In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the reforms of Alexander Dubcek’s government during what was known as the Prague Spring. Jan Palach, a 22 year old student, decided to sacrifice himself in protest of the invasion and set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square on 16 January 1969.
From a personal viewpoint this was a political awakening. I was just a few months away from going to university in Glasgow to begin my PhD research in Chemistry and had still not been old enough to vote in the previous UK election. I had never thought much about politics but this horrible event was global headline news for weeks and weeks. It brought into stark relief the totalitarian behaviour of one state/empire, the USSR, over another, Czechoslovakia, subjugating them in terms of their economy, their laws, their industry, their education system, their politics ….
We visited this simple memorial to Jan’s sacrifice in Wenceslas Square, Prague on our recent trip and stood there for a few minutes as I told my daughter and her husband of the events of 1969. The younger generation have mostly no real idea of the brutality and destructive rule of the USSR from the end of WWII up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that during this time countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia were not “free” in the sense that we understand freedom, sovereignty and democracy today.
We will all do well to remember this, even today, almost 50 years on, when freedom of speech is buried in the guise of political correctness, when even “thinking” something is labelled as a crime, when many education, media and civil institutions have been annexed by left wing Marxists, and when any “superstate” interferes in the politics, laws, economy etc of another.