By LUKE ALLNUTT | From today's Wall Street Journal Europe
It was the loneliest of deaths. Jan Palach stood at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, listening to the bustle of traffic and commuters. In his hands, he carried a can of gasoline and a briefcase containing a suicide note. With the light beginning to fade on that cold January afternoon 40 years ago tomorrow, he doused himself in petrol and lit a match.
In an age of suicide bombers, it is easy to be dismissive about martyrdom. But Palach's self-immolation on Jan. 16, 1969, was a peaceful act of protest, not a predatory act of war. For his protest against his countrymen's apathy to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was true to the original meaning of martyrdom -- a self-sacrifice designed to save others, not to kill them. And so his legacy still endures, remarkable not just for its altruism, but for its spiritual and intellectual significance.
Like the most worthy saint, Jan Palach lived a simple life. He was born in Vsetaty, a village 18 miles from Prague, in 1948, the year the Communist Party came to power. As a boy, his father nurtured in him a keen love of history, which he went on to study at Prague's Charles University. He was known as a quiet student, strong-willed, bookish, rather serious. The turning point in Palach's life was the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces to suppress the political and cultural liberalization known as the Prague Spring. The invasion had a radicalizing impact on Palach.
What he found hardest to bear was not the occupation and attack on freedom itself, but the reaction of his countrymen. In the months following the invasion, the raw passion of opposition and defiance became resignation, accommodation and lethargy.
Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovak leader who was instrumental in the reform movement's "socialism with a human face," signed the Moscow Protocols, which were ultimately an expression of loyalty to the Soviet Union. The student strikes of November 1968, which called for freedom of assembly and expression and the departure of Soviet troops, failed in their objectives. Palach felt this powerlessness deep to his core. This submission to Moscow, he knew, was no aberration, but the defining thread in Czech history.
So he fell back on his heroes, men like Jan Hus, the 15th-century Protestant martyr, who spoke out against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. Tried at the Council of Constance in 1415, after repeatedly refusing to recant, Hus was burnt at the stake.
Even though this Christian example of martyrdom made a big impression on Palach, there is little evidence to suggest he held deeply religious beliefs, making his sacrifice all the more remarkable. It is unlikely that Palach expected any salvation or heavenly reward. In his eyes, his death wouldn't be the consummation of his love for God or the beginning of eternal life. In the spiritual sense, ahead lay nothing but emptiness.
Palach might have been an awkward 20-year-old, but he understood the power of self-sacrifice. He understood that martyrs inspire and awe us precisely because of the inordinate suffering they are willing to endure for their beliefs. To become a true martyr, Palach knew he had to die an excruciating death. And so he did. With 85% of his body suffering third-degree burns, he died in a hospital three days after setting himself on fire. At first, his sacrifice had its desired effect of shaking the nation out of its slumber. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his funeral on Jan. 25, 1969, in what became a nationwide protest against the communist regime.
Other deaths by self-immolation followed: Jan Zajic in Prague, Evzen Plocek in Jihlava. The "wake-up call," however, was short-lived. Czechoslovakia continued its descend into "normalization," meaning the tightening of the police state as the Prague Spring reforms were rolled back. It was a time of "inner exile," when Czechoslovaks retreated to the private spheres, to concentrate on their cottages, their families, their love lives.
But Palach was anything but forgotten. During a period of oppression that Vaclav Havel called a "single, shapeless fog," Palach remained a beacon of hope. In the 1989 demonstrations that finally brought down the communist regime, Palach was an intellectual and psychological foothold for the student protesters. In January of that year, students held a "Palach week," a series of mass demonstrations to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. Violently broken up by police, they were precursors to the protests that brought down the regime in November.
Palach was an inspiration because, in the words of Jakub Trojan, the priest who conducted his funeral, he "believed that people could renew their own strength to resist." In that sense, Mr. Trojan said, his suicide "was an act of love and hope, not an act of despair."
---Mr. Allnutt is the editor in chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's English-language Web site. He is writing a novel based on the last year of Jan Palach's life.