1968 – Prague Spring
The Prague Spring (January – August 1968) was the culmination of the long period of de-Stalinisation that took place in Czechoslovakia later than in other Eastern Bloc countries. It consisted mainly of the limitation of state violence and the progressive liberalisation of politics and culture, which had already drifted away from the all-embracing and universally binding Stalinist ideology. In Czechoslovakia, this process took place more slowly than in neighbouring countries, due to the continued dominance of the Stalinist ruling elites; however, from the early 1960s onward, it was driven by a need to address the multi-layered crisis of the regime itself. Czechoslovakia had fallen on hard economic times in the early 60s and it was also no longer possible to ignore the issue of rehabilitating Stalin’s victims (see In the Courtroom). Addtionally, the population, and especially the young generation, were becoming increasingly critical of the communist regime. The Slovak part of the republic and its political representatives, demanded greater autonomy in Slovak matters. Gradually, the Communist Party formed a wing that wanted to respond to the problems by means of political and economic reforms.
In early January 1968, the supreme leader of the Communist Party, First Secretary of the Central Committee Antonin Novotný, who in the eyes of reformists symbolised post-Stalinist social stagnation, was recalled. Such a high-ranking representative of the Party had never before been recalled, and the step was a public admission of mistakes, causing much public shock. In March, Novotný resigned from the office of the president and the question of his successor was a topic of lively discussion in the Communist Party and all of society (see Milkman, not agent). The Slovak Alexander Dubček became the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and thus its highest representative; soon after the abolition of censorship in early March, he became a symbol of change and his informal demeanour and human manner gained the sympathy of the masses (see Politician in a swimmsuit). After Novotný had resigned from the presidency in March, the Communist Party published the most radical reform programme ever officially announced in the Eastern bloc at the beginning of April. In addition to freedom of the press, the borders were opened, parliament actually began to discuss the issues, there was talk of rehabilitating Communists and non-Communists who had been persecuted during the Stalinist period, sweeping economic reforms were prepared, the Slovak party gained new rights within the republic, etc. The Communist Party’s policies won over the sympathy of ordinary party members and non-Communists. Throughout Czechoslovakia, people had debates, conducted meetings, read newspapers, watched television, and civil society was reawakened (see Milkman, not agent).
Contemporaries today remember Prague Spring as a season of hope and optimism, and this image has become rooted in the collective memory (see In the First Row). The name “Prague Spring” was the invention of foreign journalists who followed the developments in Czechoslovakia. Prague Spring was another event in a series of significant international political phenomena in the late 60s, and its atmosphere corresponded to the atmosphere in Western Europe and the USA, where a youth revolt was taking place.
Period memories, however, also thematise fear and mistrust of other developments, such as the diaries of Pavel Juráček (see Extraordinary Times).
The Prague Spring reforms faced threats on two fronts. Above all, it seems that the public’s radical expectations ran ahead of the plans and possibilities for the political leadership. Dubček and the people around him always stressed that they were maintaining the principles of the communist system, especially the leading role of the Party (see Hot Debate). In retrospect, it is clear that progressive liberalisation, especially space for the emergence of political organisations outside of the existing structure of political life, was a threat to Soviet supremacy at the beginning of the summer of 1968 (see Negotiations).
The cautious reforms were therefore to some extent the result of external pressure from the Soviet Union. Czechoslovak politicians constantly tried to emphasise that the Prague Spring did not break with the Soviet system and that Czechoslovakia remained firmly a part of the Eastern Bloc and was only seeking a new and specific road to socialism. Since the beginning of the Prague Spring, the possibility of Soviet intervention, whether symbolic or direct, was obvious, and this fear was eventually realised on 21 August 1968, despite hesitation on the part of all the states who participated in the invasion (see 1968 – Invasion).
In the first row
Milkman, not agent
Politician in a swimsuit
- Mlynář, Zdeněk. Nightfrost in Prague: The end of humane socialism. New York: Karz Publishers, 1980.
- Skilling, Gordon H. Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University, 1976.
- Williams, Kieran. The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.