Sunday, February 01, 2009

Human Rights: Jan Palach Week, 1989: The beginning of the end for Czechoslovak communism - documents from Secret Police, party, and dissidents

Source: National Security Archive

The brutal suppression by Czechoslovak Communist authorities of commemorative ceremonies for "Palach Week" 20 years ago this month marked the beginning of the end of the regime in the annus mirabilis 1989, according to secret police, Communist Party, and dissident documents posted on the Web by the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre (Prague) and the National Security Archive ( at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.).

Various independent civic initiatives (also known in the official Communist press as "anti-state" and "anti-socialist forces") had planned to lay wreaths at the site in Prague's main Wenceslas Square where the student Jan Palach in January 1969 had burned himself to death in protest against the repression that followed the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Also planned was a pilgrimage to the rural cemetery where Palach's ashes were interred.

But the Communist secret police cracked down with beatings, tear gas, and mass arrests, including the dissident playwright and future Czechoslovak president Václav Havel. The repression occurred at the exact moment in January 1989 that the signatory countries to the Helsinki Final Act (the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE) were meeting in Vienna, and drew widespread protests from abroad, including from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, leading Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, and perhaps most eloquently, American playwright Arthur Miller.

The Web posting includes never-before-published documents from Czechoslovak archives, including the secret police reports on the demonstrations in January 1989 and the internal Communist Party briefings and instructions (the Party line) to cadres about the events of January. Also included are key Charter 77 and other dissident and samizdat statements, and several international protests of the time.

The posting republishes the detailed chronology of events in January and February 1989, originally written by the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre for its quarterly publication Acta (Vol. 3, No. 9-12), compiled and edited by Jan Vladislav in collaboration with Vilém Prečan, titled "Czechoslovakia: Heat in January 1989" and ultimately printed in December 1989 just as the "velvet revolution" toppled the Communist regime and put former prisoner Havel in the presidential office in Prague Castle.

Leading the posting is Professor Vilém Prečan's essay "Palach's Legacy: An Appeal to Czechoslovaks in the 1989 Struggle for Freedom." The final section of the posting includes the digital image of an original letter from Palach himself in 1969, urging the occupation of Radio Prague and a call for a general strike. Only days later, he burned himself to death.

"These documents posted on the Web today are the Internet equivalent of the wreath that Václav Havel tried to place in Wenceslas Square in January 1989," remarked Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "We don't face arrest like he did for this commemoration, but we do have the responsibility of never forgetting those sacrifices, both by Jan Palach, and by everyone who made the peaceful revolutions of 1989."

To review and download the documents click here
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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