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March 19, 2019
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Czech students protest co-optation of Czechoslovak historical figure in Italy

8.1.2019 11:25
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 the Warsaw Pact armies. 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:  Romea.cz)
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 the Warsaw Pact armies. 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: Romea.cz)

The upcoming 50th anniversary of the death of Czechoslovak student Jan Palach was commented on in Sunday's opinion section of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera by two Italian journalists. Gian Antonio Stella informed Italian readers that the Student Council of Charles University's Faculty of Arts has protested a concert by neo-Fascist bands to be held on 19 January in Verona, allegedly to honor Palach's memory.

Stella's opinion piece notes that Palach has nothing in common with the ultra-right. Paolo Mieli, described by the Czech News Agency as a "matador" of Italian journalism, alleges in another opinion piece that neither Budapest nor Prague are currently officially commemorating figures symbolic of the fight against the Soviet regime.

"We were outraged by the news, reported by La Repubblica and then the Czech media, that a concert is planned in Verona where music groups associated with the Italian ultra-right are to perform," Stella quotes the Student Council as saying. Representatives of the organization annually commemorate Palach's protest and consider the "official auspices, in this case of the province of Verona, for this concert" to be worthy of condemnation.

Stella writes that neo-Fascists have nothing in common with Palach, referencing a monograph about the history of the student's self-immolation in 1969 to protest the fact that the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 brought an end to the reform period known as the Prague Spring. Stella also warns that the head of the province of Verona, Manuel Scalzotto of the nationally-governing Lega party, which several commentators believe is close to the ultra-right, is staying silent about the issue.

Massimo Mariotto, the boss of the Serit waste processing firm, which is sponsoring the concert of the Nazi-rock bands in Verona and a person who makes no secret of his ultra-right affiliations, is also keeping quiet about the event. Stella writes that he does not consider the concert to honor Palach, but to desecrate his memory.

In the context of Czech President Zeman's silence about the anniversary of Palach's death - i.e., the fact that no official state commemoration of it will be held - Mieli, who is also referred to by the Czech News Agency as the "doyen" of Italian journalism, also recalls the recent removal of the statue of Imre Nagy from Budapest's Martyrs' Square near the Hungarian Parliament. Mieli alleges the Czech Republic and Hungary, or rather Czech President Zeman and Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, are failing to honor figures symbolic of opposition to the Soviet regime.

Mieli reminds his readers that the Czechoslovak, Hungarian and Soviet authorities attempted to tarnish the legacies of Nagy and Palach for decades prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both of these figures became symbols of the first protests held in the months leading up to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

Five months after what was referred to as "Jan Palach Week" in Czechoslovakia, the death of the executed former Prime Minister of the Government of Hungary, Imre Nagy, was commemorated on 16 June 1989 by thousands of Hungarians, including Orbán himself, who has now removed the statue of Nagy as a symbol of the unsuccessful anti-communist Hungarian uprising of 1956. "The purpose of what is happening in two of these four Visegrád countries is to gradually erase from the memories of the Czechs and Hungarians not just the figures mentioned, but also the ceremonies that have been dedicated to them since the year 1989," Mieli believes.

A commemoration ceremony for Jan Palach is being organized on 16 January by the "Million Moments for Democracy" group. A commemorative march will proceed from Wenceslas Square to the Old Town Square in Prague that evening.

ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Extremism, Italy, Neo-Nazism, Racism



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