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

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

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

Interview with Ivan Hurnik – perceptions of the communist era in Czech Republic

Could you introduce yourself and then relate us some experiences you had during the communist regime?

My name is Ivan Hurnik, I was born in Czechoslovakia in year 1954, September 22nd. It was really a hard time of communism. I was growing up during the time of communism in the 50s and 60s.

My father was an Army pilot; he was flying on the Mid 15 and one of the Mid15 almost killed him, so he stopped his career as an Army pilot… And processed to work for Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In the beginning of his career, as a Foreign Affairs Minister he was working as a diplomatic courier, so he visited all the countries in the world. But at the time of 1986, my father was working in Czechoslovakia embassy. My father took part in the political movement of Prague spring 1968, while he was still a minister. At the end of the spring he was sent to Africa Sudan as a Czechoslovak diplomat, so our family left Czechoslovak on the 25th of July 1968, just one month before the invasion in August. Our family was eight thousand kilometers away from Prague. Of course it was a very big surprise what happened there, we were even affected in Sudan because of the Invasion, we were imprisoned in our house in Kartun, we were guarded by Sudanese police, we were not allowed to go to school, my father was not allowed to go to the embassy for a week.

In 1969 it was exchange of the general secretary of communist party of Czechoslovakia, instead of Alexander Dubcek, Gustav Husak took over and became general secretary. He was very good friend of comrade Brenzhnev in Moscow, Gustav said it was not an invasion, it was an international help. The communist party in the year 1970 made some kind of questioning of other members of the party, and who said during the questioning that it was an inversion, was dismissed from the party. So my father did not say it was an inversion, he only asked, if it was a help, why did the come with tanks? Of course he got a simple answer; he was kicked out of the party in the year 1970, but the main reason why he was kicked out, was that he took part in the political movement of Prague spring 1986.

When he got back from Sudan in May 1971, my father was fired out of the Foreign affairs minister, and he was unemployed for three years, in a socialist country, which was officially impossible. My siblings and I were not allowed to study, travel, or have good jobs, because our father was fired out of the communist party. Just imagine we finished school in Africa, but we were not allowed to finish secondary school in our country.

I did not have a passport for nine years, when I ask for a passport from the foreign police, I was told three times to go to eastern Germany… you can’t travel with an ID card only, which means you can’t travel anywhere else because they had power to say so.

From the beginning, I was working in a company which was called Foreign Trade Corporation. Companies were not allowed to import product directly, they were doing it through foreign trade corporation. I was using English every day at work, so my boss told me to go to the management and ask to take the English exams which will give me 30 crown over my normal wage per month.  30 crowns which is approximately just one dollar more, my salary was 800 crown in the year 1971, and I was just asking for 30 crown over the wage. When I went to the management office, and said to them I want to take the exams for English, since I am using English every day, The asked me do I speak Russian and I said to them no I don’t, they said to me you can’t have 30 crown for just English.

Until the first half of the 1980s there was nothing to buy, let say the tropical fruit, oranges, bananas, melon etc, we usually have them three or four times in a year in a shop, it is not like now where we have them every day, and it was very expensive. Life was completely different.

My experience with communism is not good;[…]

I have a group of friends… we know each other from the 60s, in that group there are two friends which I know each other from the 60s, because we were in elementary school from the first class. We were always going to the pub every Friday, just for drinking, of course… and the boys were studying at the university; we usually talked about politics and other things and also singing forbidden song sometimes… And…Someone heard us and said something to the police and three boys from the group were in prison for six months!!

Later on there was a trial, but the secret police called STB made a little mistake, because during the time of communism, when the police is searching your apartment, the usually have a witness with them it could be anybody. But the police made the search without a witness, so they lost the trial.

Anyway the boys were kicked out of university. Later on one of them immigrated to Austria. Then there was another trial, it was said that the guy who immigrated was at fault. So the others were allowed to study again. It was normal.

In fact if you said political jokes and someone heard it, you will go straight ahead o prison. Also, it was a crime to have one dollar bill in your pocket, it was not allowed to have foreign currency, it was a crime.

In simple terms what does communism mean to you?

Very bad time, and very bad memories, because I was not allowed to travel, but now I can go anywhere I want to, I don’t even know where I have my passport, because I don’t need it. The last time I used it was when I was travelling to Ukraine, but now within Europe I don’t need my passport. I can now say anything I want to say, and of course if I have the money, I can buy anything I want to, But during communism, if I want to buy a car, I will have to have good friends.

During the time of communism everything that was good was only for the members of the party, we can say we had two categories of inhabitants: members of the party and non-members, if you want to have well-paid jobs, your children going to school, and travel around, you have to be in the party, really everything was just for the members of the party.

But life in Czechoslovak was best in all the socialist country, because Czechoslovak was used as a shop window of socialism, because we had boarder with western Germany and lot of people from Germany and Austria were coming here for business purposes. But the life here was best compared to other countries, let’s say in the Soviet Union it was much worst, because in the Soviet Union, everything was under control of the KGB, let’s say you were living in one city and you wanted to travel to the another city which is just 100/150 kilometres away, you will have to ask for a permit to travel around in your own country.

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Lesoda Otu-Iso

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

Prague and The communist architecture

Pavel Kalina

“The communist architecture has many negative connotations, of course. The architecture […] of those townships or settlements built in 1960s, 1970s, are of course not taken as the good address. In the same time, the townships din not change islams, anything like that. They are normally inhabited by the new generations, but usually are the old generations of people. Many of those buildings were renovated, in the last 2 decades, many of them were given façades  for example, so sometimes you would not recognise that they are from the time of the communist regime. So, I think normal people do not take these houses as good addresses, good architecture, as a good place to live. But they are cheap, they are a form outside of the historical cities, so in this aspect is not completely a bad place to live and they are sometimes defended as urban textures by historians of architecture who are interpreting these buildings as a part of our heritages.

I think very problematic. I myself live in a town from 1994, which was designed in the 1980s. And I’m not completely satisfied with the building, but I live there since 1994, so.. but it is not a typical housing, but I think it is a normal place where you  live in present day Prague. In present day Prague, people do not live in the historical centre. The historical centre is futurist and for managers and international accountants, but not so much for normal people.”

Klara Mergerova

“I’m a historian of architecture, so I, myself see the qualities and of course I try to show that there are buildings which were constructed during the communist regime, but which still present some qualities, but I think the general opinion is that those buildings were there to abrupt intrusion and most people refused even to think about qualities connected to the regime, so even buildings which are considered from architectural point of view are not appreciated by the general public. But there are of course, more and more tourists, which try now to see them as something specific for this region and who come to see them.”

Pavel Kalina

“Here in Prague, the  most despised project of the communist era was the so called Palace of Culture. It is just behind the border of the historical city, but even this project, which is ugly, even this project was no exception in the European architecture in the 1970s, 1980s, including Western European. You will find many ugly buildings in Western Europe as well. This building was not much bigger, not much ugly than the lords houses… I don’t like… I would never say that …in this aspect… that the communism expressed the totalitarian character in every house, or in every part of the town. It would be very, very exaggerated.”

Klara Mergerova

“Then you have Czech Department Stores, which are also found all over the country and also in Prague. We have some really good examples in the city centre (Department Store Kotva) which are representants of the most quality architecture of the period.  On the other hand, they are also disputable and not maybe … the quality isn’t fully recognized until today because they are very monumental  and people still see them as the residues of communist architecture. […]

Kotva Department Store

These buildings were financed by the communist regime, so they reflect (the department stores) reflect their aims to compete with the other world, the Western commercial centres, etc. The other buildings reflect the aim to impress and to prove the power of the regime.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interviews transcribed by: Marina Gogeanu

Ceausescu against the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968)

We’ve asked Dr. Michal Pullman to think about 1968 and Romania which was against the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  What did that say about Ceausescu which was against any freedom in Romania and now he was suddenly approving freedom of press, freedom of speech, etc in Czechoslovakia? Do the Czech people remember this and consequently perceive Romania in a different way?

Here is what he said:

“The perception of Romania and Czechoslovakia was also ambivalent in this way; on the other hand Romania was perceived as a country where the communism had the most violent practices.  The Securitate was very well known in the whole Eastern block and was referred to as a kind on non-human or was synonymous for non-human approach of the system towards its inhabitants, towards the people.

At the same time, the Czechs and Slovaks saw the social situation of Romania which belonged to the worst ones in the whole Soviet block and it was very bad but on the other hand they knew the political representation who was very violent and repressive at home refused soviets in 1968 to invade Czechoslovakia and Romania even did not provide any technical, nothing… cause as we know the Germans did not come because it was not acceptable till 20 years after the war that the East German army to come to Czechoslovakia, so the East Germans stayed at home but provided, they provided  technical equipment for the Soviets; but Romania refused even that and this was the main ambivalence of perception of Romania  at the end of the 80s and it was of course, no public topic in the time of the 70s and first half of the 80s because of the brotherhood of Ceausescu and Hauseck… or both of these political representations with were strongly (specially the Czechoslovak one was) strongly bound to the Soviet politics but to some kind of hard administrative line of building socialism with a hat of communist party… so it became a topic in the very days of upheaval or in the splendid days of November 1989,  the fact that the Romania had not invaded Czechoslovakia.[…]  The people knew somehow but did not care too much because Romania is not the direct neighbour so they accepted the fact that Romania was not participating in any way at the occupation fell into oblivion a little bit in the public sphere.”

Marina Gogeanu

Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa