I’ll leave the description of the scene to William Shawcross’s well-informed biography of Alexander Dubček (titled simply Dubček) whose reforms were quashed by the Soviet intervention:
At 3:30 on the drizzling afternoon of 16 January 1969 a battered Škoda drove up Wenceslas Square, past the [equestrian] statue [of St. Wenceslas, saint of Bohemia] and the trams and stopped for a moment below the [National M]useum. A boy of about twenty climbed out of the car and said something to the driver. A young man in the back seat passed him a small can. The boy took it from him and gazed, rather vacantly, at the car as it drove away….
The area where the boy stood had been destroyed by tanks; no effort had been made to repair it because it was to be the site of the main station in an underground railway that was slowly being built in Prague. Blocks of stone lay untidily in the mud, and flimsy metal barriers surrounded the debris in order to stop people tripping over.
The boy stepped past the barriers and over to a fallen block of stone. He set down the can and took off his coat which he laid carefully on the stone. He picked up the can and poured most of its contents over his head and shoulders. The rest he splashed against his chest and trousers. He then flicked a lighter and set his clothes on fire.
Palach left a letter claiming that "further torches will burst into flames" if certain demands for political freedom were not met. There were supposedly thirteen other young people ready to burn themselves for their cause; however, none of them every materialized. It appears, however, that there were a considerable number of other independent self-immolations in protest of the Soviet occupation and the politics of "normalization," and similar acts were carried out in other Soviet Bloc countries in the next few years, apparently in imitation of Palach.
The young protestor died three days later of his wounds. Afterwards, his body lay in state at the Carolinum of Charles University while some 350,000 mourners filed by to view the coffin; all the policing was performed by students while official security forces remained in the back ground. The funeral – apparently allowed by the state as another pressure release valve – was attended by about 800,000.
It is difficult to estimate how much difference Palach’s act of desperation made. One former dissident, Tomáš Halík, has said, “when, during interrogations in the eighties, they made promises here and threatened me there, I always remembered Palach and gained the strength to say no.”
The twentieth anniversary of Palach’s act in January 1989 helped set in motion the Velvet Revolution of that November. Dissident playwright Václav Havel turned up at a protest held on Wenceslas Square, apparently only to watch, and was uninvolved in organizing the event, but was nonetheless arrested. This was his last detention under the regime, and calls for his release, helped build the movement that eventually forced the communist government to resign in December 1989.
IF YOU GO TO PRAGUE
Palach was initially buried in Prague’s Olšany Cemetery, but in 1973 his remains were skirted away by authorities and cremated, with the ashes given to his mother for burial in a discrete location that would not attract a cult following. They were finally returned to his original grave in 1990. There is a memorial to Palach and another student who burned himself in February 1969 on Wenceslas Square. Jan Palach Square was established in December 1989, right after the Velvet Revolution. It lies at the foot of the Manes Bridge on the Old Town side of the Vltava River.