Tags: Burning Bush

Tyranny and Responsibility: On Jan Palach’s Deed


This is my third and final post related to the brilliant Czech film Burning Bush (trailer is here). Here are posts one and two.

“We’re all stuck between millstones.” So says the cemetery manager to Jiří Palach (Jan’s older brother). The manager is being pressured by the Communist party to get Jiří to move Jan’s body to a different location outside of Prague. The gravesite, according to the Party, has become a site for “anti-state” activities. Jiří, of course, pushes back against the cemetery manager’s “request.” The manager pleads with Jiří that soon he won’t have any choice in the matter — the state can, by law, simply remove the body and have it cremated without anyone’s consent.

The millstones line is a perfectly apt description of everyone’s status under the Communist regime. The implicit argument in this context is that Jiří would have consented to the removal of Jan’s body had he truly appreciated the position of the cemetery manager. The responsible thing to do in such situations is to sympathize with other actor who will be affected by one’s own action. Recognizing the millstones pressing upon others dictates that one must act to minimize the risks and difficulties of others. Further, it is likely the case that the cemetery manager is an utterly decent and honorable man. Why should Jiří make his life difficult by refusing this request? And for all we know, the member of the interior ministry who has been in touch with the manager about the Palach grave is also decent and honorable. The manager, in turn, wouldn’t want to make his life difficult. Thus, difficult, unpalatable, and ultimately unjust actions are justified throughout this intricate, hierarchical web of command. Note I don’t say “chain” — the hierarchy is not always overt and the contacts to the official state bureaucracy may not be routine. Most importantly, the state never simply dictates — it demands affirmation of and participation in its decisions. For example, after Palach’s coffin has been removed from the gravesite and it is about to be cremated, we see the representative of the state with a clipboard standing next to the cemetery manager. The manager has to sign a form that presumably, in some way, authorizes or legitimates the removal and subsequent cremation of the body. Thus nobody can claim innocence or isolation. Everyone must have a hand in these actions. Herein lies a distinctive feature of totalitarianism. As Pavel Bratinka once put it to me, “The decisive fact is this: People were forced to express their agreement and joy with things they considered idiotic and criminal. People’s lives were ruined over small things, like in my case refusing to join the Socialist Union of Youth.” Personal responsibility is thus everywhere and nowhere in places like Communist Czechoslovakia.

True responsibility is a threat to the regime. This is why the regime’s response to Palach’s self-immolation denied that he was responsible for his actions. Palach, according to Vílem Nový’s speech, was both mentally unbalanced (and thus could not really understand what he was doing) and manipulated by malicious right-wing elements. Even characters in the film who are not at all sympathetic to the regime and its response to Palach make the charge that he could not have been in his right mind — both Vladimir Charouz (Daša’s boss at the legal aid bureau) and Daša’s husband Radim suggest something along these lines. This is precisely why the Palachs pursue their lawsuit. However troubling Jan’s act is for them — Libuše (Jan’s mother), in particular, goes through a harrowing ordeal questioning her son’s love for and devotion to her and then must endure the state’s viscious response to her lawsuit—they understand that to preserve the memory of Jan and his legacy they must secure his act as truly his own.

The evidence suggests Jan Palach was quite deliberate about his action. On his chosen day, the Central Committee of the Communist Party was meeting at Prague Castle. The place of his self-immolation was a quiet yet highly visible spot at the top of Wenceslas Square near the National Museum, a central and symbolic place. We know he edited the text of his last letter — his roommates found a rough draft. According to Eva Kantürková, the final draft differed from the first in its “forcefulness, brevity, and in being stripped of all emotional coloring.” He also changed his thoughts about his demands, in the end settling on two: an end to censorship and the abolition of a propaganda organ called Zprávy.

Though in his letter Palach warned that if his demands were not met, other “torches” would come forward, nobody has ever confirmed the existence of the group to which he alluded. It may be this was a mere tactic designed to add to the weight of his own deed, or perhaps he thought his own act would inspire more torches (which it did). The demands seem somewhat modest or out of proportion with his deed, but again he apparently considered this carefully before settling on those two demands. Looking at the deed itself as rendered in the film and considered in light his demands and the political circumstances of Czechoslovakia, Palach’s act seems extreme and alien to the scope a defensible ethical universe. Ought one sacrifice oneself for a free press and the abolition of one worthless newspaper?

His painful sacrifice is a striking display of courage, a willingness to confront evil. But perhaps more than that, Palach’s deed is aimed squarely those millstones pressing on his fellow citizens. Herein is its true importance. The metaphorical millstones are quite real. There were consequences, sometimes dire, for not acting in line with the Party’s needs and desires. One hesitates to blame people for not resisting. Yet if one follows this logic out too far, human beings become the play-things of necessity — they are not and cannot be responsible for themselves and their actions. Their surrender of their own responsibility confirms the force of necessity — the same force that provides the rationale for sending whole races or social groups to the camps. Palach’s self-sacrifice reaffirmed to irreducible dignity of the human person — a being who must live amidst good and evil (within and without), and bear the responsibility for his choices. His radical act called out to his fellow citizens: here I am, this is what I choose. I have chosen death. In her essay on Palach, Kantürková writes:

Palach aroused the national collectivity, but he did so by an individual deed chosen of his own will. He broke free from what oppresses us: the impossibility of acting ethically under conditions of totality. Under this anti-ethical pressure, which denies the individual the option of freely choosing to act according to his personal conscience, the weak succumb to alcohol or licentiousness, the mediocre become indifferent, and the majority hide privately the wrecks of their ethical sense. . . . Some people simply see further and deeper and are not put off by the obligation to which this seeing commits them.

1989 began in Czechoslovakia with Jan Palach week. A planned ceremony in Wenceslas Square was banned, and a pilgrimage to Palach’s grave outside of Prague was blocked. Eventually over 1400 people were arrested in connection with events that January, including Charter signatories Václav Havel and Dana Němcová. In December of 1989, Dagmar Burešová (the lawyer who represented the Palachs in their libel suit against Novy) became the first Minister of Justice in post-Communist Czechoslovakia.

Tags: Jan Palach , Burning Bush , Communism

Burning Bush: Truth and Consequences


Here are more thoughts occasioned by the brilliant new Czech film Burning Bush. For my first post on the film, go here.

The drama of Burning Bush centers on a libel suit brought by Jan Palach’s brother and mother against a member of the party’s central committee, Vilém Nový.  During a pre-election meeting outside of Prague at the end of February, Nový claimed Palach was a mentally unstable young man who was manipulated by right-wing foreign elements in cooperation with the student movement. He argued Palach had been told that he was being given a special chemical that would allow the fire to burn while also protecting him from harm (referred to as the “cold fire” theory). But the perfidious Western powers never provided the promised protective chemical—giving him gasoline instead.

Part one of Burning Bush concludes with Dagmar Burešová (Daša) and her boss Vladimir Charouz—two lawyers working in a legal aid bureau—reading an article in the newspaper Mlada Fronta quoting Nový’s speech. Both are struck by the boldness of the lie, and Vladimir notes that Nový would never had made such a claim without instructions from Moscow. A few minutes later Palach’s brother and mother arrive (with Ondřej Travniček , a leader in the students movement who has also been libeled) at the legal bureau to ask Daša to represent them in a suit against Nový. Daša is stunned by the request and asks the Palachs to reconsider. She tries to reassure them by suggesting nobody believes the nonsense in the papers. She asks Ondřej if he really understands who Nový is and if he understands the storm that will be brought down on the Palachs should they go on with their suit. As the frustrated Palachs depart, Daša tells them that Nový can’t diminish the significance of Jan’s act. Is she right? Can Jan Palach’s deed be altered by the Communist functionary’s mere words? Can Jan’s deed speak for itself and rise above the blather of Nový and the remarks of other officials?

Near the beginning of part two of the film Daša and her husband Radim are enjoying a night out without their twin daughters. Daša tells her husband that she has decided to represent the Palachs. Radim, who is a physician, asks what she possibly hopes to achieve with the lawsuit.  In reply she asks him if he only takes patients whom he knows he can cure. The date ends abruptly. In the very early morning their debate continues. Daša tells Radim that she is not taking the case for Palach or his brother or mother. She says, “We keep telling the girls that it’s bad to lie, that it’s bad to cheat, that they should be good. But we don’t believe it ourselves anymore.” Thus the passive toleration of lies undermines the basis of the sort of behavior she expects of her children. Daša comes to understand that her refusal to take the Palach case is a deed that contradicts what she tells her children about how to live. Her exhortations to her daughters would be mere words if she can’t bring herself to act in accordance the underlying principles. Just as the integrity of Palach’s deed really is threatened by Nový’s speech, the integrity of Daša’s speeches to her daughters is threatened by the deed of her initial refusal to take the case.

So Daša agrees to represent the Palachs and begins to build her case against Nový throughout part two of the film—the actual trial begins in part three. Once her investigation begins in earnest, we see the malevolent machinery of the party-state bring pressure to bear on everyone connected to the case. Mrs. Palachová is hounded by middle of the night phone calls and knocks at her door. A man who visits the snack bar at the train station where she works “accidentally” leaves his magazine there, which turns out to be full of naked photos of her son after his death. Jiří is pressured by the cemetery overseer to move Jan as his grave is said to be fast becoming a site for anti-state agitation. A complaint is filed against Radim by a patient who is also assisted by the obviously false testimony of a nurse. Daša and Radim’s flat is surveilled around the clock by two men. And Vladimir, Daša’s boss, ends up stealing a key piece of evidence against Nový. In exchange for his assistance, the state offers to protect his daughter Vladka from the consequences that will follow for her fellow members of the student movement. This is all so well-done by the writer, director, and actors that the film is hard to watch as all of the screws tighten. We are led to question Daša’s decision to take the case, and perhaps even to question Palach’s act, as we see his mother being driven to temporary institutionalization. Simple decency makes one wonder whether it’s all worth it.

It seems clear from the outset that the Palachs have little to no chance of winning their case. One must recognize just how important it was that the Communists preserved some of forms and formalities of the rule of law (e.g., the presence of the legal aid bureau and the fact that a suit could be brought at all against someone like Nový). Yes, most of these institutions and processes were hollowed out or utterly corrupted, but their presence allowed the party to maintain certain pretenses about the overall character of public life. The contrast between the appearance and the reality is what led most people to become utterly cynical about anything political and to cease even to pay much attention to politics. When Daša is gathering information for the trial and conducting interviews, more than once does an interlocutor reply with something like “I don’t pay attention to politics.” And who would dare to suggest such an attitude is not entirely justified? One might even go further. Is it not irresponsible to endanger friends and family while waging battles one cannot possibly win? The proper response might be to flatly ignore the deadly games of the powerful and to endure. Vladimir takes precisely this position in a heated argument with a very young colleague who admires Palach and Jan Zajíc, another young man who immolated himself at the end of February (Zajíc swallowed acid before lighting the flame and died before he ever made it to the street on Wenceslas Square). Vladimir tells the young lawyer, “Your generation has no survival instinct!”

So most people kept their distance as much as possible and made concessions when necessary in the hopes of preserving something like a decent life for their families. They did not take a stand for the truth and allowed a drapery of lies to hang lazily around them. The costs were real for those who did take stands: loss of jobs, children denied entry to school, the loss of friends—the list is long. I once asked a dissident, Kamila Bendová (wife of a leader of the Charter 77 movement, Václav Benda), if her children (or those of other dissidents) ever reproached her for her actions that cost them schooling, decent jobs, or even just a quiet life. She said never—she’d never heard of such a thing—and that on the contrary, it was the children of those parents who had compromised themselves for their children’s sake who were filled with anger and guilt later in life. Standing for truth and justice—against all odds—took enormous courage. The film certainly teaches this. But perhaps even more than that, such stances seemed to entail a certain confidence, a certain hopefulness, that better things really are possible—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Václav Benda once wrote an essay about the fate of his friend Jiří  Gruntorád, who endured a prison term and protective custody, among other things. Benda wrote:

Jirka Gruntorád is, in spite of all the bullying, cheerful and resolute, his friends are on the increase…Whereas They walk with their heads hanging, They are afraid of each other, scared of the future, of anything at all. I would not want to provide Jirka and many others with cheap comfort or make light of their situations, but what is raised against them shows signs more of revenge and impotent fury over defeat than any really effective political activity. They have no future ahead of them, and they know it. That does not make them any less dangerous and it would be a bad idea to underestimate them. Their worst problem is that they are almost boundless in the damage they can do, but do not have it in their power to succeed in anything or in any way; such ontological status is sterile from the start, and in time wearisome…They can do anything, but surprisingly it does them no good. We have to endure everything, but each manful endurance strengthens the position of what I would—maybe immodestly—call justice, freedom, truth or good, which in itself undoubtedly has an element of hope.

There is a brilliant touch near the end of the film. It is now January of 1989, and students have joined together to celebrate Jan Palach week. A few students have been putting up flyers in the Prague metro, and they are being chased by police officers. As the students sprint up the long escalator to escape, they inadvertently drop a bunch of flyers—they float randomly to the ground, perhaps never to find their intended audience. Then commuters emerge into the tunnel and most of them—young and old—bend down, grab a flyer, and place it in their pocket. Most of these people probably did not and would not take a stand for the truth. However, they know it when they see it and they want to touch it, to preserve a little of it when they can.


Tags: Burning Bush , Communism , Jan Palach

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