The Idiots Guide to Everything: The Prague Spring (1968)

Posted on January 11, 2013

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The Prague Spring

The Prague Spring is the name given to a brief period of time when the Czechoslovakian government under Alexander Dubcek wanted to democratise the nation and to lessen the influence of Moscow. What started as a glimmer of light for the Czechoslovaks ended with a Soviet-led invasion of the country and the removal of Dubcek from office.

The first rumblings came in May 1966, with quiet dissent and complaints that the Soviet Union was exploiting the people of Czechoslovakia. These complaints were then exacerbated by the people of Slovakia, who began protesting against what they perceived as dominance by Prague. A terribly weak economy didn’t help the situation either, as the previously industrialized Czechoslovakia wasn’t suited to the Soviet model of economy. Not that any country really was, but especially not here. The 1960s saw a sharp economic downturn, and the workers of the country were living in increasingly terrible conditions, not unlike the conditions that led to the Russian Revolution. Antonin Novotny was the Communist party leader at this point, and June 1967 saw open criticism of him, something that was very rare in any of the Soviet satellite states. Large student demonstrations followed in October. The camel’s back had been broken, and 1968 saw Novotny replaced by the Slovak Alexander Dubcek.

Not long after coming into power, Dubcek embarked on a programme of reform. He stated that he wanted the Communist party to remain dominant, but with all the usual totalitarian aspects removed. This would lead to political democracy and greater personal freedom. The members of the Communist party were given the right to challenge decisions, as opposed to their usual assumed subservience. They were also encouraged to act according to their conscience, in what Dubcek called ‘socialism with a human face’. He announced the end of censorship, and gave Czech citizens the right to criticize the government. The newspapers immediately took up this opportunity, bringing the living conditions of works to the fore. Trade unions were given increased rights in bargaining for their members, and farmers were to be encouraged to form independent co-operatives so that they could begin to direct their own work. Despite all of these reforms, Dubcek assured Moscow that Czechoslovakia would stay within the Warsaw Pact.

To say the reforms were not received well by the Soviets would be something of an understatement. Despite the assurances from Prague, Brezhnev (then leader of the USSR) was not convinced, and took to the negotiating table. Almost inevitably, the negotiating table was a place of little success and everything escalated terrifyingly quickly. On the night of August 20th 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by all the nations of the Warsaw Pact with the exception of Romania and Albania. The Soviet Union sent an overwhelming majority of troops, but the other nations bulked up the numbers. The Czech military stood no chance, and blood spilled onto the streets. The people of Czechoslovakia put up a quiet protest, removing road signs and renaming villages to make things difficult for the invaders. There was also large scale emigration at the time, with around 300,000 people eventually leaving Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek was arrested and sent to Moscow. Czechoslovakia would remain occupied until 1991. During the conflict, 72 people were killed, 266 severely wounded and 436 injured.

Whilst in Moscow, Dubcek was told what was expected of him and he was sent back to Prague. Within months he was removed and replaced by Gustav Husak, who inevitably reversed all of Dubcek’s reforms. Dubcek was given a job as a forestry official, eventually returning to government following the Velvet Revolution. The invasion was obviously criticized all over the world, with dissent even coming from other Warsaw Pact nations. Nicolae Ceausescu became something of an international hero for criticising it, and he refused to commit any Romanian troops. Albania also left the Warsaw Pact because of the invasion. Early in 1969, Jan Palach would famously set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square, although this was more in protest at the demoralisation of his fellow Czechs. The invasion brought in the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, where by the USSR compelled its satellite states to forgo national interests in favour of the larger interests of the Eastern Bloc. It showed that the Soviet Union was not prepared to even contemplate dissent from one of the Warsaw Pact nations, and the tanks on the street also confirmed the view in the west that the Eastern European nations were completely oppressed.

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