For the last five months the world press has been writing final obituaries for Czechoslovakia. In all fairness we should have died on the 21st of August, 1968. Things would have been easy and clear, specialists on Eastern Europe would have been proven correct, gloomy prophesies would have come true. In a way, there is the same misconception in the West as in Russia. The Russians have been told that there was a bloody counter-revolution which, thanks to them, has been squashed at the expense of who knows how many thousands of their soldiers, while the West believes that the Russians have actually succeeded in squashing something. Mournfully by the West, hopefully by the Russians, Czechoslovakia is seen as a freshly heaped grave.
The facts are unhappily different. The most important civil rights, which were gained during the so-called Prague Spring, were, paradoxically, ratified by the invasion and became a sort of Magna Carta, which the government is obliged to observe. Under pressure it had to introduce a sort of censorship, stressing its temporary aspect, but this was limited to a relatively small number of items. Apart from the restrictions on the press, there is considerable freedom of speech, religion, and individual expression. The conditions for traveling abroad have not changed much from what they were last spring; the police do not represent a dark threat of lawless brutal force; the citizens no longer have the same fears of the State and its institutions they once had.
Why then, if things are so good, did Jan Palach set himself on fire in Venceslas Square, marking our history with a date equal to that of August 21, 1968?—
Considering the fact that our nations are bordering on despair, we have decided to express our protest and awaken the people of this land in the following manner:
Our group is composed of volunteers, who are ready to burn themselves for our cause.
I had the honor of drawing number one and acquired thus the right to write the first letters and present myself as the first torch.
Our demands are:Immediate abolishment of censorship. The prohibition of the newssheet, Zprávy.
Should our demands not be met within five days, i.e., by the 21st of January, and should the people not come forward with adequate support, i.e., an unlimited strike, further torches will go up in flames.
Torch No. 1
On January 16th, at 3 P.M., Jan Palach set himself on fire. Next morning the papers published a six-line police communiqué. A week later fourteen million people were mourning their new hero, who was laid out in state, surrounded by five thousand wreaths.
On January 19th the Czech Students Union issued a declaration not only to the nation, but also to the unidentified members of Jan Palach’s group: “We want to assure you that we are fully aware of the presence of your eyes. We know that you are waiting and following our…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.