The 1968 reform movement never denounced communism, so were freedom and democracy ever really on the table?
By Jan Richter
On the morning of Aug. 21, 1968, Mr. William Teltscher realized that his trip to Czechoslovakia had ended before it really started. Being a descendant of a traditional wine-trading Jewish family from Mikulov, south Moravia, he decided to visit his native country for the first time since his family left Czechoslovakia in 1939 for England, escaping the Nazi furor. However, he landed in Prague’s Ruzyne airport only to see the tanks being unloaded from Soviet transport planes, so he turned around and left the country on the next plane for London.
He was apparently one of those who believed the Prague Spring might eventually lead to significant changes to the totalitarian system or at least give the citizens of Czechoslovakia the feeling that they are once more able to determine their country’s destiny. Like many other hundreds of thousands, he was deceived.
When people today watch the dramatic footage of Prague streets in August 1968, filled with crowds gathering around the Soviet tanks trying to explain to the puzzled soldiers that there must have been some kind of a terrible misunderstanding, they are often overcome by emotion. That emotion is an understandable response to a classical example of the clash between good and evil, between the peaceful crowds and the heavily armed occupants. This response, however, might be an obstacle to deeper, more rational analysis of the true nature and hypothetical prospects of the “Resurgent Process,” as the Prague Spring was called in the contemporary functionaries’ newspeak. The fundamental question is: Was the hope of the Prague Spring really a hope for democracy, and was it ever likely to be fulfilled?
The Prague Spring of 1968 began a year earlier with the launch of nonpolitical reforms addressing the deteriorating economic situation. In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek was elected first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) as the result of the struggle between the two competing wings – the communist hardliners, headed by Antonin Novotny, the previous first secretary, and the reformist faction on the other. Dubcek himself was very surprised at his election, but such a solution suited both groups. He continued with the reforms, the most crucial of which was the abolishment of press censorship in June 1968. There was also a call for a more open decision-making process within the KSC that would allow for a modicum of dissent. But it is important to note that this was just for the party, not for the public. And there was a vague hint of desire that more Czechoslovak leaders, not Soviet advisers, would be running their own show. Finally, there was a call for recognizing the errors of the dictatorial 1950s. Following the end of censorship, the Soviet leadership repeatedly expressed their discomfort with the political course of their “fraternal” country and party. Their objections, proposals and demands were always met with reassurance that the “true will of the Czechoslovak people” is to stick firmly to the principles introduced after the Victorious February (i.e., the communist coup d’etat in 1948).
Ordinary people could not have cared less about what kinds of games their de facto appointed politicians had to play with the Moscow leaders. They saw a chance that the new political style might bring about meaningful changes, that they could live decent lives without having to discuss their dreams secretly at home. It is moreover doubtful that the majority would have welcomed a complete rejection of socialism, as eventually happened in 1989. One of the popular slogans painted on walls after the 1968 invasion read “Lenin, wake up – Brezhnev has gone mad.”
The Czechoslovak politicians nonetheless found themselves under dual pressures: At home they had to cope with demands for further reforms, and they also had to deal with the growing demand from Moscow to stop and even reverse the reform process. In the end, they lost on both sides.
Some initiatives were introduced by those who aspired to act as real opposition, for example the Club of Committed Non-Partisans (KAN), a political organization established in April 1968 to promote democracy and popular involvement in politics. The Czechoslovak leaders’ reaction to KAN was reserved and evasive. The most popular expression of the political attitude of the times was the “Two Thousand Words” manifesto, compiled that June by writer, journalist and Communist Party member Ludvik Vaculik and signed by thousands. The manifesto, which advocated the reforms, also called for “the exit of such people [from the party] who abused their power … who acted dishonestly and cruelly,” referring to the regime’s persecution of thousands in the 1950s. But the manifesto also declared, “It is not possible to carry out any democratic resurgence without communists, or against them.” But even this was too radical. As soon as the manifesto appeared in the papers, Dubcek criticized it, saying, “Weakening the party would weaken the reform program.”
Other leading reformists condemned the manifesto as being “politically romantic” and some of them even argued that it could lead to counterrevolution. Never during the Prague Spring did the political leaders have the serious intention to dismantle the communist regime and establish democracy. People also tend to forget that the majority of the communist leaders from Prague Spring were very active in destroying the at-least-partially-democratic Czechoslovak government of 1948.
In August the Soviets came to the conclusion that the threat of counterrevolution existed beyond reasonable doubt, lost their patience and decided to make sure Czechoslovakia remained communist. Dubcek and his comrades at the central committee of the KSC gave in. Some of them were greatly disillusioned by the “treason” of their Moscow friends; others, such as Gustav Husak, immediately sensed a chance to further their political careers.
Today people who lived through the Prague Spring see it as a dream that was brutally destroyed by the Soviet empire, while the true motivations of the reformers are not questioned. Those politicians might have somewhere deep inside wished for a civilized democracy, but their desires remained unpronounced. They started a dangerous game and they lost. The situation both at home and abroad got out of their control, which was the end of the “Resurgent Process” and the beginning of yet another character test for the country’s long-suffering inhabitants. The 1970s was a period of extreme frustration and despair; the consequences are still present today. This time, however, it was not the Germans, as in World War II, or the Soviets, as in 1968, but the Czechs and Slovaks themselves who oppressed their fellow citizens.
– The writer is the historian for the Regional Museum in Mikulov, south Moravia.