Evaluating the suicide of Jan Zajic

Hindsight bias in the history of the Velvet Revolution

When a campaign has been successful or major social or political change has come about, there can be a tendency to reflect back on particular tactics or acts and judge them in terms of their importance to the outcomes which have accrued. This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, as an example of 'hindsight bias' – making an assumption after the event that something was inevitable and believing that because an act aimed at achieving a goal, the achievement of the goal must be due to the act. Secondly, it limits acts of resistance to being means towards particular ends rather than allowing them to stand as ends in their own right and as moral acts which need no other justification.

In reflecting on the history of resistance to communist rule in Czechoslovakia, it is tempting to presume a linear narrative thread from the Prague Spring of 1968-9 through the mobilisation of civil society around Charter 77 to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The risk with this is to be misled by hindsight into accepting a simple explanation of causality and inevitability. It also distorts memories of the experience of resistance: for most of the period between 1969 and 1989, those opposed to communist rule would have been pessimistic about the prospects of change and, even for large parts of 1989, would have considered improbable the suggestion that the demise of the communist regime would be sealed before the year's end.

Evaluating the suicide of Jan Palach and Jan Zajic

On 19 January 1969, twenty year old student Jan Palach burned himself to death on Wenceslas Square in Prague in protest at the suppression of the Prague Spring. Just over a month later, eighteen year old Jan Zajic did the same.

 

For the following twenty years, these acts had no material effect. But they reverberated through twenty years of oppression and acted as a point of reference when the possibility of change re-emerged. Jan Palach and Jan Zajic are examples of how martyrs – those who commit suicide or who are murdered, disappeared or imprisoned – have enormous potency for campaigns: just as they need a 'bad guy' to focus anger upon, campaigns need 'heroic victims' whose example inspires or shames others into action. At this symbolic level, the suicides of Jan Palach and Jan Zajic 'worked'.

Evaluating the suicide of Jan Zajic

The suicide of Jan Zajic on 25 February 1969 had its own specific 'hook' – the 21st anniversary of Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. At the same time though, his suicide was, on the face of it, redundant. He was making the same point as Jan Palach, who had already fulfilled the need for a martyr to the Czechoslovak democratic cause. It is Jan Palach whom the world tends to remember: he has streets named after him in towns and cities in France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland [1]. Both are commemorated together in Wenceslas Square, but while there is a street named after Jan Zajic in Prague, Jan Palach has a square named after him in the same city. The apparent tragedy of Jan Zajic is that his sacrifice was unnecessary and is, outside Prague itself, essentially forgotten.

 

To reach this conclusion, however, is to judge his act only in terms of its instrumental value to achieving a political goal. Recasting it as a moral act essential to his own humanity profoundly affects how it is to be evaluated. In these terms, Jan Zajic's suicide 'worked' even if there had been no political change in Czechoslovakia, its value the same whether or not the Velvet Revolution happened.

 

Dissident and eventual Czechoslovak (and later Czech) President Václav Havel used the example of a shopkeeper placing a poster in his window with a communist slogan to illustrate moral decay and complicity with the regime [2]. To take the poster down would be to 'live in truth' regardless of its efficacy as a tactic to bring the regime down. The challenge for campaigning and for campaign evaluation is to incorporate this sense of something having its own value and the importance of individuals and organisations 'living in truth' in the strategies that they employ. The point is no more to deliver purely symbolic actions than it is for us to all line up and burn ourselves to death. It is though a matter as individuals of being prepared to 'take the poster down' and as campaigners and evaluators to find new ways of judging campaigns – not only in terms of whether they are effective but also whether they are necessary even if not (currently) effective.

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Palach#Place_names

[2] The Power of the Powerless, in Living in Truth, Vaclav Havel, 1986.