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.


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.


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.


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

Mwen Fikirini

The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia

Velvet Revolution

Unlike any other communist country that had to go through a violent revolution, Czechoslovakia fortunately had a non-violent revolution. The non-violent revolution which saw the overthrow of the Communist government took place on the 17th of November to the 29th of December 1989 was named the Velvet Revolution.
On the 17th of November 1989, a group of students held a peaceful demonstration in Prague but was suppressed by the riot police. A student was attacked by the riot police (Tim Lambert, N/A). Following the incident, it sparked a lot attention and ignited the anger within the people thus causing a series of demonstrations that continued until late December. On the 19th of November, human right activist formed the Civic forum (Tim Lambert, N/A). The number of peaceful protestors in Prague grew from 200,000 to 500,000 in merely two days. Although the government resigned on the 24th of November due to the pressure, that was not the end as the demonstrations went on.

On the 27th of November, all citizens of Czechoslovakia took part on a two hour general strike. Eventually, the Communist party agreed to end the 1 party rule and promised to form a coalition government (Tim Lambert, N/A). The citizens of Czechoslovakia were not satisfied with the new government as they were still under the power of the communist party. So, the citizens held more demonstrations. Due to the pressure, a new government was formed on the 10th of December where the Communist became the minority. On the 29th of December, Vaclav Havel a playwright and leading opponent of Communism was elected as the president by the Federal Assembly.

Finally for the first time in 40years, Czechoslovakia held its first multi-party elections and a new government made up of a coalition of parties opposed to the transitional government and Havel was re-elected (Howstuffworks, (N/A).

Tim Lambert. N/A. The Fall of Communism In Eastern Europe. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.localhistories.org/communism.html. [Accessed 15 April 13].

How Stuff Works. N/A. History of Czechoslovakia. [ONLINE] Available at:http://history.howstuffworks.com/european-history/czechoslovakia3.htm. [Accessed 15 April 13].

Foong Lin, Liew

Graffiti in Prague

In Prague, they too have a special wall that is dedicated to graffiti. The once normal ordinary wall became the famous wall of Prague in 1980s. The famous wall was then called the John Lennon Wall, named after the famous pop star from the Beatles, John Winston Ono Lennon. Although it was named after John Lennon, the legendary pop star has never been to Prague in his life. The wall was filled with quotes, lyrics and graffiti that are all inspired by John Lennon and his band, the Beatles.

Credit: Prague.net

John Lennon was considered as the pacifist hero for the Czech subculture during the totalitarian era (Ron Synovitz, 1998). While the communism ruled the country, western pop songs especially songs by John Lennon and his band the Beatles were banned by the Communist authorities simply because their songs were praising the freedom that doesn’t exist there and then. Some unlucky musicians who were caught playing those songs were jailed.

John Lennon becomes a hero when he was murdered in 1980. Upon hearing the news of his death, fans of John Lennon gathered and mourned his death together in Prague but were at risked of being caught and put in jail by the authorities over the offence of “subversive activities against the state”. His pictures were painted all over the wall and a group of anonymous youth group in Prague set up a mock grave for the famous pop star.

Credit: thehaymans

The threats of prison weren’t all that successful in stopping these people from coming out at night to scrawl graffiti in honor of John Lennon. Slowly, the wall was filled with feelings and dreams of the painter as they had limited freedom of expression. The communist authorities tried every single way they could to keep the wall clean either by repainting the wall or installation of surveillance cameras or even an overnight guard was not good enough. The wall will be filled with graffiti the very next day. It was basically a war between the people and the communist authorities who cleaned the wall. The Lennon Wall represented not only a memorial to John Lennon and his ideas for peace, but also a monument to free speech and the non-violent rebellion of Czech youth against the regime (Prague.net, 2008).

Credit: broadgairhill

What makes the John Lennon Wall special today is the history behind it, although it may have looked like any other graffiti walls around the world. The wall had to go through reconstruction of its crumbling façade in 1998, but the spirit of the wall lives till today. The famous John Lennon Wall was once filled with anti-Communist graffiti is now filled with graffiti and messages on love and peace. You can still get a glimpse of tributes to John Lennon and a yellow submarine if you looked hard enough at the wall.

Credit: experienceprague.com

Ron Synovitz. (1998). Prague’s Lennon Wall. Available: http://www.bagism.com/library/lennonwall.html. [Accessed 10 April 13].
Prague.Net. (2008). John Lennon Wall. Available: http://www.prague.net/john-lennon-wall. [Accessed 10 April 13].

Tony Hayman, (2012), John Lennon Wall Prague [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyhayman/8325566017/ [Accessed 10 April 13].

Experienceprague.com, (1998), The John Lennon Wall [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.experienceprague.com/mala_strana.htm [Accessed 10 April 13].

Prague.net, (N/A), John Lennon Peace Wall [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.prague.net/gallery/john-lennon-wall/pic1.php [Accessed 10 April 13].

broadgairhill, (2008), Prague – John Lennon wall [ONLINE]. Available at: http://photo.broadgairhill.com/index.php?showimage=7 [Accessed 10 April 13].

Foong Lin, Liew

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.



                                                             Mwen Fikirini

Panelaks (Part 2)

Jan Sladek about the panelaks:

Source: Photographing Prague Architecture (1922-1968)

Source: Photographing Prague Architecture (1922-1968)

“One of the symbols of communism, everyone who been around Europe knows panelak can be found in France, if you look at south cell it’s one of the biggest panelak in France, in Czech republic it depends on the location, you can be part of the cities with panelak which are beautiful with good transports and some that are isolated. Now I talked about shortage, the same shortage that there was with wages was the same with housing, I remembered that my family, it was so hard for them to get a flat because they could not buy a flat. So we had to wait for the regime to build a new one and it took the regime 15yrs to build a flat… for some people that was quite a long time.

Yes it was a solution to quiet a massive shortage in housing and people were all glad for having this, not all the buildings were that bad, some of them were in beautiful location. What the problem was…the management of the building where you have 8 buildings and 40 flats. (I am talking about the panelaks where I grew up) I remember several things when the lights went out, it took days for someone to get it fixed because you had to call to get it fixed, there was no private sector who would fix the problem, you had to call the municipality  and they would say we would put you on the waiting list, our electrician would come and solve the problem in a few days, the same with the lifts systems as well. These are for common places as well as flats.

The flat was also owned by the state so the state was responsible for fixing it, this happened frequently that the people started to help themselves; I would say this was irresponsible form the government, under normal setting, you are a tenant, and you are investing in fixing up the place. People started developing close ownership of the flat. So when the regime failed on of the first question was to what is there to do with all this state flat, they had to find a way to give it out to people so the flats were privatised, so people where glad that they had one secured thing in their lives which was housing.

Again I am coming to my flat 8 stories 40 flats, 40 families. In 1994 each family got the chance to buy the flat which was on the condition that all families would do this, which not everyone wanted to stay or to buy. So there was a huge negotiation we had to renovate all the building, this went okay but there was no law about the management of the public space. So again the problem of lift and light management was still the same, it took some time to develop a strategy on how to solve the problem even though it did not work, one of the problem was, that we shared difference flat but who share the ground beneath the building all this little things lead to do with the ill management of the building and it started to de-tolerate which again was a huge contribution to all the bad image of housing.

The interesting thing about Czech panelaks which is difference from British housing, French housing, I would say even American housing, was giving their housing shortage which was distributed all around society. We had very great mix of social demographic mix in one building it was not like only poor people would leave there, we got professors, physicians and workers in the same building.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

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

Hotel Crowne Plaza

Klara Mergerova:

“This hotel is known in Prague under the name of Hotel Internazional, which was the original name. It is a hotel which was constructed in the early 1950s, which was a period of the style called ‘socialism realism’ and this was after the communist regime took the power in the 1948. This was the only official style of the early 1950s, so new buildings and new housing estates were built only in this style which was a style that took elements from the history and also linked it to some decorative elements, and it was meant for the working class, for the working people to bring joy into their everyday lives.”

Marina Gogeanu

Le Corbusier and the governmental buildings

We’ve asked Pavel Kalina if the governmental buildings have any relation to Le Corbusier and his beliefs about the rypolin:

“I don’t think so. He’s an icon in Czech avant-garde, but after the war, I think there was no interest in the work of Le Corbusier in Czech lands.

There’s the exception of the free plan, applied to settlements, not to houses, but to settlements… The free organisation of housing, I mean bizarre restrict street system, from compact cities. It was a Corbusier inspiration, but it was not that much applied to the governmental buildings.  The official architecture was influenced first by the so called “socialist realism”. This lasted for several years in the 1950s. It was a real influence by, as I said, the previous tradition, by the brutalism of the 1950s. So, I would not say that there was any specific relationship to Le Corbusier.”

Marina Gogeanu

Zizkov television tower and David Černý

Klara Mergerova:

“David Černý is one of the most popular and also most controversial artists at the moment. Here, in Czech Republic, his way of working is an art of provocation, so he often creates works which are very offensive to some groups of people; so, on one hand, people notice him a lot because very much often his artworks are very much popularized and criticized by the media and he’s also known abroad for that.”

Pavel Kalina:

The Zizkov television, the babies crawling

“It’s joking. It’s a bit parasiting, of course, of the past, but it’s a joke, it’s a groovy joke.  But I think, the author of the building, of the tower, which is still alive, probably was not happy. You find tv tower many times and today they are not necessarily. and… it is stupid to have this tower on the skyline of Prague, especially …. On the historical district. On the other side, it is a part of the history.  The babies are also today a part of history, but I think that the babies,.. the power.. the tower.. it is useless..the babies are just added to the architecture..”

Zizkov television tower

Marina Gogeanu