On 8 September, 1968, accountant Ryszard Siwiec set himself on fire to protest against Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia
Frequently described as “the year that changed the world”, the seismic events of 1968 still resonate to this day: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet offensive in Vietnam and the first ever images of the world seen from space.
It was also a year for protest, a time remembered for the civil rights marches and growing anti-war movement in the States. In Paris, barricaded streets burned as students and trade unionists launched a series of strikes and occupations.
Unrest, too, was growing behind the Iron Curtain. Widely-known as the Prague Spring, the January election of Alexander Dubcek as the First Secretary of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party brought with it a new wave of optimism and reforms.
Alarmed by this, and in particular plans for the decentralization of authority, on the night of August 20th and August 21st the Soviet Union struck back by sending a huge invasion force comprised of 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks.
Dozens were killed in initial clashes, but in the following days Czechoslovak resistance was defined mainly by its peaceful, non-violent protest. Although these too were soon quelled, resentment simmered.
The global outrage that greeted the Soviet Union’s brazen aggression had not bypassed Poland, either.
Largely forgotten by history, on September 8th, 1968, a 59-year-old accountant by the name of Ryszard Siwiec attended the annual Harvest Festival held in Warsaw’s Tenth Anniversary Stadium.
Attended by 100,000 people, the gathered crowd included the nation’s de facto leader, Władysław Gomułka, as well as Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz.
During one of the festival’s dances, Siwiec doused himself in solvent before throwing a pile of self-typed leaflets in the air.
Likely inspired by the self-immolation of the monk Thích Quảng Đức five years earlier in Saigon, he then held a banner aloft declaring “For our freedom and yours” before setting himself alight.
Yelling “I protest”, he resisted efforts to put the flames out before being eventually rushed to the nearby Praski hospital. Four-days later, he finally succumbed to his injuries.
Though recorded on camera, his act went largely ignored with much of the crowd simply too focused on the general fanfare in front of them on the pitch.
For the authorities, this was something of a blessing, and they furthered their cause by hushing up the incident – the security police told onlookers that Siwiec was mentally unstable.
Gossip was later fanned by further rumours that painted Siwiec as a drunk that had somehow set himself on fire while lighting a cigarette and drinking vodka.
So little was known about his death that Radio Free Europe only reported the incident the following year, but even then it fell mainly to word of mouth to spread the news – thanks to the efforts of his friends and family, it was in the very early 1980s that Solidarity published a brochure about his actions.
Miraculously, however, a seven-second film of his self-immolation also survived, quite possibly only because it had been mislabelled before festering in an archive.
Only in 1991 was his name finally awarded the attention it deserved following the release of an award-winning documentary titled Hear My Cry.
The film’s title drew from a recording that he had left before setting off for Warsaw. In it, Siwiec left the following message:
“People who still have a spark of humanity and feelings, get a grip of yourselves! Hear my cry, the cry of a grey ordinary man, a son of the nation, who loves his own and other people’s freedom above all else. It is not too late!”
An active anti-Communist, Siwiec had a history of penning protest literature that he distributed under a pseudonym, and having re-written his will in April it is theorised that he had planned his suicide for months, only waiting for the right reason – the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was just that.
Subsequently seen by history as a martyr, today Siwiec is commemorated by a memorial outside the National Stadium (which stands on the site once occupied by the Tenth Anniversary Stadium), a street name in Prague (and Warsaw), a bridge in the town that he lived, Przemyśl, and numerous posthumous awards granted by the reborn Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland itself.
“I am dying so that the truth will win, that humanity may win, and love may win,” he said as he lay in hospital.
“I am dying so that lies may perish, so that hatred may perish, and so that terror may perish.
“I don’t feel any pain and I haven’t felt any pain all the time. Only my hands hurt, the left one from shaking the hand of those who have taken a false oath.”