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.

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