“Last night, students in Vienna took to the streets to express their solidarity with Czechoslovak students. Equipped with dozens of banners, they organized a silent procession.”
Svobodné slovo daily, 25 January 1969
International attention focused on Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring and especially after 21 August 1968 – an occupied nation in the heart of Europe aroused worldwide sympathy. Jan Palach’s self-immolation in January 1969 again attracted the attention of foreign countries. The world was moved by the exceptional nature of the form of his protest, unknown in Europe until then.
UN Secretary General, U Thant, expressed his condolences over the death of Jan Palach. Italian PM, Mariano Rumor, paid his respects to him as well, and Indian PM, Indira Gandhi, said that he joined the gallery of world sufferers, alongside Mahatma Gandhi. Even Pope Paul VI paid tribute to Jan Palach’s memory in his message of 26 January 1969 when he stated: “We can uphold the values that put self-sacrifice above others to the supreme test, but we cannot approve the tragic form taken on behalf of their aims.”
In many Western European cities, students organized memorial processions; the largest were held in Rome, Milan, Florence, Vienna, and Amsterdam. In January 1969, an Italian fund-raising campaign for Jan Palach’s monument was started, and a year later, his statue was unveiled. The square where it was put up was renamed Piazza Jan Palach. Similar monuments have been built in other cities, and Jan Palach’s name can be found in many squares and streets around the world. Jan Palach also had many followers abroad, a few of them even in other USSR countries.
The names of Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc had appeared in the foreign press several months after their deaths. However, in the following two decades, most of the attention was from the Czechoslovak exile and its press. Genuine outrage was generated by the removal of Jan Palach’s grave from the Olšany cemetery in 1973. Jan Kavan founded and ran the Palach Press Agency in London that was publishing news about the Czechoslovak opposition and facilitating the distribution of exile literature. In Paris, the French Committee for the Support of Charter 77 started awarding the Jan Palach Prize.