top of page

The most profound protest

Shortly before he gassed himself in his apartment in London in May 1943, Szmul Zygielbojm, the representative in the Polish Government-in-Exile of the Jewish Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party, wrote to the Government-in-Exile's President and Prime Minister. In his letter, Zygielbojm gave two principal motives for his act: to share the fate of his fellow Polish Jews and to protest the lack of action taken by the western Allies to prevent the annihilation of Polish Jews [1].


By his suicide, Zygielbojm chose to share the fate of those whom he called his Comrades not only in their death, but also in their act of resistance, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April and May 1943. Both heroic and futile, its futility obvious in advance, the Ghetto Uprising set an example which Zygielbojm chose to follow, elevating the suicidal uprising and the individual act of suicide into moral acts, a means of diminishing shame-of-self and of proving one's humanity through a refusal to accept any longer the inhumanity of others.


But while the men and women of the Ghetto Uprising were directly engaged in fighting the Nazis, Zygielbojm's suicide note identified his act of resistance as one directed at the leaders of the western Allies. In itself, this strategy failed: the Ghetto Uprising was put down at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. And the western Allies took no direct action to prevent a genocide that they could not claim not to know of.


Zygielbojm, it seems fair to assume, would have considered his suicide as morally necessary regardless of its political effects. His death fits within a Polish Romantic heritage which assumes that “deeds should be judged by their intentions rather than their outcomes, that sacrifice ennobles and that eternal sacrifice ennobles eternally” [2].


A particular subset of the suicide-activist chooses death by self-immolation, a strategy of suicide as visual spectacle, violent death as a means of shaming political targets into changing their policies and actions. In its method and location, the self-immolation in January 1969 of Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square, Prague, fulfilled a goal of maximum visibility and 'shame value'. But, like Zygielbojm, Palach's suicide should be seen through a moral as much as a political lens. Palach was protesting less the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia which put a final end to the Prague Spring than the 'demoralization' of Czechs and Slovaks, their apparent passivity and haste to compromise with, and adapt to, a new iteration of dictatorship [3].


This is certainly the interpretation which the dissident movement Charter 77, progenitors and leaders of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, gave to Palach's death:


"He died because he wanted to shout as loud as possible. He wanted us to realize what was happening to us, to see what we were really doing, and to hear what we were saying in those times of reputedly inevitable concessions, “reasonable” compromises, and hopefully clever tactical ploys. We started forgetting that something has to resist even the greatest pressure, something fundamental that cannot be bought or sold, but that is absolutely essential for maintaining our human dignity" [4].


Given a primarily moral purpose, Palach's suicide nonetheless had profound political reverberations. His act – and those of others, including Jan Zajíc, who burned himself to death at the same location one month after Palach – had ongoing symbolic resonance and served as a 'call-to-arms' for later generations of activists. The twentieth anniversary of his suicide provided the catalyst for demonstrations which eventually, with the favourable wind provided by political change in the Soviet Union and the example of Solidarity in Poland, led to the dismantling of the communist regime and the elevation to the Presidency of Charter 77's Václav Havel. Palach and Zajíc are now commemorated with a bronze cross at the site of their deaths in Wenceslas Square.


Where self-immolation moves from an individual act – or from an individual act with a limited number of 'copycats' like Zajíc – to become widespread practice among a particular group, its direct political intentions are explicit. This is the case with Tibetan monks, more than 100 of whom have burned themselves to death since 2009. In doing so, “Many shouted slogans calling for Tibetan independence and the return of the Dalai Lama, before setting themselves ablaze” [5]. For the government of China, self-immolation is a political act and one to be punished as such [6].


The wave of uprisings in the Arab world since 2010 has also witnessed several acts of self-immolation, sometimes with immediate political consequences. The suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for revolt in Tunisia, sparking riots and demonstrations which culminated in the flight to Saudi Arabia of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. For his role as 'the match that lit a revolution' [7], Bouazizi was posthumously awarded the Sakharov Prize and named Person of the Year for 2011 by The Times.


In this way, Bouazizi and other suicide-activists are elevated to the status of martyr. Their acts represent an ultimate form of activism. There is nothing that the forces which they oppose can do to these individuals which approaches what they are willing to do to themselves. The visibility of their actions and the status which they posthumously claim for themselves can prove seductive. Palach was fully aware of the power of the example he was setting and urged others not to put themselves through the same ordeal. Václav Havel too sought to discourage new suicides on the 20th anniversary of Palach's death in 1989 [8].


In his warning to potential copycats, Havel refutes suicide-as-activism for the other, obvious sense in which it represents the ultimate form of activism. The tension between suicide-activism as morally necessary and in some way 'strategically useful' on the one hand and an avoidable waste of life on the other is explored in A Minor Apocalypse by the Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki. Encouraged to set himself alight in front of the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, the narrator is both cynical of the motives of those egging him on and reluctant to side-step the moral case for the act which he has been asked to perform. As he approaches the Palace of Culture at the novel's conclusion, aware that he follows in the path of a Czech, a Lithuanian and a Buddhist monk [9], aware too that almost to the last minute he “could still run away to [his] little mouse hole” [10], the narrator universalises his suicide and moves this most planned of self-immolations, the most instrumental act of suicide-as-activism into the realm of moral choices:


Now I begin walking slowly toward that stone platform wreathed with a short flight of stairs. My legs are becoming heavy and my head is pulled down toward the earth from which I had arisen and to which I must, of my own free will, return. People, give me strength. People, give strength to everyone in the world who is, at this very moment, going, as I am, to make a burnt offering of myself. [11]


Here is a man asking to be judged by his intentions and not their outcome, a man expressing confidence in others' similar intentions – not to kill themselves, but to resist whatever form of repression and abuse they face. The suicides of Zygielbojm, Palach, Zajíc, Bouazizi, the monks of Tibet and countless others is an example to be followed in spirit, not in action. Activism is a moral choice, something essential in terms of an activist's own humanity. Its utility should not be counted only in its likely direct, political effects and its effectiveness will be greater for having such moral foundations.


[1] In his suicide note, Zygielbojm wrote that “I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people”, Szmul Zygielbojm, to the President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland, 11 May 1943;

[2] Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder, 2010 p.292.


[4] Charter 77 statement, 15 January 1989,

[5] Chinese court convicts two Tibetans for 'encouraging self-immolation', 31 January 2013;

[6] For supposedly encouraging others to burn themselves to death, Lorang Konchok received a death sentence with a two-year reprieve and Lorang Tsering 10 year jail sentence.

[7] Robert Worth, The New York Times, 21 January 2011.


[9] Presumably Jan Palach, Roman Kalanta, who burned himself to death in 1972 in protest at the Soviet of Lithuania and Thich Quang Duc, a monk protesting South Vietnamese persecution who self-immolated in 1963.

[10] This quote and the Czech, Lithuanian, Buddhist reference from page 226, A Minor Apocalypse, Tadeusz Konwicki, English version by Aventura, 1984.

[11] Ibid. pp 229-230.

bottom of page