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 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

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

How did the communist regime change the landscape in Czechoslovakia? P2

We’ve also asked Dr. Michal Pullman (teacher of contemporary history at the Charles University, faculty of Arts) how did the communist regime change the landscape in Czechoslovakia and this is what he answered:

“[…] there were huge differences in regions… as you see Prague was not destructed, it was neglected very strongly so the houses were in very bad condition and predominantly, […] the new apartments which were built on the very outskirts of the city centre.

The Czech architects, especially Prague architects, wanted to keep Prague as the special city.

Old town Centre

Old town Centre

There were in the 50’s attempts to build new towns completely such as Habichstein or Nova Dubriica in Slovakia to show the Stalinist view of the new world.  These are big extreme positions and then we have something in between… which is for instance typical for many Slovaks cities even Moravian or Czech and Bohemian cities, rather smaller cities where the city settings were in so far neglected that it was easier  to destroy or it was decided to destroy part of the very city centre and to build apartments…  it is the example of Chi Bram, fantastic place which is let’s say 60km of Prague and was half destroyed because no-one wanted to invest into historical and so this way there were huge differences…

This practise that you’re talking about (the destruction of national heritage) was perhaps even more typical in Romania… we can find that in Czechoslovakia, but it was not the regular procedure because even the communists were somehow… even the political representation did have in Czechoslovakia some kind of national heritage…  I mentioned already that communism in Czechoslovakia was very often perceived as a kind of nation communism, so they had some kind of national heritage… I mean the Ceausescu palace(in Romania) […] was not erected cause something valuable would be destroyed and something not very nice from our perspective would be erected… […] Czechoslovakia was much more not divided, there were various approaches, it was not unified and there was much destruction but not as much as Romania.  Excellent examples would be city of Moos that was destroyed completely because of the coal and it was a historical town also it is typical for Czechoslovakia 1974, the main church was saved and moved to about 2km, it was an unbelievable technicality at that time…  but this was very typical for Czechoslovakia… if they destroyed something they compensated,  they saved the main church and this is also the example German town of Moos is completely destroyed and the new Moos is Built of the panels. […] these approaches were different in Czechoslovakia for instance concerning the moss of the new city which was 5km away at the time was not perceived as a consequence of destruction but as an improvement of the quality of life as the new apartments were better than the old ones and of course they saw predominantly the ideology that as far as I know there was no internal protest there was from the side of the intellectuals in Prague but no specific protests against this.

But today if you come to Moss it’s a sad place with huge unemployment with these panel houses that look much worse today but at that time it was perceived as departing from ~Stalinist historicism towards the progressive constructivism in the 60’s and 70’s, so it was always ambivalent… the communist destroyed much not only Moss, other centres of the cities, but if they did it they always tried  to compensate it somehow and at the same time they tried to keep the historic heritage of Prague and of other beautiful cities… not only Czech land but also Slovakia.”

Marina Gogeanu

How did the communist regime change the landscape of Prague?

During the interview we took him, Pavel Kalina (professor of history architecture in the school of Architecture in Prague) explained to us how the communist regime changed the landscape of Prague.

“The communist regime in Prague did not change so much the character of the historical city.

The communist regime in Prague, in the Former Czechoslovakia was slightly conservative in many issues, including various aspects of architecture.  It means no large destructions or important changes were made in the historical centre of Prague (and it was very similar in other historical cities in Czechoslovakia). The main problem was rather the negligence or raw investments in historical buildings… because many of them ended in bad technical condition.

But what was the real problem and what is even today a problem of Czech towns, it is more what happened around the historical centres, not exactly in the city centres. It means in the time of the communist regime, of course, just like in Western Europe people needed housing, people needed jobs, especially the young families and the regime was not able to supply housing possibilities for large segments of population. There was no market there, there was no market for these housing, these buildings, these flats; everything was seen…the distribution of housing was completely in the hands of the state, so it was no ideal situation.  And, as a result, they constructed large settlements, large townships around the historical city centres. There were many problems:  the housing standards were generally low, or sometimes there were problems with transportations, there were always problems… or the cultural life of those not living in the historical towns…but in fact, I would say never, maybe with some exceptions, the regime didn’t care about the existential problems with supplying people with the most important items or transportations. Anything like this. It would be very exaggerated[…].  It was a political organisation, which of course caused some problems, especially with housing. I would never say that everything was bad, everything was completely bad or that  it was impossible to live in the country… anything like that.

It is even a defence when compared to other parts of Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, in the times of the  communist regime, the monuments, including those monuments created to religious side, were not destroyed, with few exceptions. Especially in the bold religion of the Czechoslovakia, but generally they kept them in good conditions. The maintenance was usually sponsored by state, because state was the only institution able to finance all these projects, so it was not so much of destruction compared to the situation in Russia where many churches were physically destroyed and destroyed on purpose. This was different. […]In this aspect, the conservatism of Czech communists was not that big.”


Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: 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

The media portrayal of the uprisings against the communist regime

When asked how were the popular uprisings against communism and Soviet Union (for instance: Hungary 1956, Prague Spring 1968) portrayed and represented both in the West and the communist countries media, Dr. Oldrich Tuma said:

“[…] it was a very different situation between the official historiography and the mass media.

56 or 68 were portrayed in Czechoslovakia when speaking about Hungary and vice versa, simply as attempts of counter revolution inspired by imperialists; very negative portrayal of that… no wonder because it was something which was against the establishment, against the ruling party.

In the west I think there was a lot of understanding… I think for both 56 and 68 in the moment… there was a lot of interest in the pages of the newspapers November 56 or spring 68 , August 68…  Hungary, Czechoslovakia were both on the front pages and made head titles and so on… but this interest disappeared quickly as it happens today with other cases.

I think that for the most of the period after 56 or after 68, the western opinion or interest in Czechoslovakia and/or Hungary were limited to professional historians or some journalists who were covering those countries. But there was a lot of help for refugees from both countries.[…] So from that point of view, in the west, there were some interested parties who tried to help but didn’t try anything on the international level, the level of international relations. The west was really very careful…  definitely didn’t wish to risk  the deterioration of the relation between the United States and the Soviet Union by speaking out loud… they were afraid.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini