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June 29, 2022



Czech Embassy in Italy trying to prevent neo-Fascist co-optation of Czechoslovak historical figure Jan Palach there

16.1.2019 9:59
Jan Palach was the Charles University student who set himself on fire on 16 January 1969 to protest the end of the Prague Spring after the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. A copy of his death mask is now the centerpiece of the Jan Palach memorial on Charles University's Faculty of Arts building on Jan Palach Square in Prague.  (Collage:
Jan Palach was the Charles University student who set himself on fire on 16 January 1969 to protest the end of the Prague Spring after the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. A copy of his death mask is now the centerpiece of the Jan Palach memorial on Charles University's Faculty of Arts building on Jan Palach Square in Prague. (Collage:

The Czech Embassy in Italy is in contact with the leadership of the province of Verona and is doing its best to prevent the misuse of the name of the Czechoslovak historical figure Jan Palach there in association with a planned concert by bands connected to the ultra-right. The Czech Foreign Ministry announced the diplomatic efforts on Twitter on Monday, 14 January.

The concert should be held this Saturday, 19 January, under the auspices of the province itself, and many Czech citizens and organizations have contacted the Czech Embassy in Rome about it. "The Embassy of the Czech Republic is dedicating a great deal of attention to this matter and is in contact with the leader of the Province of Verona with the aim of preventing the misuse of the name of Jan Palach in an unacceptable context," the Embassy said.

The Czech Republic's representation in Rome has said Palach is a symbol of a deeply moral ethos as well as of the political changes in the year 1989 that restored democracy to Czechoslovakia. "Given the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death and the commemoration and discussion events to be held in Italy on this occasion, the Embassy of the Czech Republic is calling for Jan Palach's memory and moral message to be respected," the Czech Embassy has said.

The news of the concert, which according to the daily La Repubblica is meant to feature bands that are favorites of the Italian far right, sparked protests at the beginning of the year by both Czech and Italian politicians. The Italian neo-Fascists, according to the daily, have been attempting for some time to co-opt the legacy of Palach, who set himself on fire 50 years ago to protest the occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops and those of their Warsaw Pact allies.

Czech philosopher Bělohradský: The Italian ultra-right adopted Palach's gesture immediately

Along with the Czech and Italian protests against it, the concert by Italian neo-Fascist bands, which is meant to take place in Verona to "honor" Palach on 19 January under the auspices of the local authorities, has raised the question of how it is possible that somebody who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation is being used as a symbol of the far right today. According to the philosopher and sociologist Václav Bělohradský, who has lived in Italy for 50 years, the Italian radical right has used Palach as a symbol from the very beginning.

Bělohradský believes that this most recent chapter in the co-optation is their use of Palach as a symbol of the fight for national sovereignty. Italian journalist Paolo Berizzi, who was the first to draw attention to the concert in Verona, said distortion of symbols is typical for the far right organization CasaPound Italia (CPI), the main force behind today's neo-Fascist scene.

"I experienced it at the time when I was at university in Genoa in the 1970s," Bělohradský said of the Italian reaction to the Czechoslovak student setting himself on fire. The Italian left were unable, according to the sociologist, to accept Palach's act, because they wanted to conduct an international dialogue with communism, i.e., with the Russians, and the Czechoslovak student's gesture meant "the closure of a political space for dialogue, the rejection of politics as dialogue, and above all a rejection of collaboration inside the camp the Italian left believed in," Bělohradský says.

"What's more, you must add in the resistance of the Catholic Church - Italy is a Catholic country, and this kind of struggle is quite unpopular there. Self-immolation is not a legitimate form of protest for Catholics... However, Fascists or the radical right like it. They despised politics as such. They didn't want dialogue, they wanted a fight. They would go to Communist demonstrations to engage in physical combat," the philosopher described the radicalized atmosphere in Italy at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s.

Bělohradský recalled that an important aspect of sympathy for Palach's act among the ultra-right was their own disbelief in "democratic methods", especially those of dialogue and discussion. The right-wing radicals rejected pragmatic politics and saw an acceptance of death and an instrument of political combat in Palach's act.

The context of America's war in Vietnam at the time was also important. "The left was organizing itself around protests against the Vietnam war, and suddenly somebody here is using that same protest method against communism, so the right wing really liked that. At student meetings, if somebody began speaking about Vietnam, the right-wingers would immediately speak up and ask why we were not discussing Czechoslovakia and Palach," Bělohradský recalled.

"Everybody [in Italy] is protesting against capitalism, nobody [in Italy] is against communism, and then somebody [Palach] is protesting communism with these methods being used in Vietnam, the self-immolation by monks in Vietnam, which demonstrates that the way you on the left  are perceiving the Americans is the same way that they, the Czechoslovaks, are perceiving the Soviet Union - and that proves that we, the Fascists, are correct," Bělohradský explained the far right logic at the time.

A collection to erect the first memorial to Palach in Rome, which was unveiled in January 1970, was organized by the right-wing daily Il Tempo. "The [Italian] left did not comprehend Palach's act. For the [Italian] left it was something that was not in their vocabulary, in their code, rather, that kind of gesture belonged to the anti-American protests, because it was to known to them from Vietnam," Bělohradský explained.

Currently Palach's action and its symbolism is resonating in Italy as part of disputes between the adherents of sovereignty and the globalists. "For the Italian ultra-right, Palach's legacy is a message that was never received, an appeal for national sovereignty, of respect for the nation," the philosopher concluded.

A different interpretation based on the current strategy of the Italian ultra-right has been provided to the media by Berizzi, a journalist for La Repubblica and author of the book Nazi Italy (Nazi Italia). "This is one of many attempts by the far right to appropriate symbols that do not belong to them. This strategy is nothing new. The Fascists create conditions for themselves to be accepted as the 'good Fascists' by appropriating symbols, figures and subject matter from 'the left'. This technique is especially used by CPI, they do this constantly," Berizzi said.

"They want to get a place in the public debate and earn political credit by doing this. The technique leads to obvious paradoxes. For example, CPI leader Simone di Stefano says:  'We are the inheritors of Fascism, but because the civil war in Italy ended 80 years ago, we are concentrating on the future of our country and the Constitution is our common starting point' - but the basis of the Italian Constitution is anti-Fascist, so that's too bad for them," the Italian journalist said.

Czech-Italian journalist Andreas Pieralli sees the situation similarly. "This is about the ultra-right in Europe doing its best for quite some time to legitimize itself by no longer just banking on its traditional idols, who are unacceptable to the majority of society, but by endeavoring to 'associate' with famous figures who are recognized by society," he said.

brf, ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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