Primary Sources vs. the Public Space: The Case of Prague Spring, 1968

October 28, 2018

Prague Spring and its violent end are among the few events in Czech history that also have a place in foreign history textbooks today. The whole world followed the events of the spring and summer of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, from both east and west of the Iron Curtain. Using the Socialism Realised educational website, ÚSTR’s Department of Education put together a walk around the places connected with the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies in August of 1968. The walk is meant to give participants a sense of both the historical events themselves and the way that Czech society remembers them today.

Although we call it a “walk,” the whole thing actually takes place at only two spots, which are about a seven minute walk apart. The first of these is the entrance to the Czech Radio building. The radio has been broadcasting from this building since 1933. Five memorial plaques surround the main entryway to the building, commemorating two fights over the Czechoslovak Radio and the victims of those fights. We always start the walk by looking at the memorial plaques and interpreting them. Not only do they add to the basic chronology; they also document the radio’s importance as a key medium for both events.

From the methodological standpoint, selecting appropriate sources is always key. In this case, we have two sources that offer testimony on the events themselves and that have also become an integral part of the remembrance of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. The first of these is a clip from Czechoslovak Radio’s broadcasting from the night of the invasion. The radio recording, which calls on citizens to remain calm while at the same time expressing its support for the legal government, brings participants into the atmosphere during the actual occupation, while also acquainting them with a source that they’ll run into again as a part of a feature film about the August events.

The second source is a collection of photos taken by the photographer Josef Koudelka in the area surrounding the radio building. On the one hand, the photos document the resistance of Prague’s citizenry against the invasion, but they also provide an opportunity for critical analysis. Why did these photos in particular become canonical for the Czech and worldwide image of the invasion? Pictures of an uneven battle between unarmed young people and tanks spreading smoke and destruction in the streets of Prague are, to this day, what Czech society remembers when someone mentions August 21, 1968.

The set of sources for Prague Spring then closes with a pair of film clips. Using tablets, participants watch clips from the documentary film August 68 (2003, dir. Jan Svoboda) and the feature film Those Wonderful Years That Sucked (1997, dir. Petr Nikolaev). Next follows a discussion and a comparison of the two films: what are their relationships to the sources described above? From which perspectives is the occupation staged?

In addition to a more general look at how our work in front of the Czech radio building progresses, I would like to emphasize a few important elements from the pedagogical perspective.

1. The first of these is the structure of the work, from concrete to abstract. We start working with the memorial plaques, which we can touch in exactly that spot, and with each new source we add a degree of abstraction. The audio recording and the photographs are like footprints of past events. The two film clips, then, are two ways of remembering the same event in contemporary film production.

2. The second important point is that for the exercises, participants — most often students from abroad — don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century Czechoslovak history. The majority of the important information is contained within the prepared sources, and the interpretations aren’t based on contextual knowledge.

3. Thirdly, we can use 1968 for comparisons with more current events. We can ask whether participants know similarly iconic photographs from any events from contemporary history in their own countries, and what grants them their persuasiveness.

The second part of the walk takes place in the upper section of Wenceslaus Square, and it’s focused on Jan Palach’s act of self-immolation in protest of the proceeding normalization and limitations on the freedom of speech. Here, we work with the same principles as in the first part of the walk. One important thing is the emphasis on Wenceslaus Square as a key symbolic space for Czech 20th century history. The connection between the walk’s two parts is stress on the significance of the public space as a place of protest and public debate. With 1968, we can look at this theme both from the historical perspective and from the perspective of contemporary remembering. Which historical event would be important in your country for the theme of the significance of the public space?