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 every step. We know that yourhope to live on with us depends on the firmness of our deeds. No one can escape your watchful gaze. Its name is Conscience. But this time it will not only gnaw. It will sentence to death. One of us.”
When, after January 1968, the country was rapidly adopting its new course, changes in official personnel had to seep upward from below. They were practically accomplished by mid-August, except for the Central Committee of the Party, which was to be newly elected by the delegates of the approaching 14th Congress. Since the vast majority of the delegates had only recently been voted in, the outcome was clear. As is well known, the 14th Congress was held secretly during the first days of the occupation. Later its proceedings were duly annulled on orders from Moscow. No supporter of the Soviets was to be removed from his post, or punished for his behavior during the occupation. This naturally meant an indefinite postponement of a new Congress and a freezing of the status quo. As a result the country has a ruling body 30 percent of whose members not only lack the confidence of their electorate, but are also smoldering with vengeance. As they have no sympathy with the human face of socialism, their vengeance may be of a very unpleasant nature.
With such support from the highest organ of the Party and a warm welcome from the Russians, all the old, discarded, venomous, cruel, and discredited officials—who under the previous regime held their posts for services rendered as informers and ruthless brain-washers—are creeping into the open and getting ready for a takeover. We are faced with a repetition of what happened in France or in this country shortly before the Second World War. A well-organized fifth column is being maneuvered into position, using every means of subversion from the manipulation of votes to anonymous threats and defamation. We are not yet at the stage of physical assaults by hooded storm-troopers, but not so very far away either. As I write, false rumors are being used to keep the country in a state of continual nervous tension. This proved very successful against France in 1940. People are now being systematically threatened by mail and telephoned at regular intervals. The press is under pressure to publish false documents on the bogus orders of this or that federal office. Several Czechs have been singled out and accused of having staged the suicide of Jan Palach, naturally as agents of Western imperialists.
A letter allegedly written by an eighteen-year-old girl who committed suicide a few days after Palach claimed that she preferred death after being threatened by enemy agents with disfiguration by acid, unless she, like Palach, complied with their orders. To make the disgusting story more credible, there was even mention of a black Mercedes, its horn ominously blowing three times, driving her to her death. The letter was forced on the press from quarters claiming to be official representatives of the Ministry of the Interior. Radio Moscow naturally broadcast it with great zeal.
The strength that democratic principles acquired in this country during the past year can be measured by our inability to defend what we gained. Democracy, if it is to remain democratic, cannot effectively oppose totalitarian subversion. Here it is even rather astonishing. The leading actors of our drama are in fact not bourgeois democrats, as for instance in pre-Hitler Germany, but members of the highest hierarchy of the Communist Party, who should be versed in the methods of their opponents. And yet, instead of making use of the forces still at their command, in order to disarm those who openly seek their doom, they are doing everything they can to alienate their support, mainly the workers and the young. In this way, they hope to appease their opponents by a show of strength against phantom enemies described as “rightist extremists.”
This is why Jan Palach died. To awaken, if possible, a government moving from one compromise to another and to wake up the people, who must either save what can be saved, or face a return to Stalinism. In view of such a danger, his two demands may seem rather marginal, since Zprávy is de jure an illegal pamphlet and what censorship there is does not add much to our tragedy. The group, however, had a whole list of demands, and each one of the young people was to burn himself for only two of them.
The effect of Palach’s deed cannot be yet fully measured. It has shaken the government and exposed even more its lack of policy. The shock that paralyzed it for a while gave valuable time to the extremist [totalitarian—ed.] underground to stake out yet further claims. The struggle became more venomous and the dangerous confrontation moved yet nearer. Perhaps a certain national unity has been reestablished, but it is a unity that can last only as long as there is an acute sense of emergency. Palach might have saved us from a coup that was supposed to be imminent. The fact is that since his death everyone realized not only the gravity but the horror of the situation, where a nation may any day be burnt at the stake, with the whole world looking on indifferently.
Or not indifferently. With relief. We should have died six months ago. It would have made better headlines, it would have fitted better with the anti-Communist campaign, and, after all, who cares about the Czechs and their socialism with a human face? They are reds, so let them burn.
We know all this and we don’t expect much help. Not since Munich. We make good pictures and good copy. So does a bullfight. What will happen will have to be done or borne by us alone. What it will be is unpredictable. We are not the makers of history, we are only part of it, and this year will probably be full of violent changes. We may yet be saved by an unexpected event. The workers, students, and peasants represent the majority of the population and even though restrictions keep systematically limiting the possibility of a dialogue, they are well informed and united.
The other part of the federalized country, Slovakia, in spite of a more rigid Party line, or perhaps because of it, is less prone to subversion. Doctor Husák, the Party leader, knew how to get rid of old-timers before August, and now is in a relatively safe position. There is less democracy, far less freedom of the press in Slovakia; even Czech papers are scarce there because of their critical attitude toward Dr. Husák’s rule. But this is the tragedy of democracy: we go to bed every night not knowing what horrible awakening to expect. The Slovaks can sleep soundly; muzzled but safe.
What a choice. But there are never only two possibilities. There are also floods, earthquakes, plagues, and fires. Perhaps by the time this gets printed, there will be nothing to discuss any more—or another torch. A different one this time. Or, what we all hope for, a small nation, left in peace to work out a way to live.
February 27, 1969