The story

1968 Prague Spring - History


Alexander Dubcek became First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek instituted a new program-- what he called "Communism with a Human Approach". Dubcek's reforms included freedom of speech and of the press. The period became known as the "Prague Spring". The Spring came to a sudden end when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and arrested Dubcek and his government.



Czech Republic: A Chronology Of Events Leading To The 1968 Invasion

Prague, 20 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The following is a chronology of the significant events leading up to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968:

Jan. 5, 1968: Alexander Dubcek replaces Antonin Novotny as Party leader and declares his intention to press ahead with extensive reforms. Novotny was criticized by party liberals and intellectuals for his government's poor economic performance and his anti-Slovak prejudice. Dubcek is seen as the perfect compromise candidate, acceptable to both the orthodox party members and reform wing.

February: Communist Party leadership approves enlargement of the economic reform program started in 1967. Journalists, students, and writers call for the repeal of the 1966 Press censorship law.

March: Public rallies held in Prague and other cities and towns in support of reform policies voice growing criticism of Novotny's presidency.

March 22: Novotny resigns as president, after facing pressure by party liberals.

March 30: General Ludvik Svoboda is elected president of Czechoslovakia. Svoboda was a war hero who had also served in the Czechoslovak legion at the start of the Russian Civil War in 1918.

April 5: Action Program of the Communist Party is published, part of the effort to provide "socialism with a human face." It calls for the "democratization" of the political and economic system. The document refers to a "unique experiment in democratic communism." The Communist Party would now have to compete with other parties in elections. Document envisages a gradual reform of the political system over a 10-year period.

April 18: A new government is formed under Dubcek ally and reformer Oldrich Cernik. Liberalization process goes full swing. Press continues to become more outspoken in support of freedoms.

May 1: May Day celebrations show huge support for the new cause.

May 4-5: Czechoslovak leaders visit Moscow: Soviet leadership expresses dissatisfaction with developments in Czechoslovakia.

May 29: A number of high-ranking Soviet military officials visit Czechoslovakia to lay the groundwork for Soviet military exercises.

June 26: Censorship is officially abolished.

June 27: Two Thousand Words manifesto signed by reformers, including some Central Committee members, is published in Literarny Listy and other publications. It calls for "democratization," the re-establishment of the Social Democratic Party, and the setting up of citizens' committees. The manifesto is a more radical alternative to the Communist Party's April Action Program The political leadership (including Dubcek) rejects the manifesto.

July 4: Beginning of Soviet-led military exercizes in Sumava, aimed at strengthening the hand of anti-reformist forces in Czechoslovakia.

July 15: Representatives of the Communist parties of the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Bulgaria meet in Warsaw. They send a strongly worded diplomatic note warning the new Czechoslovak leaders that "the situation in Czechoslovakia jeopardizes the common vital interests of other socialist countries."

July 29-Aug. 1: Negotiations are held between the presidiums of the Czechoslovak and Soviet communist parties in Cierna-nad-Tisou. Dubcek argues that reforms did not endanger the role of the party but built public support. The Soviets do not accept these arguments and sharply criticize the Czechoslovak moves. Threats of invasion are made.

July 31: East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Soviet Union announce that they will hold military exercises near the Czechoslovak border.

Aug. 3: A Warsaw Pact meeting (without Romania) is held in Bratislava. The meeting brings about a seeming reconciliation between the Warsaw Pact leaders and the Czechoslovak leadership. Here for the first time, the so-called Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereigny is announced. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev receives a handwritten letter from five members of the Czechoslovak Presidium who warn that the socialist order is under threat. They request military intervention.

Aug. 18: The Kremlin decides on the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The commander of Soviet Central Forces, General Aleksandr Mayorov, relates how Soviet Defense Minister Andrei Grechko stated to the assembled Soviet Politburo and military leaders: "the invasion will take place even if it leads to a third world war."

Aug. 20: Czechoslovakia is invaded by an estimated 500,000 troops from the armies of five Warsaw pact countries (Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and East Germany) overnight into Aug. 21.

Aug. 21, Shortly after 0100: State Radio announces invasion by troops from five Warsaw Pact countries. It says the invasion took place without the knowledge of the Czechoslovak authorities. "The Presidium calls upon all citizens of the Republic to keep the peace and not resist the advancing armies , because the defense of our borders is now impossible." The army is given orders to remain in its barracks and not to offer resistance.

Aug. 21, 0300: Czechoslovak Premier Oldrich Cernik, Dubcek, Jozef Smrkovsky and Frantisek Kriegel -- the four leading reformers in Czechoslovak leadership -- are arrested in the Communist Party's Presidium building by Soviet airborne troops.

Occupation governments distribute leaflets saying the troops were sent in "to come to the aid of the working class and all the people of Czechoslovak to defend socialist gains."

Aug. 21, 0530: Tass says that Czechoslovak Party and government officials requested urgent assistance from the Soviet Union and other fraternal countries.

Aug. 21, 0600: Svoboda makes radio address calling for calm and for people to go to work as normal.

Aug. 21, 0800: Crowds and Soviet troops confront one another on Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. Tanks appear at the Museum and start firing at nearby buildings and the National museum.

Dubcek and other party leaders are flown to Moscow and are compelled to participate in talks with Moscow leadership. They sign a document in which they renounce parts of the reform program and agree to the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia.

Invasion draws condemnation from Western powers as well as communist and socialist parties in the West. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson calls on Soviets to withdraw from Czechoslovakia.

Aug. 23: Svoboda flies to Moscow with large delegation of Czechoslovak Communist leaders to negotiate a solution.

Aug. 25: Czechoslovak leaders sign so-called Moscow protocol which renounces parts of the reform program and agrees to the presence of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia.

Aug. 27: Svoboda returns to Prague with Dubcek, Cernik.

Aug. 31: 14th Party Congress declared invalid, as required by the Moscow protocol. Censorship is reintroduced in the country.

Oct. 28: Czechoslovakia becomes a federal republic, the only major objective of the reform process that came to fruition.

Jan 16, 1969: Czechoslovak student Jan Palach sets himself afire in protest.

April 17, 1969: Dubcek removed as party first secretary, after disturbances that follow Czechoslovak hockey team's victory over a Soviet team in Stockholm. Dubcek replaced by Gustav Husak with full support of the Soviet Union.


1968 Prague Spring Panel: Q & A with Grad History Alum Sean Brennan, PhD


VILLANOVA, Pa. – On November 7 in Falvey Library, Villanova University Russian Area Studies hosted a panel of experts who spoke about the 1968 Prague Spring. Villanova Associate Professor of History and Director of the History Graduate Program Lynne Hartnett, PhD, served as moderator, and the panel included Villanova alumnus Sean Brennan, PhD, ’03 MA, Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton, and Benjamin Nathans, PhD, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Brennan received his PhD in history at the University of Notre Dame after earning his MA in history at Villanova. He specializes in 20 th century Russian, German and Central European history. He took some time to talk about the panel and his own academic journey.

Why does the Prague Spring hold such significance in European and world history?

In December 1967, Alexander Dubcek was elected as the new leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, and he tried to implement a series of reforms including providing greater freedom of speech, a free press, easing restrictions on art and literature, as well as economic reforms and creating a more federalized system of government that would give local authorities more power and hold the political police accountable to the courts.

The Prague Spring is much different than the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which was a nationwide revolt against the communist government and Soviet control. Hungary declared that they were re-establishing a multi-party democracy and leaving the Warsaw Pact, and, of course, were crushed by Soviet forces. Dubcek had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact, and was, in fact, a committed socialist. Unlike the Hungarians, East Germans, and the Poles, who hated the Russians, the Czechs did not, seeing them as the country that guaranteed their independence and territorial integrity and the Czech army was a huge component of the Warsaw Pact army. Instead, Dubcek believed that the socialist system could not rely on oppression alone, that he had to open up the economy and enact democratic reforms for it to survive.

The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was not happy. By the end of August, hundreds of thousands of troops from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact armies invaded. Dubcek was forced to resign, and all of his reforms were swept away. Brezhnev believed that press censorship was essential because if people had more freedom of speech, then they would begin calling for more political parties—which is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev enacted similar reforms in the mid-1980s.

I would argue that the Prague Spring was the most significant event in Europe in 1968 because the dream of democratic socialism—moving away from authoritarian rule—dies in 1968. It was the last genuine attempt at reform. The system, in the view of most who lived under it cannot be fixed, only endured.

How did you end up at Villanova for your master’s studies?

As an undergraduate, I attended Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Mo. I applied to a number of history PhD programs, but I did not get into any of my top choices. My advisor and I decided that I should apply to a good MA program to put myself in a better position to be admitted to a doctoral program. I wanted to learn Russian, which I couldn’t do at Rockhurst. It came down to two schools, Villanova and Truman State University and I decided I would rather live in Philadelphia than Kirksville, Mo.!

But you had never been to Philadelphia?

I had never lived in a big northeastern city! I was born in Kentucky, and we moved around a lot because my dad was in the military, but I had never lived in the Northeast, although I had visited Boston and New York a number of times. I drove by myself from Missouri, stopping in Kentucky to see my girlfriend (now my wife), on the way. I had found a roommate to share a third-story apartment in Wayne, and when I got there he asked if I wanted to go to a Phillies game. I said “Why not?” Kansas City is fairly sizeable, but it’s not Philadelphia. So, I am in town less than an hour and now taking the SEPTA train into Center City on the way to the game. I thought to myself, “OK, here we go.”

How did Villanova prepare you for your doctoral studies?

I learned to deal with primary sources, how to really write a research paper. Villanova knocked the youthful arrogance out of me that I was the always the most knowledgeable student in the room. As an undergrad I was one of the few who wanted to pursue a PhD—I imagined myself one day as a serious scholar. It was a lot different at Villanova where everyone is at the same level! I would say graduate school is as different from college as college is from high school. At Villanova, I had some great mentors – Adele Lindenmyer [Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences], Marc Gallicchio [History Department Chair], Jeffery Johnson [Professor of History]. They helped me realize that I can do this. I tell my students at Scranton that if they are interested in graduate school, that they should look two hours down the road at Villanova.

How did you navigate to your particular specializations in history?

I took German in high school and minored in it in Rockhurst, creating my interest in German and Austrian history. Since reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Orwell’s 1984 in a two week period, I have been fascinated by the tumultuous history of Russia and all of the countries in between Moscow and Berlin. Tragic, terrible things happen, but Eastern European societies always move on.

How did you end up on this panel? Do you know Dr. Hartnett?

I actually met Lynne Hartnett on the way to a Slavic studies conference in 2010. We sat across the aisle from each other on the plane from Philadelphia to Los Angeles! But for this panel, I was recommended by Mike Westrate [Director of the Center for Research and Fellowships at Villanova]. Mike and I were in the PhD program at Notre Dame together, and we keep in touch.

What can we expect from the panel?

First, I want to say that being invited to come back to Villanova is as great an honor as one can hope to have for a former student. I think the panel will be outstanding. In Lynne Hartnett, Benjamin Nathans and myself, you will hear very diverse perspectives about one of the most pertinent world events post-1945 era.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.


1968 Prague Spring - History

By Todd A. Raffensperger

At 1:30 am on August 21, 1968, Czech authorities at Ruzyne Airport in the capital city of Prague waited to greet a special flight that was flying in directly from Moscow. The authorities were not alarmed. Perhaps it was a delegation coming to try to hammer out the growing differences between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
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As soon as the plane taxied to the terminal, it became apparent immediately that it was no official delegation—diplomatic or otherwise. Instead, 100 plainclothes Russian soldiers armed with submachine guns clambered down the catwalk to the tarmac and stormed the airport terminal and control tower, overcoming the Czech security personnel without firing a shot. They were an advance unit of the Soviet 7th Guards Airborne Division. With the airport secured, the commandos signaled all clear for the rest of the Soviet airborne invasion force to proceed. It was the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakian democracy, which was being virtually strangled in its crib.

Around the world, 1968 had already been a year of turmoil. In the United States, the year was marked by the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. A growing number of Americans were taking to the streets, protesting the ever-escalating war in Vietnam, clashing with police and National Guard units, and taking over administration buildings at colleges and universities. The antiwar, antiestablishment furor was catching on in Europe as well, with similar demonstrations in West Germany by activists protesting the continuing American military presence in their country. Throughout France, mass demonstrations and strikes by students and workers were paralyzing the French economy and pushing the de Gaulle government to the point of collapse.

Communist leaders within the walls of the Kremlin were comforted by the thought that their own closed-off societies, isolated from the West by barbed wire, guns, and tanks, were immune to the sort of disorder and strife that was gripping the capitalist world. They hadn’t counted on Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia: The Warsaw Pact’s Stable Eastern Flank?

Unlike in most of the other Eastern European countries that came under Soviet occupation after World War II, in Czechoslovakia the communists came to power in 1946 through electoral victories. But when in 1948 it became apparent that they were losing their popularity and thus were going to lose the next round of elections, the communist prime minister, Klement Gottwald, cracked down on all noncommunist factions in the government and used the militia and police to seize control of Prague. From then on, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic solidified its communist ties and joined the ranks of the other Eastern and Central European vassal states in the Soviet Empire.

The Czechoslovak Peoples Army (CSLA), numbering 250,000 men, was structured along the lines of the Soviet Army. Its officer corps was composed almost entirely of men trained by the Soviets who had served in the First Czechoslovak Army Corps on the Eastern Front during World War II. Those officers from the prewar Czechoslovakian Army who had gone to London during the war and had come back after 1945 to help reconstitute the country’s military were purged from the ranks. During the 1950s, when East Germany, Poland, and especially Hungary were wracked by uprisings, Czechoslovakia remained a stable, solid part of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets were so confident of the stability and loyalty of the Czechs and Slovaks that they did not even keep a standing Red Army contingent in the country. In the event of a war with NATO across Germany, the Czechs were expected to hold up the Warsaw Pact’s southern flank.

People throw Molotov cocktails and stones at Soviet Army tanks in front of the Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968.

Humiliation in the Six-Day War

But by the 1960s, conditions within Czechoslovakia had started to change. Gottwald was dead, and in his place was a cautious reformer named Antonin Novotny. Unlike his predecessor, Novotny was willing to allow a certain limited degree of reform and loosening up of Czechoslovak society. He even went so far as to give businesses a little leeway in dictating their own production schedules and business plans.

In 1967, events in the Middle East altered Czechoslovakia’s political course. In June of that year, Israel overwhelmingly defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War. The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been largely trained and equipped with advisers and weapons from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia. To many Czechs and Slovaks, Egypt’s and Syria’s humiliation was also their own.

The Six Day War provoked many among Czechoslovakia’s intellectual elite to begin questioning the government’s support for Egypt and its antipathy toward Israel. This criticism in turn opened up the floodgates to criticism of the government in general and of Premier Novotny in particular. Some of the first open critics of the regime were the members of the Writers Union, which numbered among its ranks a young playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was just beginning to make a name for himself. Novotny reacted to the criticism by reimposing censorship and clamping down on the press, moves that only engendered more criticism, both inside and outside the party. By the end of the year, there were calls within the Central Committee for Novotny’s resignation.

The Fall of Novotny, the Rise of “Our Sasha”

When the committee met again in January 1968, the decision was made to strip Novotny of most of his power by separating the offices of first secretary of the party from the office of president of Czechoslovakia. Novotny previously had held both posts, and he was allowed to keep the office of president but the first secretariat went to the head of the Slovakian wing of the party, Alexander Dubcek.

Dubcek was the son of Slovakian immigrants who had come to the United States and become American citizens. Active in the American socialist movement, they had both worked for Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party at the turn of the century. In 1921, Dubcek’s father, Stefen, moved the family to the Soviet Union to help build an industrial cooperative. The family moved back to their homeland of Czechoslovakia in 1938. As a teenager, Dubcek and his brother joined the Slovakian resistance against the Nazi occupation and took part in the Slovak national uprising in August 1944. Dubcek was wounded and his brother was killed in the fighting.

After the war, Dubcek climbed the ladder of the communist hierarchy and became a champion for the Slovak minority within the country. He made a name for himself as an advocate of government reform, including the separation of the party organization from the government. Dubcek was not known for being a maverick, but for being a hard worker, a fervent believer in Marxism-Leninism, and an admirer of the Soviet Union. Among his comrades in the Kremlin, Dubcek was affectionately referred to as “Our Sasha.”

Dubcek’s appointment was a welcome development for reformers in Czechoslovakia, but it did nothing to mollify the tens of thousands of people who had started taking to the streets and publicly demanding Novotny’s resignation as president. On March 22, 1968, they got their wish Novotny finally conceded the inevitable and stepped down. His successor was a former general and war hero named Ludvik Svoboda, who supported Dubcek’s proposals.

“Czechoslovakia’s comrades know best”

What followed was an unprecedented period of freedom and reform behind the Iron Curtain that would be remembered in history as the “Prague Spring.” For the first time in more than 20 years, the people of Czechoslovakia were not only allowed but encouraged to speak up and criticize the government and the party. Economically, Dubcek instituted an action program that loosened government controls on the private sector to an extent that Novotny had never dared. It wasn’t long before the man whom the Soviets had regarded as a loyal, orthodox communist was declaring the desire to establish a “free, modern, and profoundly humane society.”

Dubcek’s neighbors and fellow Warsaw Pact leaders wanted no part of such an open society. They made their feelings known to Dubcek during the March 23 Warsaw Pact summit meeting in Dresden. Heading up the campaign of denunciation was Dubcek’s neighbor to the north, East German leader Walter Ulbricht. The architect of the Berlin Wall and the most Stalinist of the Warsaw Pact leaders, Ulbricht was more than a little concerned about the possibility that the newfound freedoms of the Czech and Slovak citizens would tempt his own citizens to demand the same. He denounced Dubcek for laying open Czechoslovakia to infiltration by Western influences and for giving his nation’s artists and writers too much freedom. “The capitalist world press had already written that Czechoslovakia was the most advantageous point from which to penetrate the socialist camp,” he exclaimed.

Poland’s communist leader, Wladislaw Gomulka, shared Ulbricht’s hysteria and went so far as to remind Dubcek of how Hungary was invaded and crushed in 1956 after its leadership had strayed too far from the Soviet fold. Ironically, Hungarian leader Janos Kadar, who had replaced the unfortunate Imre Nagy after Nagy was executed by the Soviets in 1958, took a more moderate tack, concluding that “Czechoslovakia’s comrades know best, I believe, what is happening in Czechoslovakia today.”

Brezhnev and Dubcek at the Dresden Meeting

Whatever the leaders of the Eastern Bloc felt about what was happening in Czechoslovakia, it ultimately was not up to them as to what to do about it. No matter how much they exalted themselves within their own countries, the fact remained that they served at the pleasure of their Soviet masters. The question of what to do about Czechoslovakia rested within the halls of the Kremlin and on the shoulders of one man, General Secretary of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev had come to power in 1964 after Nikita Khrushchev was ousted over his supposed mishandling of the Cuban missile crisis. Unlike the temperamental, risk-taking Khrushchev, who always favored bold moves and ideas, Brezhnev was a cautious man who prized stability above all else.

Brezhnev at first was reluctant to get involved with events in Czechoslovakia. He had no problem with Novotny’s ouster, and he had nothing against Dubcek himself. When asked by the desperate Novotny and other Czech hard-liners to intervene, Brezhnev replied: “I shall not deal with the problems that have arisen in your country. I know your party and the road it has traveled along, that is why I am confident that this time, too, it will adopt the kinds of decisions that are in the Leninist spirit.” He was unwilling to sign off on a military operation against a fellow Warsaw Pact member unless it was absolutely necessary. Furthermore, Brezhnev had a personal connection with Czechoslovakia, having been a commissar in the Soviet armies that liberated the country from the Nazis in 1945. He was also friends with Czech President Ludvik Svoboda, whom he knew from the war.

It was the Soviet leader’s hope that the situation could be resolved through negotiation. At the Dresden meeting, Brezhnev reiterated his opinion that every communist party had the right to make changes and reforms where it saw fit. But he also expressed concern that the changes that Dubcek and the reformers were making inside Czechoslovakia were going too far, especially in the area of allowing criticism of the party and of the socialist system. It especially irked him that even the party newspapers were using phrases like “decayed society” and “outdated order” to describe communism. Brezhnev reassured Dubcek that he would enjoy the full support of the Soviet leadership and the Warsaw Pact in taking whatever steps necessary to “stop these very dangerous developments.” Through all the criticism, Brezhnev tried to maintain the air of fraternity among the parties.

Dubcek tried to maintain this sense of fraternity as well, constantly reassuring the Soviets and Warsaw Pact partners that there was no intention by his government to take Czechoslovakia out of the pact. Nor did he have any intention of abandoning socialism, a set of ideals he had believed in his entire life. He asserted that his reforms would serve to strengthen socialism, by ensuring the rights of the working class and encouraging workers’ participation in socialism’s further development. The action program of April 1968, drawn up by Dubcek and approved by the Central Committee, included a section entitled “Socialism Cannot Do Without Enterprises.” Included were proposals to give private enterprises more freedom to act in foreign markets to include consumer, labor, and other interests in the decision-making process and to draft an economic plan that would be subject to the authority of a democratically elected National Assembly. But where Dubcek saw a brighter future for socialism in Czechoslovakia, Brezhnev and others saw only danger.

Protesters use private vehicles and buses in a futile attempt to block the street near Radio Prague. Soviet tanks rammed through the improvised barricade.

Andropov’s Deception

Another voice joined the chorus that was whispering alarm and threat into Brezhnev’s ear. It was that of Yuri Andropov, chairman of the Soviet Union’s notorious intelligence arm, the KGB. Andropov had made a name for himself in 1956 as ambassador to Hungary, where he was able to allay the worries of Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy about Soviet intentions right up until the moment that the Soviets invaded. His role in crushing the Hungarian uprising guaranteed his ascendancy to the Central Committee. Andropov made it his priority to crush any hint of dissident activity within the Soviet Union, creating an entire department within the KGB for the sole purpose of investigating, harassing, and persecuting dissidents including Andre Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He shared the anxiety that Ulbricht and Gomulka felt about what was going on in Czechoslovakia, and he was determined to make Brezhnev feel it as well.

Andropov had help from his counterpart in Czechoslovakia, the head of the Czech secret police agency known as the Statni Bezpecnost, or StB. His name was Josef Houska, and he was among many within the Czechoslovak security apparatus who opposed the Prague Spring. Together, the two security chiefs plotted to undermine Dubcek and to convince Brezhnev of the necessity to intervene in Czechoslovakia. While Houska fed information to Moscow identifying a so-called counterrevolutionary conspiracy in Prague, Andropov sent 30 KGB undercover agents to Czechoslovakia posing as tourists, in the hope that Czechs would reveal anti-Soviet and anti- communist sentiments to them. These agents were also tasked with putting up inflammatory posters and fliers calling for Czechoslovakia’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and the end of the communist system.

Andropov fed Brezhnev and the Politburo a steady diet of misinformation about counterrevolutionary activity going on in Prague, within the government itself. Reports of supposed arms caches being found throughout the country, no doubt planted by the StB or KGB, were used to claim that a massive armed uprising was in the offing. The KGB chairman also saw to it that stories appeared in Pravda revealing details of a supposed CIA plan to sabotage Czechoslovakia and penetrate the country’s intelligence and security services. The KGB’s head of counterintelligence in Washington, Oleg Kalugin, sent a report to his boss insisting that no such plan existed, that in fact the United States government had been caught off guard by the Prague Spring, but Andropov made sure the report never reached Brezhnev’s desk.

Preparing for Operation Danube

Dubcek was not unmindful of what was happening, and he knew that there were those in his own government who were plotting against him. Throughout the summer a steady escalation of rhetoric came from both sides. There was still no decision by Brezhnev about military action. Just the same, the Warsaw Pact started getting ready. A slow but steady assembly of armored and infantry units from East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, and the USSR started deploying closer to the Czech border. On July 21, Ulbricht ordered the mobilization in the Leipzig region of East German forces, including the 7th Armored and 11th Motorized Infantry Divisions. Meanwhile, the Warsaw Pact high command mobilized the entire Polish Second Army, consisting of four motorized infantry divisions. Three days later, the Hungarian 8th Mounted Infantry Division was also mobilized. The Bulgarians threw in with two regiments deployed to Soviet territory in the Ivanovo-Frankovsk area. These forces complemented the Soviet 1st Armored Army of the Guards, 20th Mounted Infantry Army of the Guards, 11th Armored Army of the Guards, the 38th Armored Army, and units from the Soviet Southern Military Group.

A victim of the Soviet invasion lies dead on the streets of Prague as civilians shout defiance at the Russian troops. Resistance was futile for the lightly armed Czechs.

The assembled forces for what was code named Operation Danube numbered well over 250,000 troops. It was left to the supreme commander of the Warsaw Pact forces, Marshall Ivan Yakubovskii, to coordinate these forces when, and if, he got his orders to do so from Comrade Brezhnev and the Politburo. The officers and men of Operation Danube were told by their superiors that there would be little trouble. Indeed, it was their understanding that any intervention would meet with the full support of the Czech and Slovak peoples, who would see their arrival as a rescue from counterrevolutionary plotters. The Soviet defense minister, Marshal A.A. Grechko, underscored this point by stating emphatically to all his commanders that “Czechoslovakia is a friendly country. We are going to our brothers. On no account must we permit the spilling of blood of Czechs and Slovaks.”

On August 17, the Politburo at Brezhnev’s urging passed a resolution that declared that “the time has come to resort to active measures in defense of socialism in the CSSR and [we have] unanimously decided to provide help and support to the Communist Party and the People of Czechoslovakia with military force.” Two days later, the Soviet ambassador in Prague, Stepan Chervonenko, delivered a letter of warning to the Czech leadership. It was nothing less than an ultimatum demanding that Dubcek and the party reassert complete control over the media, crack down on dissidents and critics, and repeal all economic and political reforms that threatened the communist hold on power. While not explicitly threatening an invasion, the letter stated that the demands must be met without delay or the matter “would be extremely dangerous.” Dubcek got the message, and he readily accepted the demands laid out by Brezhnev. But by then the invasion was already under way.

The Warsaw Pact Invades Czechoslovakia

A couple of hours after midnight on August 21, while Soviet paratroopers were securing Ruzyne Airport, the forces of five Warsaw Pact nations began crossing the border into Czechoslovakian territory. Seventeen tank and motorized infantry divisions swarmed into Czechoslovakia with more than 2,000 tanks, mostly T-55s and T-62s, and other armored vehicles. Soviet, Bulgarian, and Hungarian forces pushed from the southeastern border, linking up with Soviet airborne forces that landed and occupied the Slovakian provincial capital of Bratislava, and then moved on along the Czech-Austrian border. These forces linked up with the two Soviet and one Polish force that came in from the northeast, reaching Brno in the center of the country, which already had been occupied by Soviet paratroopers. On the right flank, coming in from the northwest, were Soviet and East German forces from the German Democratic Republic, units that originally had trained to fight a war against NATO forces deployed in West Germany. Now their guns were turned in a different direction.

The ground operations were supported by a concentration of 500 Soviet and Warsaw Pact combat aircraft, including MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters. Meanwhile, a stream of Antonov AN-12 transports was landing at Ruzyne Airport on an hourly basis, offloading equipment and personnel of an entire Soviet airborne division. Similar airborne operations were also under way in the cities of Brno and Bratislava.

One of the first government leaders to get an inkling of what was happening was Dubcek’s minister of defense, General Martin Dzur. When he first started receiving reports of movement along the borders, Dzur took it upon himself to issue an order that remains controversial to this day. Realizing that an invasion was imminent, he ordered his forces to remain in their barracks. No weapons were to be used under any circumstances, and the invaders were to be given “maximum all-round assistance” by the Czech military.

It didn’t take long for the invaders to reach their assigned objectives. Units fanned out across the countryside, securing airports, telegraph offices, armories, barracks, radio stations, and party headquarters offices. Faithful to their orders, Czech Army units stayed in their barracks and offered no resistance anywhere.

A helmeted Soviet soldier in an armored vehicle speaks to Czech protestors, many of them students, who are urging the Warsaw Pact soldiers to leave their country.

“The Whole World is Watching!”

As the long, rumbling columns of tanks, infantry, and artillery moved through the Czechoslovakian countryside, residents awakened by the sound of military vehicles first believed that it was merely an exercise, like others in the past carried out by their army and their Warsaw Pact allies. It was only when they turned on their radios that they started hearing the first reports of a major invasion of their country. Instead of the invaders waving the Nazi swastika, this time they were now waving the hammer and sickle of their old friend and protector Russia.

As word spread throughout the country, Czechoslovak citizens, mostly young people, started coming out in large and angry groups. “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” they chanted, as television cameras recorded the confrontation. At first all they did was hurl insults and chants at the invaders, but before long they started throwing bricks, bottles, and stones. In some areas, citizens erected makeshift barricades to thwart the Soviet advance. The intensity of their anguish and hatred was something the Warsaw Pact soldiers had not been prepared for. They had been told that they were coming to save the people from a counterrevolutionary takeover that threatened their socialist paradise. As a result, the young soldiers, many of whom were from peasant or rural backgrounds, did not know how to react. It was a formula for violence.

By 4:30 am, Soviet military vehicles arrived outside of the Central Committee building in Prague. Dubcek was on the telephone in his office trying to get more details about the invasion when a group of soldiers and plainclothesmen, led by a Soviet colonel, barged into the room. Without even the pretense of courtesy, the colonel walked up to Dubcek, yanked the receiver out of his hands, and pulled the telephone cord out of the wall. Announcing himself as a representative of a “revolutionary committee,” the colonel ordered, “Comrade Dubcek, you are to come with us straight away.” With that, Dubcek was led away under arrest.

The Defiant Stand of Radio Prague

In the streets of Prague, all hell was breaking loose. Soviet tanks from East Germany were met by crowds of angry Czech citizens who at first tried to talk to the soldiers and persuade them that there was no counterrevolutionary plot. But the bewildered soldiers continued on to their objectives. Soon enough, the peaceable appeals by the people were replaced by chants, threats, and violence. Some protesters climbed onto the tanks and vehicles in an attempt to open the hatches and get at the crews, or tried to set them on fire. The soldiers bearing the brunt of the anger and violence soon started to respond in the way they had been trained, by opening fire on the protesters.

The most intense fighting occurred outside the broadcast center of Radio Prague. The radio station had become the only fountainhead of defiance against the invasion. Protesters tried to protect the building by ringing it with city transit buses and setting them on fire. Soviet tanks and vehicles that tried to ram the makeshift fortifications sometimes caught fire themselves. People continued to surround the tanks, but the station’s capture was inevitable, and by the end of the day Operation Danube had achieved all its key objectives.

The Moscow Protocols

While his people struggled to resist Soviet tanks with their bare hands, Dubcek and other reformers were being shuttled from base to base while the leaders in Moscow tried to find hard-line replacements who could take the reins of power and restore order in a new government. But those few hard-liners on whom the Soviets could count did not have the clout and credibility to win over the members of the Central Committee or the Presidium, who stood in passive but solid defiance to the Soviet actions.

Realizing that they were going to have to work with the leaders who were already in place, the Russians flew Dubcek and the others to Moscow on August 24. There Dubcek was reunited with Svoboda, who had been flown to Moscow earlier. They met with Brezhnev and other members of the Politburo, and two days later, with little choice in the matter, they signed the Moscow Protocols, a document that the Soviets had already drawn up before the meeting began. It was a revocation of almost everything that had been put in place during the Prague Spring. It repealed the economic reforms, it banned opposition groups, and it reasserted state control over the media. Dubcek, Svoboda, and other Czech reformers tried to haggle some concessions from the Soviets, but in the end Brezhnev got everything he wanted.

The Soviet leader subjected Dubeck to a final, humiliating lecture to drive home who were the true masters of in Eastern Europe. “The borders of your country are our borders as well,” said Brezhnev. “Because you did not listen to us, we feel threatened.” Brezhnev declared that in the name of those Soviets killed to liberate Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union was fully entitled to intervene militarily when it believed that the security of the socialist community was threatened. “It is immaterial,” Brezhnev asserted, “if anyone was actually threatening us or not. It is a matter of principle. And that is the way it will be, for eternity.” This prerogative that Brezhnev claimed for the Soviet Union in its East European satellites would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, holding that the USSR had the right to intervene in any communist country where it felt its interests were in jeopardy.

Dubcek returned to Prague on August 27 a broken man. With his eyes welling up with tears and his voice quivering at times, he addressed the Czech people on the radio for the first time since the invasion, telling his fellow citizens to refrain from any further confrontations with the invaders. He also told his saddened listeners that the situation would force them to “take some temporary measures that limit democracy and freedom of opinion.” It was the best face that Dubcek could put on the situation, but everyone knew that it represented the end of the Prague Spring.

A Moral Victory for the West

By military estimates, Operation Danube was a flawlessly executed success. It went off with a level of efficiency and coordination that made it a textbook exercise for Soviet military operations. In terms of casualties, the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces suffered fewer than a couple dozen fatalities or injuries. Some 100 Czechoslovakian men and women, mostly young protesters, were killed and hundreds of others were wounded. As far as Soviet military operations would go, the invasion of Czechoslovakia was relatively bloodless.

In short-range and longer political terms, the crushing of the Prague Spring would have disastrous consequences for the future of world communism. The communist and socialist parties in the Western democracies lined up in condemning the Soviet actions. For them, the invasion ran contrary to everything that they had been arguing for, a crushing of individual freedom that was taken for granted in the Western world.

Soviet Army soldiers sit on their tanks in front of the Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968.

Prague Spring’s Legacy: The Velvet Revolution

Criticism came from within the Eastern Bloc as well. The communist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, condemned the invasion and withdrew his tiny fiefdom from the Warsaw Pact. Romania was the only major Warsaw Pact member that categorically refused to send troops to join the invasion force, with its dictator, Nicolai Ceaucescu, publicly condemning the invasion as flagrant violation of one socialist country’s sovereignty by another. His high-profile opposition would endear him to Western leaders, who would treat him as a liberal maverick who was bucking Soviet orthodoxy, overlooking the fact that Ceaucescu was a tyrant to his own people. Seeing an opportunity to try to cast itself as the true leader of world revolution, the People’s Republic of China also roundly condemned the Soviet invasion.

Perhaps the most profound impact that the crushing of the Prague Spring would have would be among the Soviets themselves, especially the younger generation of activists who saw their hopes for a more reformed, humane type of socialism crushed under their own country’s tank treads. For millions of people who lived behind the Iron Curtain, the invasion of Czechoslovakia killed whatever hope they had that communism could ever change on its own.

Twenty-one years later, the long-discredited socialist system in Czechoslovakia was finally toppled by what would be called the “Velvet Revolution.” It was a bloodless uprising similar to those that already had occurred in East Germany and almost all of the rest of Eastern Europe. As Czechoslovakia’s citizens rejoiced in the downfall of the old regime, one of those for whom they cheered the loudest was Alexander Dubcek, who had long since resigned from the government, been stripped of his party membership, and been relegated to a meaningless job with the Slovakian forestry commission. But like the embattled country he had led so briefly in the Prague Spring of 1968, Dubcek survived to see a final triumph over communist oppression. In the end, perhaps, the good guys won.


1968: The year of two springs

Parallels between May 󈨈 and the Prague Spring are largely the result of the simultaneity of the events in important respects, the political goals of the two movements were antithetical. Nevertheless, central European dissent had a significant impact on the French anti-totalitarian Left after 1968, argues Jacques Rupnik.

When, forty years on, the memorable moments of the Prague Spring and the Paris Spring – not forgetting Berlin and Warsaw – are recalled in conferences, debates and publications, there emerges a striking contrast between East and West, to borrow the terminology of those times. In Paris, in commemorations of the May 1968 “psychodrama” (Stanley Hoffmann), the self-congratulation of one generation tends to get mixed up with the desire on the part of the next to claim for itself the legacy of those days in May. They are all the more keen to do so because it has been denounced by a new French president who was ironically described by Daniel Cohn-Bendit as an unwitting soixante-huitard – all Sarkozy is said to have retained of those heady days of May 󈨈 is the celebrated watchword: “enjoy without restraint” (jouir sans entrave1). In Prague, meanwhile, people are less inclined to commemorate what was a painful defeat. While Alexander Dubcek was, admittedly, an inspiring figure, he was also a symbol both of shattered hopes and of a surrender that was to herald twenty years of “normalisation”.

During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank in Prague. Source: The Central Intelligence Agency/Wikimedia

Nevertheless, after years spent in the shadows, banished from the collective memory, discussion of 1968 has made its reappearance in Prague with this year’s republication in Literarni Noviny of two key texts written immediately after the occupation by the “fraternal countries”. One is by Milan Kundera and the other by Vaclav Havel.2 In essence, the former was saying: despite having been a defeat, the Prague Spring retains its universal significance as a first attempt at finding a route between the eastern and western models, a way of reconciling socialism and democracy. Havel replied that the great gains made by the Prague Spring (abolition of censorship, re-establishment of individual and collective freedoms) had done no more than restore what had existed thirty years earlier in Czechoslovakia and what was still fundamental in most democratic countries. Seen in that way, 1989 was an anti-1968: not a reform of socialism but the closest possible adherence to the West, faithfully following its lead. Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, in the context of economic globalisation and of a premature crisis in democratic representation, questions about democracy, the market and the “third way” raised by the Prague Spring of 1968 may once again be seen as apposite.

From this perspective, the Prague Spring goes beyond the history of the Communist system in eastern Europe and takes on a pan-European dimension. This dimension was at times associated with the revolt by young people that occurred sporadically throughout 1968 all over the world. The Prague Spring, along with May 󈨈, was seen as the expression of uprisings which, albeit in differing political contexts, challenged the status quo that had been imposed by the Cold War and sought for alternative kinds of society.

The parallels were, for the most part, a result of the simultaneity of the “events” of 1968. The fact that their driving forces were the intellectuals and a generation of students who, from Prague to Paris (but also in Berlin, in Warsaw, and at Berkeley) followed the same mode of dress, listened to the same music and expressed the same mistrust towards the institutions in power, derives from a “conflict between generations” at a time of “worldwide agitation” and an “incoherent sense of brotherhood” to use Paul Berman’s terms.3 Berman saw in these features the origins of a later convergence between dissidents in eastern Europe and the anti-totalitarian Left in the West.

The other parallel lies in the idea of unity in defeat. The utopias of the soixante-huitards, whilst different, nevertheless aimed to call into question an internal and international order that was the legacy of the Second World War. Hence those ideological contortions that were as well-intentioned as they were remote from reality (Prague and the “revolution of the workers’ councils”)4 and that were all, in effect, reactions to the “re-establishment of order” (Mila Simecka)5 and to the division of Europe.

However, simultaneous does not necessarily mean similar. To see that this is so one need only mention one or two points of contrast between the two Springs that go beyond 1989. In his book on French leftwing perceptions of the Prague Spring, Pierre Grémion examined this question in terms of ideological discourse and reference points.6 We could examine further his central theme, whilst stressing ideological differences and also noting the striking contrast in the subsequent careers of the soixante-huitards to those of their Czech contemporaries. For about three decades, the French 󈨈ers have been at the height of their influence in the cultural and media establishment. Their Czechs, on the other hand, formed part of that sacrificed generation that did not rediscover freedom until 1989. They had no chance of renewing contact with their interrupted history until they were in their fifties, an age when it is no longer easy to readapt oneself personally and professionally to a new generation and its ambitions, its readiness to change and, above all, its scorn for the illusions of the Prague Spring.

The first difference is of a political or “ideological” nature. For those who were aspiring to emerge from twenty years of socialist penury, there was nothing pejorative about the “consumer society” that the Paris movement was so keen to challenge. Similarly, for those seeking to re-establish civil rights and basic freedoms of expression and assembly as precursors to a re-drawing of the political order, there was nothing despicable about so-called “bourgeois freedoms” and elections that were a “trap” and that, it was suggested, ought to be denounced and rendered obsolete by direct democracy. The French Left rejected the market and capitalism at the same time as, in Prague, Ota Sik was putting forward a “third way” between eastern state socialism and western capitalism. To attempt to overcome this ideological and economic divide was just one more way of trying to go beyond the division of Europe. The “return to Europe”, the slogan of the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, was already present in the Czechoslovak aspirations of 1968. The philosopher Ivan Svitak, one of the enfants terribles of the Prague Spring, put it thus: “In answer to the questions ‘Where have we come from? With whom?’ and ‘Where are we going?’, we can give a very succinct answer: ‘From Asia, all by ourselves and towards Europe.'𔄩 To the ears of the Parisian Left, meanwhile, the words “Europe” or “West” had a ring of colonialism or of the “common market”. Their international perspective was resolutely turned towards the Third World, with reference points that ranged from Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) to Cuba (Che Guevara) via the Chinese Cultural Revolution (Mao).

The driving force of the Prague Spring was the aspiration of freedom, whereas in Paris the moment of liberation gave way to the myth of revolution. Milan Kundera is right to stress this aspect:

Paris’s May 󈨈 was an explosion of revolutionary lyricism. The Prague Spring was the explosion of post-revolutionary scepticism. That is why the Parisian students regarded Prague with some mistrust (or rather, indifference), whilst the Prague students just smiled at the Parisians’ illusions, finding them (rightly or wrongly) to be discredited, comical or dangerous […]. May 󈨈 was a radical uprising whereas what had, for many a long year, been leading towards the explosion of the Prague Spring was a popular revolt by moderates […] radicalism as such was something they were allergic to because, in the subconscious of most Czechs, it was linked with their worst memories. 8

The revolutionary lyricism and the vocabulary of May 󈨈 reminded Kundera of the arrival of the socialist regime in 1948 and of the fate of Jaromil the poet, hero of his novel, Life is Elsewhere. The Czech revolutionaries of 1968, on the other hand, were closer to the irony and scepticism of the main character in The Joke, another of Kundera’s novels, which appeared in Prague in 1968. Hence the disparity between the spirit of juvenile revolt in Paris and the maturity of grown-up revolution in Prague. Kundera adds:

Paris in May 󈨈 challenged the basis of what is called European culture and its traditional values. The Prague Spring was a passionate defence of the European cultural tradition in the widest and most tolerant sense of the term (a defence of Christianity just as much as of modern art – both rejected by those in power). We all struggled for the right to maintain that tradition that had been threatened by the anti-western messianism of Russian totalitarianism.9

The obsolete nature of the political discourse employed in Paris did not make communication between the two capitals easy. Even though, in both cases, reference was made to a form of socialism that represented a break with the Soviet model. The Marxist “vulgate” of western leftism was all too reminiscent of that of the ruling powers of eastern Europe. An illustration of this was provided during German student leader Rudi Dutschke’s visit to Prague in April 1968, under the auspices of a dialogue between Marxists and Christians organised by the philosopher Milan Machovec. The young historian Milan Hauner wrote the following account:

Dutschke has a political and economic vocabulary that is carefully thought out and refined. He inundates his audience with an unending flow of terms such as: production, reproduction, manipulation, repression, transformation, obstruction, circulation, integration, counter-revolution… upon which he systematically and determinedly elaborates.10

So what were the reasons for the lack of success that the leader of the Berlin movement met with when it came to the Czech students?

There is no doubt that, as an orator, Rudi is unequalled: his speech had a clear and rational plan, but it was precisely this rationality, elevated to utopian status, that produced an anguished response. In his perfectly organised speech there was no place for any kind of joke or any human weakness. Were it not for this critical rationality, you would spontaneously conclude that he was a demagogue, a zealot and, what’s more, a German – in short, an all-too-familiar figure. But that would be unfair, because he is incredibly sincere.11

It was ten years later, a year and a half before his death, that Rudi Dutschke returned to the subject of the blindness of western leftism in the face of Czech renewal and the belief that the only kind of “imperialism” that existed had to be American: “I haven’t much to say about May 󈨈 in France, first because I was in hospital at the time but mainly because, in retrospect, the important event of 1968 wasn’t Paris but Prague. At the time, we just couldn’t see it.󈭠

While in the West, the “New Left” wanted to renew Marxism by ridding it of its Stalinist dross, the Czechs were doing their best to water it down as much as they could. “Socialism with a human face” was able to accommodate the main intellectual trends of the 1960s, from psychoanalysis to structuralism, from progressive Christianity to the Nouveau roman, from the “scientific and technological revolution” and the “theory of convergence” of Radovan Richta13 to redefinitions of what it meant to be European.

The May movement in Paris wanted to put culture and the universities at the service of a political project. In Czechoslovakia, however, the 1960s stood for a process of freeing culture (albeit provisionally) from the shackles of the existing political structures and were a prelude to the upheavals of 1968. The distancing of culture from the ideology of the ruling powers had an impact that was actually highly political. The political crisis in the regime did not begin with the election of Dubcek to the leadership of the Party on 5 January 1968 but rather with the speeches about the breakaway delivered at the Writers’ Congress in June 1967 by Ludvik Vaculik, Milan Kundera, or Antonin Liehm. The newspaper that became the emblem of May 󈨈 was Action, whereas that of the Prague Spring was Literarni noviny, the journal of the Writers Union, which sold a quarter of a million copies in a country of fifteen million inhabitants. The 1960s will always be seen as the golden age of Czech culture, whether we are thinking of literature (Josef Skvorecky, Ludvik Vaculik, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima) or of theatre (Vaclav Havel, Pavel Kohout, Otomar Krejca) and not forgetting the New Wave in Czech cinema (Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jaromil Jires, Vera Chytilova, Jan Nemec, Jiri Menzel).14

This provides another parallel or contrast with what was de rigueur at the time in France. The extraordinary richness of this cultural activity took advantage of, or was facilitated by, exceptional circumstances in which creativity broke free from the constraints of censorship without thereby subjecting itself to the constraints of the marketplace. This wealth contrasts remarkably with the relative cultural sterility (both in Prague and in Paris) of the two decades that followed 1989. The cultural heritage associated with 1968 suffered differing fates following the defeat of the two Springs. In Prague, it was systematically destroyed by the “normalisation” regime and its main representatives were pursued, banned, or obliged to go into exile. In France, on the other hand, and more widely in the West, this legacy extended well beyond the failure of the radical utopia of May 󈨈. Political ecology, feminism, multiculturalism, and the challenge to the traditional model of the family or the anti-authoritarian approach to education in secondary teaching were all indicators of the lasting influence of this legacy across a generation that, in the end, was to take over the country’s main cultural and media institutions. The Czech activists of 󈨈, on the other hand, are a lost generation. When the change happened, twenty years later, they tried to catch a rather unlikely second wind. Their French opposite numbers contrived to convert the political failure of May 󈨈 into a cultural victory in which the labels “bobo” (bohemian-bourgeois) and “liblib” (liberal-libertarian) are shorthand for changes in a generation that was smug about the “hegemony” (in the Gramscian sense) it managed to wield over the French cultural and political elites.

Misunderstandings aside, the difference between the two springs lies in the differing legacies of the 1968 movements. The outcome of the Prague Spring was, first and foremost, the failure of reform within the Communist regime, which, in the East, discredited once and for all Dubcek’s “revisionist” approach. At the same time, the Prague Spring was to inspire Eurocommunism in the West (a bandwagon onto which the French Communist Party, rather late in the day, tried to jump as it sought to regain credibility having signed up to the “Common Programme”, the touchstone for leftwing parties throughout the 1960s).

What remains of the failure of 1968 in Prague is the “clinical death of Marxism in Europe” (Kolakowski) and Gorbachev’s perestroika, which turned up twenty years too late. There also remains that other Spring of 1968, that which constitutes the renewal of civil society and the “rediscovery of citizenship” of which Vaclav Havel spoke.15 Ivan Svitak summed up the “other” agenda of 1968 in this way: “From totalitarian dictatorship towards an open society, the liquidation of the monopoly on power, effective control of the power-elite by a free press and by public opinion. From bureaucratic management of society and culture by “the cut-throats who hold to the official line” (the term used by C. Wright Mills) towards the application of fundamental human rights.󈭤 That is the legacy, one that goes beyond the framework of official Marxism, which was still to be found a decade later among dissidents.

By making human rights, civil society, and European culture central to its activity, central European (and especially Czech) dissent had an impact that was by no means negligible on the anti-totalitarian Left in France in a new political and intellectual context post-1968. In retrospect, the latter found that May 󈨈 had an anti-Communist element in the sense that the left-wing movement had opposed the strategy of the French Communist Party, which had remained faithful above all to Moscow’s concern with maintaining “order”, that is, with maintaining a divided Europe. The post-68 “new philosophers”, when they asked themselves questions about the origins of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, of the Gulags and of “barbarism with a human face” (Bernard-Henri Lévy), traced the intellectual and political ancestry of Soviet Russian Bolshevism back to the German “master thinkers” (A. Glucksmann) and further back to the Enlightenment, discovering along the way some of the concerns of Czech dissenters including Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. In the 1980s, others, such as Alain Finkielkraut and Danièle Sallenave (in Le Messager européen), thought about the rediscovery of central Europe as a “stolen” part of the West (Kundera) and about the need to rethink Europe as a culture and a civilisation, not just a “common market”. Thus, anti-totalitarianism, human rights, a rediscovery of civil society and the European idea helped bring about the latter-day rediscoveries made by former soixante-huitards of both Paris and Prague. Paradoxically, these rediscoveries did not survive the crumbling of the Communist bloc and the enlargement of the European Union. This was precisely because it was an enlargement of the EU rather than a reunification of Europe.

This article is a pre-print from the forthcoming issue of Transit (no. 35, Summer 2008)


History Of The Prague Spring Of 1968

The Prague Spring of 1968 is a brief period of history during which the Czechoslovakian government, under the leadership of communist party leader Alexander Dubček, attempted to pass reforms, which would democratize the nation and reduce the influence of Moscow on them. These reforms reduced censorship of press, radio, television, speech and other media they also lead to individual liberties, economic changes, and government restructuring. In all, the reforms gave more rights to the citizens through the decentralization of economy and authority. However, Moscow did not react well to Dubcek’s decisions and eventually invaded the country with Warsaw Pact troops. The sheer force of the invading troops resulted in no military resistance and the invasion remained bloodless (militarily speaking). After which, Dubcek was removed from power and his reforms were undone.

In the years leading up to the Prague Spring, Antonín Novotný governed Czechoslovakia. He openly supported Stalinism, and under his power, the people of Czechoslovakia suffered from fierce government regulations, censorship and poor leadership decisions. Although he led the process of de-Stalinization (since Stalin’s death in 1953), the pace of change was extremely slow and thus the people called for more reforms. In May of 1966 the Czechoslovakians began to complain that the Soviets were exploiting them, this was the first spark that eventually lead to the flame of his overthrow. Furthermore, Czechoslovakia was an industrialized nation and the Soviet’s model of economy did not suit them, in fact it hurt Czechoslovakians, and lead to a decline in their economy. In fact, the conditions for the working class were a.

. rators. During this time frame, Husak’s rule was often described as “reluctant terror” as it closely copied the Soviet Union’s policies and objectives.
Conclusion and Discussion
The soviet troops stayed in Czechoslovakia for about 23 years, and left in 1991. The Prague spring can be considered as an abortive revolution as it was unsuccessful attempt at changing the political and potentially the social system of Czechoslovakia. However, I have a difficult time seeing as to why this would be considered a revolution. Yes, the reforms were bringing new ideas of thought and the changing the way the government treated its people. But it does not seem as though a political party or social group actually ‘revolted’.
But nevertheless, I feel that Dubcek had a great vision and had great strength to attempt such a bold move when the world’s largest country was his neighbor.


Josef Koudelka: The 1968 Prague Invasion

The events leading up to the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia were, for many observers looking back, inevitable. After two decades of oppressive Communist rule under the auspices of the Soviet regime, the country was ready for radical change. When Alexander Dubček was elected as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia the politician seized the opportunity for democratic reform. A period of ‘liberalization’ known as the Prague Spring was enacted, allowing an expansion of citizen civil rights and liberties, partial democratization, and decentralization of the economy. Restrictions on press freedom, travel and free-speech were also loosened. All much to the vexation of the USSR, who, in between failed negotiations with Dubček, watched closely.

On August 21, 1968, f orces from five of the countries grouped in the Warsaw Pact invaded . Tanks flooded Prague’s streets as residents buffered the sidewalks and buildings, protecting the Czechoslovak Radio Centre and destroying street-signs to misdirect the Eastern Bloc invaders. During the political turbulence, Josef Koudelka was moved to document his country during the upheaval. Here, he recalls the events of that defining year and the story behind his beginnings as a Magnum photographer–as published in Magnum Stories (Phaidon, 2014).


1968 Prague Spring - History

The &ldquoPrague Spring&rdquo of 1968. Forgotten Lessons of History

Every year on August 21 Czechs and Slovaks remember the sad events of 1968, when on the instructions from the Kremlin, troops from the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the processes of democratization. Today, impartial analysis of the events allows to look at the other side of the sources of &ldquohybrid wars&rdquo, to understand the current Russian aggressive policy, imperial ambitions, the Kremlin propaganda and behavior of the Russians themselves.

What happened then in a friendly and brotherly to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and why after those events Czechs and Slovaks for decades for the most part inwardly, but often defiantly, had been treating Soviet citizens as invaders, and this negative attitude has been transferred onto Russian citizens?

In the mid-1960s there was a movement in Czechoslovakia for economic and social reforms and for observation of freedom of speech. In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek was unanimously elected the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and in April, he proposed a radical program of reforms. It provided for democratic elections, greater autonomy of Slovakia, freedom of speech and religion, abolition of censorship of the press, lifting of restrictions on travels abroad, changes in the management and functioning of industry and agriculture. Citizens gladly met such innovations, and this immediately affected the activation of social and cultural life, and these events were called the &ldquoPrague Spring&rdquo.

At the same time, the leaders of the Soviet Union saw in the events in Czechoslovakia threat to the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and a bad example for other socialist countries. In Moscow, when estimating the effects of various reforms and innovations to build the developed socialism, there dominated imperial thinking. Everything was counted from the position of the balance of forces and confrontation in the world, as well as the consequences for the Soviet hegemony.

Leonid Brezhnev and other Kremlin leaders tried to put pressure on A. Dubcek, during official and unofficial meetings with him trying to persuade him to abandon the planned course, but all in vain. Then in the harsh conspiracy, they began to prepare invasion of troops into Czechoslovakia in order to keep it in the communist camp by force of arms.

First, they activated the work of the residency of the USSR State Security Committee (KGB) in Czechoslovakia. Its office was expanded, contacts with the leaders of the Czech intelligence services (the majority of whom were pro-Soviet) became closer. There were no special problems here. The Soviet KGB men were on the rights of the &ldquobig brother&rdquo, had access to a wide array of information and mentored what to do and how. They followed every step of the Czechoslovak leaders, bugged and wiretapped their conversations, recruited agents from their circles.

It must have been for the first time since the beginning of the &ldquocold war&rdquo, that Soviet intelligence officers &mdash deep-cover agents arrived in Czechoslovakia under the guise of foreign tourists or businessmen. They collected information on moods in the society and tried to establish contacts with anti-socialist elements and even were engaged in spreading leaflets against the new government.

Soviet secret services were involved also in creation of arms caches, which had to be demonstrated later as evidence of the opposition forces' preparations for an armed insurrection. Information received through the KGB's channels and reported to Soviet leaders, was supposed to encourage them to take more decisive actions. Thus, the KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov's subordinates reported on discovered warehouses with weapons allegedly secretly delivered from Germany. In reality, these weapons belonged to the people's militia of Czechoslovakia. There were reports on radio stations provided by the West. At this, the KGB officers themselves were well aware that those radio stations were officially kept in case of a possible war.

Later in the East German press, there was an article about eight American tanks found out near Prague. As it turned out, the Americans were shooting a film about the events of the Second World War. The tanks were ordinary moulages. But the information to the press was given by the Soviet secret services, having not warned even their colleagues from the &ldquofriendly German intelligence service&rdquo under the leadership of Markus Wolf.

The story of the imaginary American tanks is just one example of the work of what was then the service &ldquoA&rdquo (active measures) of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB of the USSR. It also forged the &ldquoideological subversion plan in Czechoslovakia&rdquo, allegedly developed by the United States. This &ldquoplan&rdquo was published in the newspaper &ldquoPravda&rdquo. Everything was done in order to demonstrate to the world community: events in Czechoslovakia are taking place under the scenario of Western intelligence agencies, and NATO's armies are ready to invade the territory of the country.

In mid-July 1968, the Czechoslovak police received an anonymous call about a new arms cache. In the indicated spot were found five boxes with American guns of the times of World War II. The Soviet press immediately wrote that the United States supplied weapons to counterrevolutionaries. Soon, the Czechoslovak police found out that the weapons were kept in the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, and apparently got into the territory of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic as a result of a special operation of the KGB and the East German Ministry for State Security. But no one cared. The flywheel had been ramped up and was already running.

Does all this not remind of today's events around Ukraine? The same (as in the case of today's Russia's attitude to Ukraine): methods of political and diplomatic pressure forms of destabilizing activities of Russia's special services approaches and projects of propaganda deliberate provocations and subversive actions with the same purpose &mdash to prevent the country's democratic development, to keep it in its totalitarian camp! At the same time, the Unified Command of the Warsaw Pact, together with the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR started to develop the operation codenamed &ldquoDunay&rdquo (&ldquoDanube&rdquo). April 8, 1968 Commander of Airborne Forces, Army General V. Margelov got a Directive, according to which he began planning an air assault onto the territory of Czechoslovakia.

The directive stated: &ldquoThe Soviet Union and other socialist countries, faithful to their internationalist duty and the Warsaw Pact, should bring their troops to assist the Czechoslovak People's Army in defending the homeland from the dangers threatening it&rdquo.The document also stressed: &ldquo. If the troops of the Czechoslovak People's Army perceive the arrival of Soviet troops with understanding, in this case it is necessary to organize cooperation with them and to carry out tasks together. If the troops of the Czechoslovak People's Army are hostile to the air-born troopers and support conservative forces, then it is necessary to take measures for their localization, and if this is impossible &mdash to disarm&rdquo.

Besides, from May to August 1968 the countries of the Warsaw Pact had held a number of command and staff military trainings to prepare for the invasion, namely: in May and June, &mdash large-scale command and staff trainings &ldquo&Scaronumava&rdquo with the involvement of units staff, formations and signal corps (under their cover from 20 to 30 June onto the territory of Czechoslovakia for the first time in the history of the Military Bloc of socialist countries, were brought 16 thousand people of personnel from 23 July to 10 August 1968 in the Soviet Union, the GDR and Poland were held logistic trainings &ldquoNeman&rdquo, within the framework of which was carried accumulation of reserve troops August 11, 1968 there began large-scale exercises of Air Defense Forces &ldquoNebesnyi Shchit&rdquo (&ldquoThe Sky Shield&rdquo) in Western Ukraine, Poland and the GDR were held trainings of signal troops. In general, under the guise of those trainings, all in all into Czechoslovakia were brought 27 thousand soldiers and officers. And at the end of the trainings there was no hurry to withdraw them. That is, it was a kind of dress rehearsal of a large-scale invasion.

The Soviet side did not exclude the option of entry into the territory of Czechoslovakia of NATO member countries' troops, which at that time had been carrying out maneuvers codenamed &ldquoThe Black Lion&rdquo at the borders of Czechoslovakia.

On the night of August 20/21, 1968 approximately 200,000 troops and 5,000 tanks of 5(five) countries of the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic), except for Romania, entered the territory of Czechoslovakia to suppress the &ldquoPrague Spring&rdquo. The official reason for bringing troops was the letter of appeal of the &ldquoparty and government leaders&rdquo of Czechoslovakia to the government of the USSR and other countries of the Warsaw Pact &ldquofor the provision of international assistance&rdquo.

Czechoslovak citizens tried with the help of demonstrations, rallies and other peaceful activities to protest against the intervention, but they were powerless against the Soviet tanks. They tried to remove road signs, to mislead the Soviet soldiers, they threw stones and flowerpots at tanks, and on the walls of houses, they wrote in big letters eloquent phrases: &ldquoFather &mdash liberator. Son &mdash occupier&rdquo.

Soldiers and officers of the troops brought in could not understand why the &ldquopeaceful action&rdquo of the Warsaw Pact caused such a negative reaction of the local people. Because they were not fully aware of their tasks. Zampolits (Deputy Commander for political affairs) kept persuading them that NATO forces were threatening to seize Czechoslovakia and eliminate the people's power and that their own mission was to prevent it and protect the gains of socialism.

On the same night, Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into Prague and surrounded the building of the Central Committee. Paratroopers rushed into the building, found Alexander Dubcek's office, cut all telephone wires and began to compile lists of those present there. Then A. Dubchek and some active supporters of the reforms under heavy guard were smuggled into the territory of the USSR and temporarily placed in the mountains near Uzhgorod at special dachas (country houses) under the close supervision of the KGB and Militia (Police). Soon, they were sent by plane to Moscow, where, under strong pressure they had to sign all required documents prepared in the Kremlin offices, and resign.

After the implementation of these plans, the intractable Alexander Dubcek was replaced by the appointed by Moscow obedient Gustav Husak. He immediately began mass cleansing, especially among intellectuals and students. Free thinking was actually done with. Half a million people were expelled from the Communist Party and together with their families, in fact, for the two decades were crossed out from the active life of the country.

Of course, the protests in the country continued, but not in large quantities. In 1969, in Prague, students Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc with an interval of one month committed self-immolation in protest against the Soviet invasion. Having lost faith in the new policy, citizens, mostly highly skilled professionals, emigrated to the West. The atmosphere of disappointment prevailed in the country. Soviet citizens who, after the Second World War were referred to as brothers-liberators, became associated with the occupiers.

In the Soviet Union, people in different ways protested against bringing Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia. Some journalists of major newspapers refused to write what they were dictated by the editors, and were forcibly dismissed from work. But such cases were few. In the Red Square in Moscow August 25, 1968, intellectuals held a small demonstration in support of independence of Czechoslovakia. They unfolded banners with slogans &ldquoLong live free and independent Czechoslovakia!&rdquo, &ldquoShame on the occupiers&rdquo, &ldquoHands off Czechoslovakia!&rdquo, &ldquoFor your freedom and ours!&rdquo, &ldquoFreedom for Dubcek!&rdquo The demonstration was broken up, slogans qualified as defamatory and the demonstrators were sentenced to different terms of imprisonment.

Much more active were protest moods in the Ukrainian society. They peaked at the end of August 1968. The strong pressure of the official Soviet propaganda, tough political censorship could not cover all the channels through which the objective information about the events in Czechoslovakia was coming to Ukrainian citizens. The joint border, family and friendly contacts made it possible to get reliable information.

From August 21 to September 7, the republican KGB recorded 1182 cases of negative reactions of citizens of Ukraine to the USSR's interfering into internal affairs of Czechoslovakia. There had been reported 23 cases of distribution in the Republic of leaflets and proclamations condemning the Kremlin's policy, aimed against the western neighbor. This is stated in one of the issues of the scientific-documentary publication &ldquoFrom the archives of VUChK-GPU-NKVD-KGB&rdquo. It published documents of the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR, showing the reaction of Ukrainian citizens to the events in Czechoslovakia.

These documents pointed out that the protests against the occupation of Czechoslovakia were recorded not only in western regions of Ukraine, but also in Chernihiv, Cherkasy, Kirovohrad, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odesa regions and so on.

The Report of the republican KGB to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of March 4, 1969 reads about &ldquoideological perversions&rdquo in the Writers' Union of Ukraine &ldquobiased attitude to some members of the Writers' Union of Ukraine to the events in Czechoslovakia&rdquo.

Special departments in the Armed Forces also had more work. Not all soldiers and officers who participated in the events in Czechoslovakia, spoke approvingly of the Soviet party leadership, which had sent them to &ldquorestore order&rdquo in a foreign country. In letters that came home from military camps in Czechoslovakia, not everything was described as optimistically as reported by Soviet propaganda.

Then all the radio and television channels, news agencies and press in unison were voicing the clearly stated in the Kremlin offices thesis about the &ldquofraternal assistance to the Czechoslovak people in defending the gains of socialism&rdquo. As well as the approved thesis about the unanimous support of the peoples of the Soviet Union, including the Ukrainian one, to the foreign policy of the USSR.

47 years have passed since then. The world has changed and people have changed their views on the history and the present time have changed. But not everywhere and not everybody. The current Russian leadership looks like those Soviet Kremlin helmsmen, who did not want to see the real state of affairs and did their best to preserve their power and the built totalitarian regime.

History does not teach them anything. No one seems to have learned his or her lessons from those events. And it is worth to remember that the &ldquoPrague Spring&rdquo was not in vain. It gave significant impetus to further development of the opposition movement, the birth at a new historical stage of ideas of anti-totalitarian mass movements and revolutions that in late 1980s led to the change of the social system in former socialist countries.

In the Russian Federation, they prefer not to mention the events of those days. It is obvious that no one had any desire to somehow compare them with bringing Russian troops into Georgia in August 2008, when the &ldquopeace enforcement&rdquo operation was carried out, let alone with the recent developments in the Crimea and the East of Ukraine.

At the same time, it is necessary to draw attention to the results of sociological research of the Russian Levada Center, conducted in early 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The results of this poll seven years ago made even before the invasion of Russian tanks into Georgian territory are quite eloquent and allow today to understand the nature of Russia's aggressive and cynical politics, imperial ambitions, the Kremlin's propaganda and behavior of the Russians themselves, their attitude to the events.

Conclusions of the Director of the Levada Center, sociologist Lev Gudkov and his reflections on the results of the study deserve to refer to them today, and even to quote something.

Thus, according to sociologists, in 2008 only 27 % of Russians had some idea of ​​what happened in Prague in the spring and summer of 1968. The Soviet invasion of the CSSR was assessed differently. The official version of the invasion (bringing the troops in response to a request of &ldquohealthy forces&rdquo in the Czechoslovak leadership) was shared by 20 % of respondents. Slightly more numerous was the percentage of those inclined to think that it was a &ldquocampaign of suppression of the people's movement against socialism&rdquo and &ldquointimidating potential opponents of the USSR and the communist authorities in other countries of the socialist camp&rdquo. But most often there was an answer in which one could trace an attempt to justify the Soviet leadership, was reduced to this formulation: &ldquo. it was an attempt in any way to keep Czechoslovakia in the socialist camp&rdquo.

26 % of respondents in the motives of the Kremlin leadership to introduce troops saw the desire to preserve the Soviet bloc from imminent collapse if Czechoslovakia came out from under the Soviet Union's influence. The other two possible answers &mdash &ldquofear of a complete collapse of communism, which can be prevented only by force&rdquo and &ldquothe troops were brought in to prevent the crisis from escalating into a world war&rdquo &mdash won 7 % and 6 % respectfully.

In this regard, the Director of Levada Center Lev Gudkov pointed out: &ldquoThis explanation is very important for understanding the logic of neutralization of the &ldquoguilty conscience&rdquo of the Russian population. Its essence boils down to the idea that &ldquowe&rdquo, the Soviet Union (Russia), in any case, will use force, but it is better to do it early to get ahead of Western countries who will come to help the Czech democrats when the Soviet leadership sends troops to suppress them. This &ldquoproof from the opposite&rdquo, the choice in favour of the &ldquolesser evil&rdquo in order to avoid the &ldquogreater evil&rdquo is a decisive argument for national unity around the government. They begin to forgive the regime all the crimes in the past and permissiveness in the now. &ldquo

Lev Gudkov in the conclusions of the research points out that only about 12 % of Russians are supporters of democracy in Russia, that is, &ldquothe stratum that understands the value of the democratic system, has historical memory and clearly understands the relationship between the society and the authorities, and has no xenophobia and hostility towards other countries&rdquo.

According to the sociologist, the Russians' indifference to the events of 1968 cannot be justified by the fact that Soviet citizens did not understand what really was happening in Czechoslovakia, did not understand the criminal actions of the Soviet leadership. &ldquoBut solidarity with Czechoslovakia was neutralized by mass dismissal caused by the imperial self-consciousness&rdquo.

This is where, according to Lev Gudkov, originates the indifference and alleged forgetfulness that characterize the Russians' attitude to their past. &ldquoThis is not an accidental symptom of amnesia &mdash he wrote &mdash but a very resistant mechanism of organization of the mass consciousness in the late-totalitarian and post-totalitarian society. Such sentiments can be expressed in one sentence: one should not stir the past, it is better to forget the crimes of the Stalinist period, to leave the torturers and their victims in the oblivion, and to live on. These particular mindsets have become one of the most important components of Putin's authoritarianism&rdquo.

These words were written in early 2008!

Drawing conclusions on the results of the sociological research, Lev Gudkov sadly observes &ldquo&hellipErasing memory is facilitated by an urgent desire to demean the importance of the &ldquoPrague Spring&rdquo not only for the history of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, but for the history of the whole Eastern Europe&rdquo. He considers such an effect the main achievement of the totalitarian system of information and propaganda, which apart from shameless misinforming, blatant lying and cynical discrediting the events and their participants, devalues the values ​​that guided the participants in the movement for reform. It also destroys in the minds of Russians the idea of ​​the possibility of any change, the belief that there might be a different life, a different social system, and different intergovernmental relations.

Even then, sociologists aptly noticed such tendencies in the Russian society. However, current developments around Ukraine only confirm the conclusions drawn.


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Fifty years later, the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 is still a mainstay of European history courses, but the role that artists and writers played in the temporary thaw is overlooked—as is the impact Literarni noviny (“Literary News”), a periodical still produced today. Following the conference and additional agitation in the pages of the paper, which was the official weekly of the writers’ union, the government placed it under control of the culture ministry. The ministry closed it down, sparking opposition from the more liberal wing of the Communist Party.

Many of Czechoslovakia’s leading intellectuals up to that point had still sympathised with communism and hoped that it could be improved from within. “A lot of them were even party members,” says Tereza Spencerova, an editor at today’s incarnation of Literarni noviny. Unlike elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, Czechoslovak communists had taken power in part through democratic means in 1948. Most of Czechoslovakia had been liberated by the Red Army, after a period of brutal Nazi occupation in Czech lands and an ultraconservative nationalist puppet state in Slovakia. “The writers’ positions were understandable, but they were only just beginning to cope with their own mistakes” in 1968, Ms Spencerova adds. “They were artists, but they became politicians too.”

The writers’ union continued to test the limits of speech. In February, the new chairman, Eduard Goldstücker, a scholar of Kafka, detailed the downfall of the previous Communist Party head, Antonin Novotny, on state television. When authorities declined to punish him for this radical act of transparency, others took it as a sign they too could speak more freely. Goldstücker launched a new newspaper, Literarni listy (“Literary Pages”), to replace Literarni noviny. The party was floundering in its response. “By mid-March several Presidium members had begun to fear that they were losing control of the country,” according to Kieran Williams, a historian. By the April party congress, Dubcek was advocating a new path, “socialism with a human face”.

Meanwhile, the cultural floodgates were open. A film version of Milan Kundera's novel "The Joke,” a raw satire of the communist regime, was shot (it was promptly banned in 1969 and remained so through 1989). The psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe formed. Even restrictions on travel were relaxed. In June 1968, Literarni listy published “Two Thousand Words”, an essay. In it Ludvik Vaculik demanded “the resignation of people who have misused their power”. The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, began referring to the situation in Czechoslovakia as a “counterrevolution”. A few months later, on the night of August 20th-21st, 5,000 tanks and 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops from five countries invaded, just as Literarni listy’s print runs were surpassing 300,000 copies.

Even as repression was swift, the discursive atmosphere persisted on the margins for a few months longer. A group of young intellectuals—among them Mr Kundera and Vaclav Havel (pictured above, right and left respectively)—debated the country’s essence for the better part of two years on the pages of Literarni listy and elsewhere. “A small nation…if it has any meaning in the world, it must daily and over and over again create,” Mr Kundera wrote. “When it stops creating values, it loses the privilege to exist.” Many of the protagonists in the Prague Spring would form the vanguard of the nascent democratic movement two decades later. Mr Kundera would flee the country in 1975, but Havel stayed on, enduring multiple stints in prison before becoming the country’s first president after the Velvet revolution of 1989.

As the government maintained its grip on speech in the intervening years—a period known as normilizace (normalisation)—a revived Literarni noviny was published in fits and starts in exile. It was fully revived on its home soil in 1990. Havel wrote some new pieces, and old Havel-and-Kundera greatest hits were republished. (Mr Kundera has largely remained a recluse.) Today the periodical remains a common, if understated presence on newsstands. Now a monthly, few would say that its role in the public sphere is anything near what it was 50 years ago. But the editors contend this is a problem with supply, not demand. “People are looking for something new politically. There could be an audience,” Ms Spencerova says. “But we don’t have the same kind of intellectuals. Today there are very a few serious writers who want to talk about politics.”


Prague Spring 1968: Czechoslovakia's Tragic Attempt To Break Free of Communist Rule

The “Prague Spring” of 1968 would be tragically short-lived, as Soviet troops moved decisively to crush the pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia.

Here's What You Need to Know: Some 100 Czechoslovakian men and women, mostly young protesters, were killed and hundreds more were wounded.

At 1:30 am on August 21, 1968, Czech authorities at Ruzyne Airport in the capital city of Prague waited to greet a special flight that was flying in directly from Moscow. The authorities were not alarmed. Perhaps it was a delegation coming to try to hammer out the growing differences between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

As soon as the plane taxied to the terminal, it became apparent immediately that it was no official delegation—diplomatic or otherwise. Instead, 100 plainclothes Russian soldiers armed with submachine guns clambered down the catwalk to the tarmac and stormed the airport terminal and control tower, overcoming the Czech security personnel without firing a shot. They were an advance unit of the Soviet 7th Guards Airborne Division. With the airport secured, the commandos signaled all clear for the rest of the Soviet airborne invasion force to proceed. It was the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakian democracy, which was being virtually strangled in its crib.

Around the world, 1968 had already been a year of turmoil. In the United States, the year was marked by the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. A growing number of Americans were taking to the streets, protesting the ever-escalating war in Vietnam, clashing with police and National Guard units, and taking over administration buildings at colleges and universities. The antiwar, antiestablishment furor was catching on in Europe as well, with similar demonstrations in West Germany by activists protesting the continuing American military presence in their country. Throughout France, mass demonstrations and strikes by students and workers were paralyzing the French economy and pushing the de Gaulle government to the point of collapse.

Communist leaders within the walls of the Kremlin were comforted by the thought that their own closed-off societies, isolated from the West by barbed wire, guns, and tanks, were immune to the sort of disorder and strife that was gripping the capitalist world. They hadn’t counted on Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia: The Warsaw Pact’s Stable Eastern Flank?

Unlike in most of the other Eastern European countries that came under Soviet occupation after World War II, in Czechoslovakia the communists came to power in 1946 through electoral victories. But when in 1948 it became apparent that they were losing their popularity and thus were going to lose the next round of elections, the communist prime minister, Klement Gottwald, cracked down on all noncommunist factions in the government and used the militia and police to seize control of Prague. From then on, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic solidified its communist ties and joined the ranks of the other Eastern and Central European vassal states in the Soviet Empire.

The Czechoslovak Peoples Army (CSLA), numbering 250,000 men, was structured along the lines of the Soviet Army. Its officer corps was composed almost entirely of men trained by the Soviets who had served in the First Czechoslovak Army Corps on the Eastern Front during World War II. Those officers from the prewar Czechoslovakian Army who had gone to London during the war and had come back after 1945 to help reconstitute the country’s military were purged from the ranks. During the 1950s, when East Germany, Poland, and especially Hungary were wracked by uprisings, Czechoslovakia remained a stable, solid part of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets were so confident of the stability and loyalty of the Czechs and Slovaks that they did not even keep a standing Red Army contingent in the country. In the event of a war with NATO across Germany, the Czechs were expected to hold up the Warsaw Pact’s southern flank.

Humiliation in the Six-Day War

But by the 1960s, conditions within Czechoslovakia had started to change. Gottwald was dead, and in his place was a cautious reformer named Antonin Novotny. Unlike his predecessor, Novotny was willing to allow a certain limited degree of reform and loosening up of Czechoslovak society. He even went so far as to give businesses a little leeway in dictating their own production schedules and business plans.

In 1967, events in the Middle East altered Czechoslovakia’s political course. In June of that year, Israel overwhelmingly defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War. The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been largely trained and equipped with advisers and weapons from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia. To many Czechs and Slovaks, Egypt’s and Syria’s humiliation was also their own.

The Six Day War provoked many among Czechoslovakia’s intellectual elite to begin questioning the government’s support for Egypt and its antipathy toward Israel. This criticism in turn opened up the floodgates to criticism of the government in general and of Premier Novotny in particular. Some of the first open critics of the regime were the members of the Writers Union, which numbered among its ranks a young playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was just beginning to make a name for himself. Novotny reacted to the criticism by reimposing censorship and clamping down on the press, moves that only engendered more criticism, both inside and outside the party. By the end of the year, there were calls within the Central Committee for Novotny’s resignation.

The Fall of Novotny, the Rise of “Our Sasha”

When the committee met again in January 1968, the decision was made to strip Novotny of most of his power by separating the offices of first secretary of the party from the office of president of Czechoslovakia. Novotny previously had held both posts, and he was allowed to keep the office of president but the first secretariat went to the head of the Slovakian wing of the party, Alexander Dubcek.

Dubcek was the son of Slovakian immigrants who had come to the United States and become American citizens. Active in the American socialist movement, they had both worked for Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party at the turn of the century. In 1921, Dubcek’s father, Stefen, moved the family to the Soviet Union to help build an industrial cooperative. The family moved back to their homeland of Czechoslovakia in 1938. As a teenager, Dubcek and his brother joined the Slovakian resistance against the Nazi occupation and took part in the Slovak national uprising in August 1944. Dubcek was wounded and his brother was killed in the fighting.

After the war, Dubcek climbed the ladder of the communist hierarchy and became a champion for the Slovak minority within the country. He made a name for himself as an advocate of government reform, including the separation of the party organization from the government. Dubcek was not known for being a maverick, but for being a hard worker, a fervent believer in Marxism-Leninism, and an admirer of the Soviet Union. Among his comrades in the Kremlin, Dubcek was affectionately referred to as “Our Sasha.”

Dubcek’s appointment was a welcome development for reformers in Czechoslovakia, but it did nothing to mollify the tens of thousands of people who had started taking to the streets and publicly demanding Novotny’s resignation as president. On March 22, 1968, they got their wish Novotny finally conceded the inevitable and stepped down. His successor was a former general and war hero named Ludvik Svoboda, who supported Dubcek’s proposals.

“Czechoslovakia’s comrades know best”

What followed was an unprecedented period of freedom and reform behind the Iron Curtain that would be remembered in history as the “Prague Spring.” For the first time in more than 20 years, the people of Czechoslovakia were not only allowed but encouraged to speak up and criticize the government and the party. Economically, Dubcek instituted an action program that loosened government controls on the private sector to an extent that Novotny had never dared. It wasn’t long before the man whom the Soviets had regarded as a loyal, orthodox communist was declaring the desire to establish a “free, modern, and profoundly humane society.”

Dubcek’s neighbors and fellow Warsaw Pact leaders wanted no part of such an open society. They made their feelings known to Dubcek during the March 23 Warsaw Pact summit meeting in Dresden. Heading up the campaign of denunciation was Dubcek’s neighbor to the north, East German leader Walter Ulbricht. The architect of the Berlin Wall and the most Stalinist of the Warsaw Pact leaders, Ulbricht was more than a little concerned about the possibility that the newfound freedoms of the Czech and Slovak citizens would tempt his own citizens to demand the same. He denounced Dubcek for laying open Czechoslovakia to infiltration by Western influences and for giving his nation’s artists and writers too much freedom. “The capitalist world press had already written that Czechoslovakia was the most advantageous point from which to penetrate the socialist camp,” he exclaimed.

Poland’s communist leader, Wladislaw Gomulka, shared Ulbricht’s hysteria and went so far as to remind Dubcek of how Hungary was invaded and crushed in 1956 after its leadership had strayed too far from the Soviet fold. Ironically, Hungarian leader Janos Kadar, who had replaced the unfortunate Imre Nagy after Nagy was executed by the Soviets in 1958, took a more moderate tack, concluding that “Czechoslovakia’s comrades know best, I believe, what is happening in Czechoslovakia today.”


Watch the video: Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia 1989 NHD (November 2021).