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

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

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.”

church

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 initial reaction to communism in Czechoslovakia

Dr. Oldrich Tuma also talked to us about the initial reaction to communism in Czechoslovakia:

“In Czechoslovakia and especially the Czech lands part of Czechoslovakia, I think was an exception in Eastern Europe because there the communist party had the communist ideology immediately after 1945 and they had perhaps support  not from the majority of the society, but definitely from a very important part of it; (not only workers but intellectuals, artists) […]. They had hoped and trusted that this is an area especially to improve special economics, social life and to establish a system of social justice and things like that.

[…] there was the experience of Second World War and of course a very important issue was how to keep Czechoslovakia safe, how to take care of the security of Czechoslovakia after the experience of military occupation of Czechoslovakia. […] I think that this was not only communist that were persuaded but even many people who wished to have democracy were persuaded that the only way that to make Czechoslovakia secure in the middle of Europe was to cooperate very closely with the Soviet Union against Germany. Because there was a lot of opinions that in a few years Germany would be strong again or an aggressive state.

So the situation after Second World War was very similar to the one after the First World War [..]. But Germany became a different sort of society and state, so it was a misperception […].

Unlike the Polishes, Romanians, Hungarians, Czechs never had any direct experience with Russia. There were no common borders, there were no wars since the middle ages and so on. So Russians and the Russian state was more something like a distant but relatively beloved cousin if not then brother in the passive conflict that there was a long time confrontation between the Czechs and Germany, not only Germany but Germans living within Bohemia and Moravia. So it seems that this powerful Slavic state and Great Russian cultural heritage was really admired in the 19th Century. So there were a lot of sympathies and genuine sympathies for Russia with some over also for Czechs I think 1945, Soviet Union was especially Russia. So Soviet soldiers were red army soldiers, who were Russian soldiers, so they […] had to save Czechs from Nazi Germany (I think more understood it as German occupation not Nazi occupation).

So originally there was a lot of sympathies but many people also were aware that there is a danger that the communists who were speaking like democrats perhaps were for a coalition government (they spoke about free elections and so on). But there was a danger that it could turn into a totalitarian regime, undemocratic regime so there was a conflict within the society. Unfortunately the communists were much better prepared; they knew what they wished to achieve and fortified the position of the other political parties. And simply by waiting some hoped this is an extraordinary situation after war we have to survive and so on but it didn’t.

Communists seized power in 1948 and again that is the difference in Czechoslovakia; It happened during one short political crisis; in fact it was one week. In other countries it was a really long process. Let’s remind this Hungarian guy and his army tactics. In a way it was in Czechoslovakia too, but finally it was really a takeover it happened with the mobilisation of supporters of communism and paramilitary forces marching into the streets and so on. Even after 1948 still important part of society especially young people and so on who really trusted and hoped that very quickly that it would lead to the communist regime to very different directions and very different levels of great development of society and cultural social, economic and so on. And if it is necessary to pay something for some time to repress opponents of communism so we have to do it but during the next ten years would definitely be 56 or 58 most of those people I mean young communist people who were enthusiastic about communism but after 1945 became more sceptical and started to think about problems, mistakes and lies and so on. Didn’t see any great economic or social progress, they were more and more averted in cultural and educational, information. There was more and more censorship and so on and they didn’t like it.

So from that milieu Not yet resistance to communism, but very common I think in Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s early 60’s, was this idea of the necessity to reform the generated system. I think there was a majority of Czechoslovak society who simply didn’t like communism as for them it was an oppressive regime. In the early 50’s many people simply hoped that next fall or the next spring or something like that there will be war…there were a lot of illusions that the West will somehow intervene with diplomatic or economic measures that will make the communist regime to have elections and so on and so on. I think this illusion disappeared between 53 and 56, so definitely after the Hungarian uprising in 56 when there was no Western intervention. So this would be the end of the illusion that this will be for just a short time and the west will do something; it simply disappeared… more and more people realised that maybe it’s forever… and if they didn’t feel like that then, in 68 they understood that it was about to be for a very long time. So, they thought… if we can’t get rid of the system, maybe we can improve it or reform it. And so from this I think there was this general ethos of the 60’s in Czechoslovakia and of 68 which was something like a merge of very different opinions, a lot of very enthusiastic communists that hoped they would be able to improve the regime and even create something like a sort of model for other, even for Soviet Union. They thought that maybe the Russian communists will follow them…  But they were really disappointed instead, when these Russian tanks arrived.So people who simply didn’t like communism and understood 68 (the Prague spring) as an opportunity to at least change something and improve the system realised there were some limits.”

 

Marina Gogeanu

Interview transcribed by: Mwen Fikirini

Why and how was communism implemented in Czechoslovakia?

Dr. Michal Pullmann (teacher of contemporary history at the Charles University, faculty of Arts) explained to us during the interview we took to him why and how the communist regime was implemented in Czechoslovakia.

“There is a different root when we talk about central Europe because Czechoslovakia was a special case in contrast to Hungary and Poland where communism was a kind of import from Soviet Union.  The Czechs, Slovaks especially, voted for the communist predominantly after the 2nd world war.  Czechoslovakia is the only country where the communist came to power democratically because they won elections after the 2nd world war and so it’s in Czechoslovakia to some respects specific in contrast to some countries I deliberately mentioned like Poland and Hungary where it was an import of Soldiers with an army etc,

The popularity of communism as an idea in the post war time was predominantly rooted in a positive view of  the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia very strongly, with high admiration of Stalin even in the spirit  and the liberating role of the Soviet Union and off course expectations of more just order that wouldn’t bring the big economy crisis etc, so the fact that Czechoslovakia was not exposed to mass violence of the Red Army as in Hungary or Poland was the root of very positive view of Soviet Union and communism in post war especially Czech Society.  I mean they do not have such large, huge hegemony as in Czech lands but as a whole in Czechoslovakia the communists they won the elections so they were very important even in the Democratic time and in February Stalin was pushing somehow now we have to do a turnover etc. and they did it in Feb 1948 they changed the political system towards the Soviet.  Soviet won with a kind of coup d’etat, how it is interpreted till today.  Afterwards Stalin’s model of Socialism was implemented.

The hardest time for the whole of Czechoslovakia came at the end of the 40’s and beginning of the 50’s where short trials and terror came in Czechoslovakia. At the same time we need to take into account even this was not an import from the Soviet Union.  Czechoslovakia was very special in this respect.  Many people such as workers, the people who profited from the regime, supported the terror especially at the beginning when it was not completely clear that the destruction would be such large, there were many people who expected from the Stalin model the betterment of their life and also the safety that the same Imperialist capitalist etc. They would not destroy the very basic, the very existence of the Czech nation.

We have to take into account that the complex of Munich as it is said in the Czech history in Sept 1938, Czechoslovakia through the Munich agreement was taken especially the borderlands were taken to Germany afterwards in March 1939 the German Nazis took the rest which they created a kind of protectorate of Germany and  were almost successful in destroying the very existence of the Czech nation because they closed the University and was visible within the 5yrs that intelligence, if you close Universities and don’t reproduce the elite, you can destroy the Nation.  I mean the Stalinism or the Socialist promise that was mostly understood at that time as kind of national communism as a kind of specific Czechoslovak way to call communism was extremely popular so this was the root of the popularity of the idea of communism in the post war time.  The Czechs do not want to remember that they were the only ones who voted for communism in contrast to Hungarians, Polish, Romanians or East Germans who did not choose this way.”

Marina Gogeanu

Panelák

3-40 1-16 1-15

“During the communist regime, both the architecture and the construction industry were focused mainly on 2 different fields: one of them was the construction of huge panel-houses estates and the second one was the construction of huge cultural or political representatives or even buildings dedicated to sports, for sports events.” Klara Mergerova (PhD candidate at Faculty of Architecture of Czech Technic University in Prague) 

When asked how are the panel-houses perceived by Prague’s citizens, she answered: “On one hand they are still popular because they offer good quality of living and they are cheap, but on the other hand it’s considered as the low cost way of living, so I think no one is really proud to be living is such buildings and above, the young people refuse them and tend to move in more qualitative apartments, they tend to move back to the city centre, and they cut themselves from the past. There is still a huge per cent of population still living in them… ”

We also had a conversation with Pavel Kalina (professor of history architecture in the school of Architecture in Prague) and we’ve asked him if he finds any relation between the tenants blocks (the Panelaks as they call them) and the  Futurist Manifesto- written in 1909 and the idea of the New Man. This is what he answered:

” You can take it metaphorically as a result of what was imagined about future in the early 20th century. But, in reality… Here we are in the Campus of Czech Technological University, so I will remain in the simple reality, and I would say that it was probably more dictated by the needs of the building industry.”  “I think it was much more dictated by the completely technic character of building industry in Czechoslovakia than by any ideology. Of course, as I’ve said, you can take it as a metaphor, as a symbol, but in fact, it was just a technic product, which is itself a metaphor.”

Marina Gogeanu

Interviews transcribed by: Marina Gogeanu