Prague Spring Remembered

For a few months in 1968, Czechs had ‘Communism with human face’

Czech students demonstrate on Aug. 21, 1968 | Photo: Goethe Institute

Scenes of the Prague Spring| Photo:


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Prague Spring

Czech students demonstrate on Aug. 21, 1968 | Photo: Goethe Institute

The New Year 1968 dawned with the chill air of Prague shimmering with excitement; A power struggle had shaken the Central Committee as reformer Alexander Dubček challenged hard-liner Antonín Novotný for control of the Czech Communist Party. Frantic, Novotný had secretly pleaded for support from Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev who hastened to Prague to face the Committee. He found a party in disarray and broad resistance to the discredited Novotny. Brezhnev felt he had no choice but to acknowledge the challenger’s claim to power.

Alexander Dubček took office as First Secretary on Jan. 1, 1968.  Just over a month later, on the 20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s “Victorious February, he delivered a stirring speech calling for change, the fulfillment of the promise of socialism. He stressed the need to “enforce the leading role of the party more effectively,” admitting that the Party had too often made heavy-handed rulings on trivial issues. Alexander Dubček text in the Czech National Archive quotes him as describing the party’s mission “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….”

The liberalization Dub ˇcek had in mind changed the face of Czech life: His “Action Program” included increasing freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement, and a shift in the economy toward consumer goods. He even opened up the possibility of a multiparty government.

“Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations, “Dubček wrote in the preamble to the Action Program and quoted in his Autobiography, “but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy.” The program also restrained the power of the secret police and proposed normalizing relations with Western countries. And while it was all done in the name of the party, there was no mistaking the dramatic departure from what had gone before.

Dubček’s Program was dubbed “Socialism with a Human Face.”  The influence on the citizens was dramatic, and they suddenly began to experience a whole new relationship to politics and their sense of themselves as citizens.

Prague Spring

Scenes of the Prague Spring| Photo:

“Czechs started to feel a national identity again,” said historian Milada Políšenská. After many years the people again thought of themselves as part of Western civilization. For the first time in many years, people could travel abroad again – which turned out to be the last opportunity to travel freely for another 20 years.

But for the moment, all seemed possible, and the entire nation came together and most saw the reform gave a great opportunity for new things. It was a mind opener, pulling the veil away to reveal what was going on in the Czechoslovakia and in the other communist countries, both the good and the bad features and new possibilities for future of the country. “People enjoyed choices because suddenly much more things were possible, be it the field in studies or working opportunities” said Políšenská.

Lives were recharged; people started to feel less controlled and more optimistic about the
future. National pride was in the air, yes, and little steps from the government infected the population, pumping pride and optimism to new heights. The Prague Spring nurtured a flowering of creativity, and inspired many remarkable works at the time and after. Literature was thriving with the poetry and plays of Vaclav Havel, films of Miloš Forman and novels of Milan Kundera, whose Unbearable Lightness of Being is set during and after the Prague Spring.

People started talking about important figures like T. G. Masaryk (the first Czechoslovak President) or the building of the National Theater; they remembered patriotic places and personalities because of the great enthusiasm and revived spirit of the time.

Alexander Dubček | Photo:

Not everyone was convinced. Czech writer Jiri Stransky, former chairman of the Czech PEN Writers Association, had already been imprisoned as a dissident well before 1968 and felt instinctively that the effort was doomed.

“Already in January and February, I warned everybody I knew that this experiment will not have a happy ending,” Stransky told EuroNews in March, 2008. “The communists are not able to reform themselves… I told them, the Soviet Union will not be able to let our country go. If [they] would have let us withdraw, then all the other countries of the region would have taken the decision as well: Hungary, Poland and so on.

“This was very clear. But in this euphoria of the Prague Spring ‘68, no one wanted to listen to my warnings nor to believe me.”

To contemporary Czechs, history has proven that communism cannot be reformed:  “It either hardens or crushes,” said Políšenská.

Seeing the revived spirit of the Czechoslovak population, Brezhnev became very uneasy; he was concerned that Dubček’s reforms might weaken the communist party. He called a meeting of the Warsaw Five (the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and the East Germany) in late March to question Czech leaders about the reforms, and began a series of negotiations to try to stop, or at least limit the reforms, as Dubček defended his program while continuing to pledge his loyalty to the party and commitment to the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops – in the country “on maneuvers” since June. However, on Aug. 3 in Bratislava, they confirmed their intention to intervene if a plurialistic, “bourgeois” system was ever established.

During the night of Aug.20–21, 200,000 troops from the Warsaw Five invaded the   ˇCSSR. Briton Michael Gates was eight years old, on a camping holiday with his parents
near Prague.

Tranks rolling through the streets of Prague | Photo:

“I remember walking with Czech relatives past Kafka’s house on a scorching day and my mother’s cousins praising Dubček and saying things had never been so good,” Gates wrote on a BBC website. As morning dawned, he watched from the back of their Morris Minor as “a seemingly endless line of Russian tanks was passing over a bridge visible from the campsite.”

Some 2,000 tanks in all entered the country. The troops first occupied the Ruzyně International Airport, where air deployment of more troops was planned, and Czech forces were confined to their own. By the morning of August 21, Czechoslovakia was occupied. The USSR had to crush the enthusiasm before it became uncontrollable.

The Prague Spring lasted only seven months, too short a time to be stamped into people’s memory. What older people remember today is being invaded by those Soviet tanks and how soldiers of the other Warsaw Pact countries stormed in to crush the attempted reform.

On Aug. 21, 1968, the “dream come true” came to a sudden halt, and the suffocation of communism returned with a vengeance, more repressive than ever, choking the life out of  Czechoslovakia. In the end, writes Hungarian historian Milos Kun, in his book Prague Spring – Prague Fall, it may have been Dubček’s gesture to reestablish relations with the Federal Republic of Germany – so threatening to the extreme hard-liners of the DDR, that was his undoing.

Within hours, he knew he had lost. Still, he kept a brave face: “They may crush the flowers,” Dubček is quoted as saying, “but they can’t stop the Spring.” He was expelled from the party and with a kind of poetic justice, was given a job in the Forestry Service.



So Czechs tend not to use the word “anniversary” for this 40-year remembrance of the Prague Spring. Politicians give speeches, and academics hold conferences.  But for the general public, it is too heavily tinged with regret. It was a noble attempt, but no more than that.

“It is just a sad time for us, because in our memories, the Prague Spring was followed by another 20 years of communism,” Marie and Josef Foltynovi told their granddaughter, coauthor Lenka Rombova.

The time was simply too short. Czechs remember, but they do not celebrate.

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