“Live for Truth!”
by Robert Pedersen, WRLA Chairman & Founder
It was August 1968, when Soviet tanks poured into Prague to smash the “Prague Spring” — Czechoslovakia’s tenative steps within the Soviet bloc towards democratic reforms.
In January, 1969, Twenty-year old Jan Palach, (left) a university student with brown hair, thoughtful eyes, and a broad open face, prepared his back pack on the morning of January 16, carefully brushed his hair in front of a mirror and rushed down the stairs near the University, headed for Wenceslas Square and the national museum, past Soviet troops which had now occupied Prague for months since the 1968 Soviet Invasion
In the morning hours, his feet would have echoed off Prague’s ancient paving stones, echoing against its gothic, baroque buildings. Ancient Prague, mixed withthe sound of Soviet tank tracks.; Prague now suffering under its second major foreign occupation in 30 years – the Nazi’s had come in ’38.
As Palach rounded the corner onto Wenceslas Square he would have seen its art-nouveau buildings fronted by Soviet tanks. They had come to squash the democratic reformers of Alexander Dubcek, and now Palach was desperate. Before the massive stone stairs of the National museum, Palach reach into his backpack, doused himself with gasoline— and lit a match. With his sacrifice and immolation Palach hoped to draw the world’s attention to Prague’s plight.
But the world was other wise preoccupied. And it would be more than 20 years before Prague would once again taste its freedom.
Goods, when available in stores, were shoddy. Through central planning, clothes were delivered to government department stores in such odd shapes and sizes, that a black-mark et cottage industry grew up to cut and reshape and tailor purchased clothes to fit a human body. The skies, thick with brown coal dust, were unbreathable and stung the eyes, Heat was pumped in through huge pipes that rolled down the streets on a mono-rail like structure, belching the same temperature – predetermined by a central plant – into every apartment. You couldn’t buy soap, or meat, for weeks at a time. But the most soul-numbing was the rigid, lock-step “thought police,” that made people afraid to speak the truth to family members, let alone neighbors for fear of job dismissal or arrest. People waited 14 years for a new car – one basic model, three color choices. Life was hard, between the pervasive pollution, and hardworking conditions, people tended to look twenty-years older than their Western counter-parts.
Those who did have the bravery to speak out were imprisoned – or exiled.
And so Jan Palach, became a symbol of a brave young man who could not accept the system of lies and oppression.
The “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, began with a torch-lit vigil up the winding cobblestone paths to Vysehrad cemetery above the university , where young student speakers spoke — among the ornate graves of Smetna, and Jan Neruda and the art nouveau grotto’s of men like Dvorak — of the memory of Jan Palach and other martyrs.
But Havel, through his plays, writings, and essays, had already become the conscience of Czecholslovakia.
“A specter is haunting Eastern Europe,” Havel (right) had written in the Power of the Powerless, “…the specter….was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity.” The students had all read Havel’s works, including, “Living in Truth,” through underground Samizdat copies passed from one to another. “words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, …. words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”
They knew Havel’s principle’s explaning how truth can win over the “Lie;”. Rather than direct resistance, Havel advocated creating sphere of truth for individuals to live in. Rather than bold confrontational actions, Havel argues for spiritual resistance aimed at distancing oneself from the communist lie. A Grocery, he posits should not set communist slogans in his market’s windows simply because he knows it is expected of him. When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.”
So inspired the students moved down the divergent paths from the hill above the university and began to march up the Vltava River – their numbers every swelling, an ocean of candles glowing — as they passed the elaborate art nouveau building facades of carved owls, peacocks, vines, mascaroons, and reclinging musicians, all shimmering in the shadows of the torchlights. They did not intend a revolution, but a quiet demonstration of their strength. There were no signs, and few chants, just seas of lit candles as they rounded the National Theater opera house. But, turning off the river towards Wenceslas Square , the Security Police were waiting; sealing the students into a bloody trap. The march’s leaders were backed into a covered arcade — all other exits along the street being padlocked — where heads were cracked, bodies broken, blood stained the streets. And with the flowing blood, rage flowed throughout Czechoslovakia.
Soon the Workers — the vaunted Proletariat of the Communist State — were on the streets, and Wenceslas Square was flooded with tens of thousands of ordinary Czechs demanding to hear from their new national hero, Vaclav Havel.
In less than three weeks the Communsit government had fallen.
Prague was at last, once again free. And on December 31, Havel was sworn in as their new president in Prague’s Castle.