The 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation brought many thousands onto the streets for protests that had no precedent in communist Czechoslovakia.
Palach Week, as it became known, began on January 15, 1989, and saw running battles between demonstrators and riot police.
The public commemoration was organized by the following opposition movements: České děti (Czech Children), Charta 77 (Charter 77), Mírový klub Johna Lennona (The John Lennon Peace Club), Nezávislé mírové sdružení (The Independent Peace Association), and Společenství přátel USA (The Society of Friends of the USA.
For seven days, demonstrators who tried to gather on Wenceslas Square were beaten and sprayed with water cannons.
Hundreds were arrested, among them top dissidents such as Václav Havel, and the events are seen by some as foreshadowing the Velvet Revolution, 10 months later.
On 21 January 1989, at the end of “Jan Palach Week”, the authorities together with security forces blocked the national pilgrimage to Jan Palach’s grave in Všetaty.
Václav Havel was sentenced to nine months imprisonment in a strict-regime prison. Other opposition activists arrested in Wenceslas Square were put on trial with him. The opposition movements launched a campaign for their release, which helped to bridge the gap between the activists and the wider public.
The considerable support inspired Václav Havel to write a manifesto called Několik vět (Just a Few Sentences) after his release.
Party representatives were put under considerable international pressure at this stage considering that their actions against peaceful opposition gatherings were occurring at the same time as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The conference was held in Vienna, and the Czechoslovak delegation was repeatedly criticized for its failure to comply with their international commitments on human rights.
“He [Jan Palach] died because he wanted to shout as loud as possible. He wanted us to realize what was happening to us, to see what we were really doing, and to hear what we were saying in those times of reputedly inevitable concessions, “reasonable” compromises, and hopefully clever tactical ploys. We started forgetting that something has to resist even the greatest pressure, something fundamental that cannot be bought or sold, but that is absolutely essential for maintaining our human dignity.”
From Charter 77 on the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation, 15 January 1989