Prague Spring

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The Prague Spring (Czech: Pražské jaro, Slovak: Pražská jar) was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia starting January 5 1968 when Alexander Dubček came to power, and running until August 21 of that year when the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies (except for Romania) invaded the country.

The term Prague Spring was coined by Western media after the event became known worldwide, and was eventually adopted in Czechoslovakia itself. It made reference to the Springtime of Peoples, a lyrical title given to the Revolutions of 1848. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring represented the continuing desire of the people under the rule of Soviet client states for freedom. As in Hungary, the effort was repressed.

Contents

Background

In the early 1960s, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR) underwent an economic downturn, and in early 1968, Antonín Novotný lost control of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) to Alexander Dubček. On March 22, 1968, Novotný resigned as president, to be replaced by Ludvik Svoboda.

In April, Dubček launched an "Action Programme" of liberalizations which included increased freedom of the press, emphasis on consumer goods, and the possibility of a more democratic multi-party government. It also planned the federalization of the ČSSR into two equal nations.

Although the Action Programme stipulated that reform must proceed under KSČ direction, popular pressure mounted to implement reforms. Democratic elements found expression: anti-Soviet polemics appeared in the press; the Social Democrats began to form a separate party; new unaffiliated political clubs were created. Party conservatives urged the implementation of repressive measures, but Dubček counselled moderation and reemphasized KSČ leadership. In May, he announced that the Fourteenth Party Congress would convene in an early session on September 9. The congress would incorporate the Action Programme into the party statutes, draft a federalization law, and elect a new Central Committee.

On June 27, Ludvík Vaculík, a leading author and journalist published a manifesto entitled "Two Thousand Words." The manifesto expressed concern about conservative elements within the KSČ and "foreign" forces as well. It called on the "people" to take the initiative in implementing the reform program. Dubček, the party Presidium, the National Front, and the cabinet denounced the manifesto.

Warsaw Pact military practice manoeuvers were being held in Czechoslovakia in late June.

Negotiations with the Soviets

Leonid Brezhnev and the leadership of the Warsaw Pact countries (except Romania), were concerned about Dubček's reforms, which they feared weakened the position of the Communist Bloc during the Cold War.

The Soviet leadership at first tried to stop or limit the changes in the ČSSR through a series of negotiations. The Soviet Union agreed to bilateral talks with Czechoslovakia to be held in July at Čierna nad Tisou, near the Slovak-Soviet border. At the meeting, Dubček defended the program of the reformist wing of the KSČ while pledging commitment to the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. The KSČ leadership, however, was divided between vigorous reformers (Josef Smrkovský, Oldřich Černík, and František Kriegel) who supported Dubček, and conservatives (Vasil Biľak, Drahomír Kolder, and Oldřich Švestka) who adopted an anti-reformist stance. Brezhnev decided on compromise. The KSČ delegates reaffirmed their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "antisocialist" tendencies, prevent the revival of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and control the press more effectively. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops (still stationed in Czechoslovakia since the June maneuvers) and permit the September 9 party congress.

On August 3, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration. The declaration affirmed unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against "bourgeois" ideology and all "antisocialist" forces. The Soviet Union expressed its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a "bourgeois" system—a pluralist system of several political parties—was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along Czechoslovak borders.

As these talks proved unsatisfactory, the Soviets began to consider a military alternative.

The Soviet Union's policy of compelling the socialist governments of its satellite states to subordinate their national interests to those of the "Eastern Bloc" (through military force if needed) became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Occupation

The memorial plate in Košice, Slovakia

On the night of August 20 - August 21, 1968, Eastern Bloc armies from five Warsaw Pact countries invaded the ČSSR. During the invasion, Soviet tanks ranging in numbers from 5,000 to 7,000 occupied the streets. They were followed by a large number of Warsaw Pact troops ranging from 200,000 to 600,000.

During the attack of the Warsaw Pact armies, 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed (19 of those in Slovakia) and hundreds were wounded (up to September 3, 1968). Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist. He was arrested and taken to Moscow, along with several of his colleagues.

The occupation was followed by a wave of emigration, unseen before and stopped shortly after (estimate: 70,000 immediately, 300,000 in total[1]), typically of highly qualified people. Western countries allowed these people to stay and work without complications.

Letter of invitation

Although on the night of the invasion, the Czechoslovak Presidium declared that Warsaw Pact troops had crossed the border without knowledge of the ČSSR Government, the Soviet Press printed an unsigned request, allegedly by Czechoslovak party and state leaders, for "immediate assistance, including assistance with armed forces."[2] At the 14th KSČ Party Congress (conducted secretly, immediately following the intervention), it was emphasised that no member of the leadership had invited the intervention. At the time, a number of commentators believed the letter was fake or non-existent.

In the early 1990s, however, the Russian government gave the new Czechoslovak President, Václav Havel, a copy of a letter of invitation addressed to Soviet authorities and signed by KSČ members Biľak, Švestka, Kolder, Indra, and Kapek. It claimed that “right-wing” media were “fomenting a wave of nationalism and chauvinism, and are provoking an anti-communist and anti-Soviet psychosis.” It formally asked the Soviets to “lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal” to save the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic “from the imminent danger of counterrevolution.”[3] A 1992 Izvestia article claimed that candidate Presidium member Antonin Kapek gave Leonid Brezhnev a letter at the Soviet-Czechoslovak Čierná nad Tisou talks in late July which appealed for “fraternal help.” A second letter was supposedly delivered by Biľak to Ukrainian Party leader Petro Shelest during the August Bratislava conference “in a lavatory rendezvous arranged through the KGB station chief.”[4] This letter was signed by the same five as Kapek’s letter, mentioned above.

Internal plot

Long before the invasion, planning for a coup was undertaken by Indra, Kolder and Biľak, among others, often at the Soviet embassy and at the Party recreation center at Orlík Dam.[5] When these men had managed to convince a majority of the Presidium (six of eleven voting members) to side with them against Alexander Dubček’s reformists, they asked the Soviets to launch a military invasion. The Soviets were even considering waiting until the August 26 Slovak Party Congress, but the Czechoslovak conspirators “specifically requested the night of the 20th.”[6] The plan was to unfold as follows. A debate would unfold in response to the Kašpar report on the state of the country, during which conservative members would insist that Dubček present two letters he had received from the Soviets, letters which listed promises he had made at the Čierná nad Tisou talks but had failed to keep. Dubček’s concealment of such important letters, and his unwillingness to keep his promises would lead to a vote of confidence which the now conservative majority would win, seizing power, and issue a request for Soviet assistance in preventing a counterrevolution. It was this formal request, drafted in Moscow, which was published in Pravda on August 22 without the signatories. All the Soviets needed to do was suppress the Czechoslovak military and any violent resistance. With this plan in mind, the August 16-17 Politburo meeting passed a resolution to “provide help to the Communist Party and people of Czechoslovakia through military force.”[7] At the August 18 Warsaw Pact meeting, Brezhnev announced that the intervention would go ahead on the night of August 20, and asked for "fraternal support," which the national leaders of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland duly offered.

Reactions in Czechoslovakia

Popular opposition was expressed in numerous spontaneous acts of nonviolent resistance. In Prague and other cities throughout the republic, Czechs and Slovaks greeted Warsaw Pact soldiers with arguments and reproaches. Every form of assistance, including the provision of food and water, was denied the invaders. Signs, placards, and graffiti drawn on walls and pavements denounced the invaders, the Soviet leaders, and suspected collaborators. Pictures of Dubček and Svoboda appeared everywhere.

The generalized resistance caused the Soviet Union to abandon its original plan to oust the First Secretary. Dubček, who had been arrested on the night of August 20, was taken to Moscow for negotiations. It was agreed that Dubček would remain in office and that a program of moderate reform would continue.

On January 19, 1969, student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the renewed suppression of free speech.

Finally, in April 1969, Dubček was replaced as First Secretary by Gustáv Husák, and a period of "Normalization" began. Husák reversed Dubček's reforms, purged the party of its liberal members and dismissed from public offices and jobs those of professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political turnaround.

Reactions around the world

The western countries offered only vocal criticism following the invasion–the reality of nuclear standoff in the Cold War meant the western countries were in no position to challenge Soviet military force in Central Europe, as had already been made clear during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

A more pronounced effect took place in Communist Romania, where leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, already a staunch opponent of Soviet influences and having already declared himself on Dubček's side, held a public speech in Bucharest on the day of the invasion, depicting Soviet policies in harsh terms. While Romania engaged briefly on the same side of the barricade as Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia, the alliance was purely conjectural (as Ceauşescu was already proving to be opposed on principle to Socialism with a human face). It did however consolidate Romania's independent voice over the next decades, especially after Ceauşescu encouraged the population to take up arms in order to meet any similar maneuver in that country. He received an enthusiastic initial response, with many people who were by no means communist willing to enroll in the newly-formed paramilitary Patriotic Guards.

In Finland, a country under huge Soviet political influence at that time, the occupation caused a major scandal. Like the Italian and French Communist Parties, the Communist Party of Finland denounced the occupation. Nonetheless, Finnish president Urho Kekkonen was the very first Western politician to officially visit Czechoslovakia after August 1968; he received the highest Czechoslovakian honors from the hands of president Ludvík Svoboda, on October 4, 1969.

The Portuguese communist secretary-general Álvaro Cunhal is believed to have been the only political leader from western Europe to have supported the invasion as counterrevolutionary, along with the Luxembourgish Communist Party.

In the USSR there were a number of open acts of dissent. Seven activists protested against the use of military force in Czechoslovakia in the Red Square on 25 August 1968; there were letters of protest addressed to Brezhnev. These daring acts were suppressed; some (such as Larisa Bogoraz) were tried and sentenced; the signatories were denied their jobs.

Legacy

The events of the Prague Spring deepened the disillusion of many Western leftists with Marxist-Leninist views, and contributed to the growth of Eurocommunist ideas in Western communist parties—leading to the eventual dissolution or break-up of many of these groups.

A decade later, the Prague Spring lent its name to an analogous period of Chinese political liberalization known as the Beijing Spring. It also partly influenced the Croatian Spring in Yugoslavia.

Soviet forces had been stationed in Czechoslovakia since 1968 events (Central Group of Forces).

Cultural references

  • Music for Prague 1968 by Czech-born composer Karel Husa is a programme music for wind ensemble depicting the event written in America shortly after the incident.
  • Famous Czech hockey player Jaromír Jágr, who now plays for the New York Rangers, wears number 68 because of this important event in Czechoslovak history.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel by Milan Kundera, is set during the Prague Spring, and follows the repercussions of the period through the increased Soviet presence and the dictatorial police control of the population. A film version was released in 1988.
  • Professional Foul by Czech-born Tom Stoppard, a play written for television in 1977.
  • Rock 'n' Roll by Czech-born Tom Stoppard, a play which premiered in London in 2006.
  • The Prague Spring, a Takarazuka musical based on a Japanese novel of the same name [1]
  • They Can't Stop The Spring, a song by Irish maverick journalist and songwriter John Waters, has won the honour of representing Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. Victorious Waters has described it as "a kind of Celtic celebration of the Eastern European revolutions and their eventual outcome," quoting Dubcek's alleged comment: 'They may crush the flowers, but they can't stop the Spring.' [2]
  • A Cry from the Grave an award-winning documentary film by Leslie Woodhead (1999)


Notes

  1. Britské Listy article
  2. H. Gordon Skilling. Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976)
  3. Kieran Williams. The Prague Spring and its aftermath: Czechoslovak politics 1968-1970. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Jaromír Navratíl, et al. (eds.) The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998).


References

  • Skilling, H. Gordon. Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. ISBN 9780691052342
  • Williams, Kieran. The Prague Spring and its aftermath: Czechoslovak politics 1968-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780521588034
  • Navratíl, Jaromír, et al. eds. The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998. ISBN 9789637326677

External links

  • Think Quest - The Prague Spring 1968 Retrieved April 26, 2007.
  • Radio Free Europe - A Chronology Of Events Leading To The 1968 Invasion Retrieved April 26, 2007.

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