers, but intellectuals. I didn’t finish the study at theology, another guy from the band didn’t finish the architecture… but our manager finished the art history. So, I was in jail  for just 8 months, but our manager spent 8 and half years in the heaviest jail. Our manager wasn’t a performer, he was an organizer and also an art historian and jail happened because of his activity, the influence for the younger generation. So it was an example of how some fucking intellectuals wanted to have an influence on the younger generation with their crazy music, with their crazy poetry.

In the 80s I was kicked out of my country, striped from my citizenship, I was moved to Austria …Yeah.. they kicked me out . The secret police told me “you have two possibilities: to go to the jail again or to go abroad”. My daughter was 2 years old, my wife thought it would be better to move abroad, to go somewhere else…

In the beginning they told us that they would imprison us for 5 years or more , and after that they changed because a lot of things about our band , our cultural activities were published into the west, it helped us , and a lot of writers from the west helped us, because they wrote some protests to the communism government and they didn’t expect that… the communists didn’t expect that. Especially our former president… Vaclav Havel helped us a lot, he helped us after the jail again. We were recording in his farm, we had some secret concerts in his bar, and other things were happening, we were funny lucky people.!”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Eduard Vasile

Crimes of communism – Part 2

Dr. Michal Pullman also shared with us some of his opinions regarding the crimes of communism in Czechoslovakia.

“The very people that were sentenced or killed on the board are about 300… this number is not high and…

this is a problem of those politicians […] who want to keep the one-sided view of communism as a pure repression that did not allow their citizens to live good lives at all… the repression was quite deep especially at the end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s with short trials especially collectivisation. This was quite violent not only in Czechoslovakia; collectivisation was a nightmare for many people at the same time; this kind of violence was exerted in Czechoslovakia and it […]was different from the Soviet one and from other countries because many people and part of Society as I mentioned already expected somehow the very promise of Stalinist order and there were many volunteers who did this kind of violence by collectivising.

These believing communists, […] this continuity is quite typical for Czechoslovakia… the people who participated in the Stalinist project and were very active in exerting violence voluntarily, when they were seeing the disastrous consequences of their actions… they began to change their mind somehow.

Back to your question… it is strongly linked to what we were talking about at the very beginning, communism in Czechoslovakia especially in the Czech land, Slovakia is different, communism had as an idea, as an ideological goal that had to be realised…  had strong support of the Czech population (of course, not of the whole population) we have to reconstruct the attitude of various social groups… of course the peasants whom the fields were taken, these were not happy,  but other peasants who could have worked in the centralised agricultural etc would have been happy, but great part of the urban population supported the Stalinist model and afterwards some kind of reform, socialism etc.  Then 70s and 80s were completely different in this respect cause the political elite that represented the post 1968 regime knew that these attempts to activise society are disastrous precisely the new model of communism.  The Stalinist were proud to be violent. The issue of radical violence is completely away because the normalisers knew it is much better to hide the violence from the normal citizens, in prisons, schools, hospitals.  It was very successful model for Czechoslovakia even though the people rejected afterwards because the regime was not able to keep its own promise of non-violence of the quiet life, with the violence of the 2nd half of the 80’s.

So the issue of violence is extremely important in Czechoslovakia and an issue that is not opened completely because the very master narrative is built on what you have mentioned, by killing people, by imprisoning them in concentration or work camps and this is something that works for Czechoslovakia but works predominantly for the beginning of the 50s but does not work for Prague Spring and for the 2nd half of the 60s, 70s or 80s where the violence was deliberately minimised by the state, was exerted on the groups that were condemned or stigmatized within the society… I have in mind the forced sterilisation of the Romanian women which was very typical violence practice of the 70s but was highly approved because the people did not resist it and majority of people did not think it was abnormal.  The techniques of power in the 70s and 80s was much more clever and they knew that over exerting much can be counterproductive and this is a problem of the Czech and communists today cause they cannot find too much violence and it is impossible to find some kind of violence resistance in the Czech case.

The people who want to keep the totalitarian explanation of communism in Czechoslovakia have huge problems because of the fact that there were not as many victims as in the Soviet Union or Romania and these are the problems of the contemporary hardliners who try to keep the totalitarian model in explaining and who feel it as a kind of mission that they have to, and they go to schools explaining that communism was violent and that it brought only scarcity and violence to the people and they feel a great deal of loss of something moral if they would admit that the Czech society voted for the communism and that the majority of population accepted somehow the system and there were many parts of the Society who even profited from that and were happy even with the violence of the state… and this is something in my view that needs to be introduced in the Czech public realm and has to be profoundly discussed because I am not very content even though no one of us wants something coming back, on the other hand the attempt to keep the totalitarian explanation does not work when looking into the sources in the Czech, Slovak case does not work is a desperate attempt and its better to be open-minded and to talk about issues that can be unpleasant on first glance especially regarding the popular support of the communist Regime that had different roots in the 50’s and 70’s… but let’s say that these things are unpleasant for the people to remember… it is unpleasant to tell that the majority of population did not do anything in contrast to Hungarians, Romanians and Poles; there was huge resistance there at all times and this is a problem and from my view it would be much better to open some issues that do not fit into totalitarian views on one hand but can have important or would have important healing consequences for public discussion in the Czech case.”

 Marina Gogeanu

Crimes of communism

It’s estimated that throughout the world there have been more than a hundred million of victims of communism, so we’ve asked Dr. Oldrich Tuma about the crimes of communism and how they were dispersed.

“Historians already speak about the Olympiads of victims in different countries, trying to get their country not to have more victims than the other countries. […] hundred of millions of victims […] 95% are in Soviet Union or China, perhaps Cambodia  These countries participation was really very different from Eastern Europe.

Even in Czechoslovakia it’s hard to say (how many victims of the communist regime were)…. we know exactly something like 250 people got sentenced to get executed for political reasons… it’s not such a great number. Definitely in some cases there was a mixture of different details…sometimes criminality was involved and so on. 500 or 700 people were shot on borders but many were East Germans or Poles who tried to escape through Czechoslovakia. So that led to lots of incidents on the Czechoslovakian borders; they were definitely crimes of the Czechoslovakian communist regime but the victims weren’t always Czech or Slovaks. Perhaps a few 1000 people died in prisons especially in 50’s, there were tens of thousands of people in prison at the same time and the conditions were not nice especially in the uranium mines; and many people died there or after they were released from there because of the diseases they got.

So in terms of victims, people who lost lives… there will be hundreds or few thousands of people who had something to do with this very violent and repressive period of just five years or so from 49 to 54, something like that. In 51, 52 – people realised that if they’re going to provoke resistance, uprisings or demonstrations, they are bringing themselves to a danger of being sent to prison. So from mid 50’s for 35 years they used different methods compared to the other ones as you know as the existential pressure. […]

(I think) everyone was a victim (of the communist regime). Even the communists were victims of the regime; their life was deformed by it; they had to lie, they had to muddle through it. So I think that just for numbers of repressions…repressions based on imprisonment and executions, perhaps Czechoslovakia is not such an exception if compared Hungary or eastern Germany.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini