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

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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 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

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

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

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

Comparison between communist Romania and Czechoslovakia

We’ve asked Dr. Michal Pullman if there can be made a comparison between communist Romania and Czechoslovakia. This is what he answered:

“Of course and the comparison is fantastic on various levels.

Primary level is the violence at the very end of the regime whereas the Czechoslovak is closely bound to the ideology of non-violence and brotherhood.  The Romania was very violent and this was already at the time a tension that was not too much discussed cause people did not know how to articulate this huge difference but the violence outlook of the 1989 revolutionary upheaval. How can we talk about the Romanian events of December 1989 was really perceived at the moment. There are also other important differences… we can talk about 1989 whereas Romanian revolution began with an idea of religious freedom it was of course reduced freedom was one of the many topics in Czechoslovakia but the most important notion was non-violence not the idea of violence in religious life as was the case in Romania and also there are many other differences in the everyday life.

[…] we don’t have to compare only violence and nonviolence not only civil rights and religions rights but also can compare things like drug culture and everyday life.  But this is something we have to do now. Unfortunately I do not speak Romanian but I would introduce immediately these comparisons because they are extremely interesting especially Czechoslovakia and Romania cause it was so different in many respects but both with similar outcomes I mean with demise on the system and the introduction of the neo Liberal capitalism which the people did not want neither in Czechoslovakia nor Romania.”

Marina Gogeanu

Transcribed by Rose Muzvondiwa

How did people perceive Alexander Dubcek after Prague Spring?

Dr. Michal Pullman related to us how popular Alexander Dubcek was back in 1968 and the cruel life he had after what was known as Prague Spring.

(Alexander Dubcek) “was extremely popular in the time of Prague Spring. People were shocked there can be someone who is open minded, who is flexible in ideas and can talk in variety of languages… who has fantastic contacts in the whole world and is recognised as the person who represents the Democratic Socialism which was an idea broadly acceptable in 1968, the very notion of democratisation, of solutions. He was the person who was also admired at that time.

Everything changed with the Soviet occupation in August 1968. Already this negotiation of the Soviets political representation and the Czechoslovak one was very difficult because both sides had to do some compromises that were not perceived positively in their home countries.  Alexander was pushed afterwards to be an ambassador to Turkey because it was a way of removing him from political negotiation.   Eventually he was dismissed from this position and became a forest worker in Slovakia… and had to do a hard job. Afterwards he rose again in the second half of the 80’s on the background of renewed attractiveness of the idea of democratic socialism, of course.

He was the person most popular in the days of November 1989 because everyone knew him as the representative of what people really wanted at that time (in 1968), that was the democratic socialism but now, he was much older and had less personal/physical power or possibilities and then, the developments did not go towards the democratic socialism but rather towards democratic capitalism or privatised  which was not his idea and unfortunately came his death on the highway.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Rose Muzvondiwa