|Students protested as Warsaw Pact armor entered Prague.
The winds of change were blowing strong in 1968 and they weren’t confined to the volatile United States where Vietnam War protests and urban Black rebellion seemed for a moment to ready to change everything. Student and student/worker alliance rebellions swept Western Europe, particularly France and the Federal Republic of Germany.
Change was also coming, inevitably, to the countries behind the Iron Curtain where the Soviet Union had maintained rigid control since the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. It began in Yugoslavia where Tito had earlier begun to chart an independent course in international relations and where a unique movement for worker’s control of factories was challenging traditional authority. But nowhere did the flowers of emerging change bloom more promisingly than in Czechoslovakia where a reform minded Communist, Alexander Dubček, inaugurated the change hailed by the world as the Prague Spring.
It all came to an end on the night of August 20, 1968 when 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops from the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary with more than 2000 heavy tanks invaded the wayward republic.
The first whiff of change had come in 1967 from a minority of members of the official Czechoslovak Writer’s Union who supported a radical socialist critique of the staid and calcified Soviet style economic system dependent on central command control that had put the once brisk Czech economy into a long tail spin. They supported reforms along the workers’ self management models and mixed market economy emerging in Yugoslavia. In the process, they had to advocate greater freedom of expression to air their views in the columns of the Union newspaper Literární noviny and other publications.
President Antonín Novotný and Party leaders, including those who would soon become reformers, quickly squelched the movement, but the cat was out of the bag.
There was also pressure for some sort of autonomy for the ethnic regions that made up the polyglot Czechoslovak Socialist Republic—Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. The Bohemians—Czecks—had long dominated the country and were resented by the Slovaks in particular, who were far less industrialized and modernized than the Czecks.
Despite backing from Moscow, Novotný was rapidly losing support even on the party Central Committee. Dubček, First Secretary of Communist Party of Slovakia, and economist Ota Šik openly challenged Novotný for leadership. Alarmed, the President and Party boss appealed to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev for support. But when Brezhnev visited Prague and gauged how deeply unpopular Novotný was among the Party faithful, he signaled that the USSR would not oppose a change at the top.
Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary on January 5 1968 and on March 22 Novotný resigned the presidency and was replaced by Ludvík Svoboda. Soon after taking power, perhaps to reassure the nervous Soviets, Dubček repeatedly re-affirmed Party orthodoxy and the Party’s unchallenged leadership, “…to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations ... a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties …”
Despite the tough rhetoric, Dubček began to implement reforms in April when he announced the Action Program of liberalizations, which included increasing freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement, with economic emphasis on scarce consumer goods and even the distant possibility of a multiparty government. It called for a ten year transition period to free and open elections that would embody a new model of democratic socialism. The plan also re-affirmed the alliance with Moscow, but set improved relations—including trade—with the West as a goal. Finally, it transformed the country into a Federation of partly autonomous Czech and Slovak Republics. The minority Moravians found themselves mostly in the Czech Republic.
The program proved immediately and immensely popular at home, just as it alarmed the Kremlin. Despite Dubček’s claims that it was only a logical outgrowth of traditional Communist doctrine adapted to modern demands and his insistence that the Party retain tight control over the transaction process and period, public pressure rapidly mounted to move quickly to the ultimate goals and Party supremacy was soon openly challenged.
Social Democrats openly began to organize an opposition party and political clubs of various ideologies quickly sprouted each with their own demands—often contradictory demands—for change.
At the Presidium of the Party in April, Dubček painted his proposed reforms as socialism with a human face. In May, he announced that the Fourteenth Party Congress would convene in September to implement the Action Program, draft a federalization law, and elect a new Central Committee.
Despite these signals of progress, dissidents demanded more. On June 27 Ludvík Vaculík, published the manifesto The Two Thousand Words which expressed concern about conservative elements within the Communist Party and the influence of “foreign forces,” a none too subtle reference to the Soviets. He called for popular action by the people for the immediate implementation of the reform program. Dubcek and Party leaders denounced the manifesto.
Brezhnev, Soviet Party leaders, and the nervous leaders of adjacent Warsaw Pact nations fearful that reform was contagious, looked on the developments with mounting horror. Brezhnev and Dubček entered into bi-lateral talks in July that resulted in an agreement that the Czecks would curb dissent, prevent the establishment of the Social Democratic Party, and bring reforms back under strict Party control.
For his part Brezhnev promised to withdraw the remaining Soviet military force in the country and allow the reformist Party Congress to go on as planned in September. The agreement was signed by both parties on August 3.
But the Soviets declared their intention to intervene if signs of an emerging bourgeois democracy continued. They withdrew the troops as scheduled, but held them in readiness on the border.
If Dubček thought he had bought time, he was mistaken. His compromises were met by outrage at home and he was slow to execute the promised clamp down. But the streets were calm and there were no obvious immediate triggers when the Soviets decided to enforce what they were now calling the Brezhnev Doctrine allowing for armed intervention in Eastern Block states who placed their national interests above those of the alliance as a whole. Brezhnev, with the enthusiastic support of party bosses in subservient states, ordered the occupation of Czechoslovakia to begin on August 20.
Troops quickly captured the Ruzyně International Airport allowing for more troops to arrive at the capital by air while forces crossed the border from multiple directions. Caught by surprise, Dubček wisely called on his people not to resist. Czeck armed forces were quickly confined to barracks and surrounded by troops and tanks to prevent them from acting. Still, there was scattered resistance including some rock and bottle throwing and a few instances of farmers firing with antiquated shotguns, but there was nothing like the kind of wide spread street fighting that had followed the 1956 Hungarian invasion.
Most resistance was passive. Highway and directional signs were everywhere removed, defaced or turned the wrong directions. Many towns removed the signs with their names and replaced them with signs declaring the villages Dubček or Svoboda. Since many of the invading forces came with no more sophisticated navigation aids than local highway maps, these ruses actually caused some confusion and brief delays.
During the attack 72 were killed, 266 severely wounded and another 436 were slightly injured. No fatalities and few injuries to the invaders were reported. Within 24 hours the whole country was essentially occupied.
On the night of the invasion the Czech Presidium avowed that troops had crossed the border without their knowledge, approval, or invitation. The Soviet press countered with an unsigned request for military assistance supposedly sent by members of the Central Committee. Subsequent revelations have shown that dissident conservative Party members had indeed asked for aid.
The hastily assembled Party Congress met in secret and reiterated that senior Party leadership was not involved.
Dubček was quickly arrested and original plans were for him to be immediately replaced. But Soviet authorities on the ground were alarmed by his continuing broad support among the people and it was decided to bring him and other leaders to Moscow for “consultation.” Under heavy pressure Dubček was forced to sign the Moscow Declaration which gave a cover of legitimacy to the invasion. In return he was allowed to remain nominally in power and some reforms were allowed to go forward—principally the creation of the semi-autonomous Czech and Slovak Republics. Most political and economic liberalization measures, however, were abandoned.
Within days hundreds of thousands fled the country to the West. No real attempt was made to stop them as authorities regarded most of them as dangerous. Within a few weeks as many as 300,000 left, including many of the cream of the cultural, academic, and industrial elite who could afford to move. The loss in a relatively small country was a catastrophic brain drain that crippled the nation for years.
In April 1969 Dubček was finally ousted from office and replaced by reliable hard liner Gustáv Husák who rolled back even more reforms. Also he and fellow Czechs who dominated the Party ran roughshod over smaller and poorer Slovenia, increasing tensions that would lead to the eventual break-up of the country. Dubček was allowed to stay free and was given a minor Forestry post.
In 1987 another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began to initiate reforms in the USSR that he frankly admitted were modeled on Czech “socialism with a human face.” He also loosened the Soviet grip on Eastern Block nations.
Czechoslovakia responded with its successful non-violent 1989 Velvet Revolution. Dubček was elected the Speaker of the Federal Assembly, founded and led the Social Democratic Party, and campaigned against the break-up of a united Czechoslovakia until his death in 1992.
Western response to the invasion was predictable impotent outrage. Empty resolutions were proposed at the United Nations but later withdrawn at the request of the now captive Czech government. The United States had its hands full in Vietnam and had no desire to provoke a confrontation in Europe. Besides, it was looking to Moscow for quiet support to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table.
Western European nations, faced with their own stability problems, were not eager to provoke a confrontation either. The biggest reaction may have come within the international Communist movement. Most Western parties bitterly denounced the invasion and strove to distance themselves from Moscow. Western parties, who had been chaffing at the bit for years, felt free to strike independent positions and abandon automatic fealty to Moscow.
In Eastern Europe Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, at that time a declared admirer of the Czech reforms, publicly broke with the Soviets and Warsaw Pact and denounced the Brezhnev Doctrine. The Soviet leaning government of officially neutral Finland was weakened as popular support in that country swung to pro-Western parties.
In the end, the Soviets, also at odds with the Chinese, found themselves more isolated in the world than ever and without even the reliable support of sizable Western European Communist Parties.
In the United States Richard Nixon would use the revived energy of the Captive Nations movement of emigrants from Soviet Satellites to chip away at traditionally solid support for Democrats of largely blue collar Eastern European Catholics.
The Prague Spring and its aftermath would have lasting cultural impact. Protest songs and lamentations from several countries and in several languages became popular. Including Karel Kryl and Luboš Fišer’s Requiem, Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, the Israeli song Prague, written by Shalom Hanoch and performed by Arik Einstein, and They Can't Stop The Spring a song by Irish journalist and songwriter John Waters.
Poet Václav Havel wrote impassioned denunciations of the invasion and became a national hero who became the last President of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution and the first President of the independent Czech Republic in 1993.
Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being is considered a contemporary literary masterpiece and was made into a well received film by director Philip Kaufman starring Daniel Day Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin.
The real lasting legacy of the Prague Spring, however, was its inspiration for similar movements in Eastern Europe and in the Beijing Spring of 1978. Right wing commentators continue to invoke the movement, but fail to recognize that it, like many of its imitators, had its roots in left wing opposition to Party orthodoxy and hegemony, not in a neo-libertarian pro-capitalist revolt.