Message by Giulio Terzi on the 50th anniversary of the sacrifice of Jan Palach

On the initiative of Giuseppe Benedetto, President of the Luigi Einaudi Foundation, today we pay tribute to the memory of Jan Palach here in Prague on the fiftieth anniversary of his sacrifice.

The extraordinary driving force behind the martyrdom that Jan Palach has – with immense courage and determination – inflicted on himself, shows the absolute power of non-violence in the struggle for freedom against tyranny; the primacy of humanity and justice against the elimination of human dignity; the right of a people to know the truth rather than suffer the systematic lie of a corrupt system.

In his extra-ordinary Diary Book on Prague Spring, Enzo Bettiza wrote that Jan Palach “(…) was of evangelical religion and belonged to a particular patriotic strand of Hussite Protestantism. To the evangelical pastor, who officiated the requiem by summoning Hus’s martyrdom in the final prayer, I asked a question on the direct and committed participation of his Church. The answer was immediate. What we have honored is a protest. It is a sacrifice consummated on the altar of the nation that will remain luminous forever and not just for us. It is something alive and active that God can only welcome”.

His extraordinary ideal strength has marked the history of our Europe for fifty years. No truly free-minded has ever, even for a moment, forgotten. How could, on that distraught and gloomy 25 Januray 1969, a million Czechoslovaks gathered around Jan Palach’s coffin in Prague keep alive the hope for freedom? Did anyone sense the depth reached by the roots of his act? Did they imagine, even the most visionary, that the iron curtain would have gone thanks to a conscious, nonviolent, unyielding dissent?

Just a few months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it seemed like another decade was needed before History rendered justice to the Martyr in Wenceslas Square. On 18 August 1988, making the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Marco Pannella stated “(…) we have demonstrated in different parts of the country to affirm the values ​​of freedom and democracy that animated the Prague Spring and that for us they know no frontiers whatsoever (…) we wanted to demonstrate in the same square where Jan Palach’s sacrifice was consummated; not only to pay tribute to his memory but also to acknowledge the reasons of his life and his struggle. Through Palach we wanted to remember the extraordinary non-violent experience of an entire people: one of the richest and most important human and political events of this century. It is non-violence and a common hope that brings us today to the Czechoslovakian squares and prisons. It is a struggle for a united Europe governed in freedom and the law”.

As in 1988 Marco Pannella and the few alike perceived the wave of freedom that was about to overwhelm the communist dictatorships of Europe, in the following years few have fully grasped the scope of a generalized erosion of Liberal Democracy and the rule of law in Europe and across the world. It is precisely for this reason that the fiftieth anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach bears an extraordinary importance.

In honor of his Memory and in recognition of the courage shown by all the peoples who defeated through nonviolence the tyranny that oppressed them, I propose that 19 January, the date of Jan Palach’s death, or 16 January, the day of his self-immolation be proclaimed “World Freedom Day”. We are going through a historical phase where references, founding principles, values ​​of Liberal Democracies are being overshadowed. We need to know our history, fully understand the sense of European identity and the peoples that compose it, we must implement the “Right to Know” as a paradigm of freedom and individual and collective responsibility.

Democracy has suffered its most serious crises for decades in 2017 and 2018: guarantees for fair and free elections, minority rights, freedom of information, the rule of law have been under attack all over the world. 71 countries have suffered a sharp decline in civil and political rights, and 35 of improvements. For the twelfth consecutive year global freedom has declined. The 2018 Freedom House Reports outlines a disturbing trend brought about new technologies are having in eroding fundamental freedoms and rights, supporting undemocratic and authoritarian regimes. For these reasons, the figure of Jan Palach must continue to inspire us and live in our consciences.

Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata

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