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

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‘Eastern Bloc’ Communist Countries Comparison

A comparison of communist countries allows the researchers to have a better understanding of the effects of communism and the knowledge help approach interviews more effectively.

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“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”  [….]  “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”  (Dr Michal Pullman [Contemporary History Lecturer at the Charles University, Faculty of Arts] in response to a question on the comparison between Romania and Czechoslovakia)

However during the interviews others felt it was too vast a subject and to do a comparison would be difficult because of several factors such as the size of the countries, and the population “So I agree that those regimes, there were some common features based on ideology. Communist ideology was definitely more universal”[…..]  I think to find parallels and differences is a good thing, but it’s not so easy to say Czechoslovakia was like Poland and was different to Romania.” (Dr. Oldrich Tuma)

Quick overview of some Eastern Bloc communist countries

Country Communism infiltration Architecture Revolutions
Czechoslovakia1948 – 1989 Democratically elected HistoricalModernismCubism Jan 1968 Prague SpringNov-Dec  1989 Velvet Revolution
Romania1947 – 1989 Falsified election results Communist-influencedPower related Romanian Revolution (series of riots and protests in Romania in December 1989
Bulgaria1946 – 1990 Coup d’etat on existing government Principles of Totalitarian architecture, representativeness and impressiveness, were combined with classical architectural forms i.e. hotel “Balkan”, the Central Shopping Mall, the Communist Party Building October 1989 Enviromental demonstration in Sofia
Poland1947 – 1989 Rigged election results April – September  1988 (Fall of Communism strike)
Hungary 1949 – 1989 Soviet intervention allowed  communist control after coalition government had been formed. Oct-Nov 1956 uprising

War Crimes

“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 to Hungary or Eastern Germany” (Dr Oldrich Tuma –Director of  Institute of contemporary study)

In Poland, repressions affected up to 400, 000 people. During 1944-1953, military courts sentenced 70,097 people for crimes against the state (any alleged anti-regime activity or sentiment). 20,000 prisoners died due to harsh condition in prisons. Furthermore, 6,000,000 Polish citizens were classified as suspected members of a “reactionary or criminal element” and subjected to investigation by state agencies. The repressions were meant to scare the common people and get rid of any anti-communist opponents. Often the accusations and sentences were exaggerated or fabricated to speed up the process.

In Bulgaria those who didn’t adhere to the strict Soviet policies were marginalised and denied access to educational, personal and job opportunities.  All religious activity was severely restricted or banned apart from the which later became infiltrated by communist activities.  Over 90 000 dissidents were eliminated via expulsions, arrests and killings between 1948-49.

Hungary had the harshest dictatorship in Europe with over 50 000 women & girls raped.  Approximately 350,000 Hungarian officials and intellectuals were removed  from 1948 to 1956. Were many were arrested, tortured, imprisoned in concentration camps or were executed.

“Even in Czechoslovakia it is 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” (Dr Michal Pullman – Contemporary History Lecturer at the Charles University, Faculty of Arts))

Exile prisons such as the one in Pitesti, Romania were created to re-educate their political prisoners using violent and degrading methods known today as ‘the Pitesti Phenomenon’.

Rose Muzvondiwa

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 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

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

Prague Spring

Alexander Dubcek

Alexander Dubcek

In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek comes to power when he was elected as the First Secretary of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek tried to liberalise the country’s communist regime by introducing free speech and freedom of assembly. Dubcek wanted to democratise the nation and lessen the stranglehold Moscow had on the nation’s affair. The Prague Spring of 1968 is a term used during the brief period of time when Alexander Dubcek led the government of Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring ended with a Soviet Invasion, the removal of Alexander Dubcek as party leader and an end to reform within Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union and all members of the Warsaw Pact except Romania intruded Czechoslovakia to halt reforms. Over 100 people were killed and the Communist leaders, including Alexander Dubcek were arrested and taken to Moscow. Alexander Dubcek attempt to grant additional rights to the citizens (less restriction on the media, speech and travel) through the Prague Spring reform.

crushing of prague spring

The Prague Spring reform also caused the country to be divided into a federation of three republics, Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia and Slovakia, where Dubcek oversaw the decision to split it into two, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. The split was the only change that survived the end of Prague Spring.

Foong Lin Liew