SPECIAL FEATURE: by Jan LidickyNews Weekly
1968 Prague Spring remembered
, August 16, 2008
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the short-lived interval of freedom that the country enjoyed under the reforming rule of Alexander Dubcek.Jan Lidicky, who grew up in Czechoslovakia, witnessed these events first-hand before leaving his homeland in early 1969 and migrating to Australia.
In the early hours of August 21, 1968, the people of what was then Czechoslovakia woke up to a massive armed invasion that brutally ended the unprecedented liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring.
|Alexander Dubcek||Leonid Brezhnev|
It ended any illusions of Czechoslovak national sovereignty and dreams of reforming communist rule.
In 1968 the Soviet Union leadership, headed by Leonid Brezhnev, was far from tolerating any ideas of a mini-glasnost and perestroika breaking out in one of its communist bloc satellites.
The Warsaw Pact invasion enforced the message that there was no chance of any of the eastern bloc countries escaping from the Soviet empire or embarking on individualistic reforms. There was to be no chance of exploring a different socialist path.Crushed
Mere verbal persuasion was not enough; the reformists were to be physically crushed and brought to heel. The massive military action of 1968 was not as bloody as the invasion of Hungary in 1956 but had the same consequences - the total dominance of Soviet rule.
Any liberal reforms and changes of direction would have to come from the USSR. It would take another 20 years before perestroika and glasnost - ideas born in Prague in 1968 - finally took hold in Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Prague Spring reformist movement gathered momentum in the early days of 1968 when the hardliner Antonin Novotny was replaced by Alexander Dubcek as Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Shortly afterwards, Novotny then also lost his presidential position to Ludvik Svoboda, a well-respected army general who had fought alongside the Soviet Red Army in World War II.
The Dubcek reforms did not contemplate abolishing one-party communist rule in Czecholsovakia. Nor did they aim at changing the socialist economy to a capitalist system. Their intention was only to relax the Soviet-style suppression of civil liberties and rigid control of the economy.
The original 1948 communist takeover of political power in Czechoslovakia also saw the imposition on the country of Soviet-style centralised economic planning.
Czechoslovakia, however, was a country with a proud democratic tradition and well-established and internationally recognised industrial achievements.
Historically, the Czech lands were the industrial hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first republic of Czechoslovakia, founded at the end of World War I, had a solid industrial reputation achieved through personal initiative and the pursuit of excellence. The words "made in Czechoslovakia" was an assurance of quality in engineering and the manufacture of motor vehicles, armoury, industrial and agricultural machinery, textiles, glassware and other products.
By 1968, it was more than obvious that Soviet-style bureaucratic control of the economy was a failure.
Dubcek and his fellow reformists wanted to allow some flexibility and decentralised initiative to enable the economy to function more effectively. They also sought to relax some of the restrictions on freedom of the press and foreign travel.
The public responded enthusiastically to these initiatives, and the term "Prague Spring" suitably described their fresh and exalted mood. The slogan "Socialism with a human face" depicted the public desire for the restoration of civil rights and the end of fear of political persecution.
However, the intoxicating draught of reformist ideas alarmed communist hardliners, not only within the Czechoslovak Communist Party, but, more ominously, also within the corridors of power in the USSR and other Warsaw Pact countries.
The easing of censorship would allow for criticism of the ruling communists, undermining their rule and potentially leading to a viable political opposition.
When negotiations between the Czechoslovak reformists and the leaders of the USSR and its satellites failed to resolve this conflict, Brezhnev's leadership decided it was time to take firm action.
The exhilaration, excitement and joy of the Czechoslovak people during the Prague Spring came to an abrupt end on the night of August 20-21. In the early hours, an airborne Soviet armada landed at Prague airport, and the armies of the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria began pouring over the Czechoslovak borders.
The massive invasion aimed to secure Prague, Bratislava and the important and strategic regional centres. Red Army troops, who had been the liberators of 1945, became the invaders of 1968.
The Czechoslovak army was ordered not to resist. To many older Czechs this was reminiscent of the German takeover of Sudetenland and the subsequent occupation of the remainder of Czech lands on the eve of World War II.
In 1968, military resistance would have been very difficult. The Czechoslovak army was an integral part of the Warsaw Pact and there was no defence doctrine or strategy to counter an "allied" invasion. The loyalty of the officer corps would have been divided and, had the Czechoslovak government directed the defence forces to resist, there would have been many command and logistical difficulties. It would have also meant a sharp breakaway from the socialist bloc and a likely bloody conflict.
The Czechoslovak public were shocked and outraged by the invasion, and took part in large demonstrations in Prague and many of the regional centres. They urged the reformist political leadership to stay the course and not to legitimise the invasion and occupation.
Public outrage at times turned into physical action, which resulted in numerous casualties. Some of the scenes in the Czech capital resembled a battlefield. One of the fiercest contests was the fight for the control of the central radio station in the centre of Prague.
The Soviet troops appeared confused, nervous and, at times, trigger-happy. They had expected a friendly reception from people they were told they had come to "liberate" from the danger of "counter-revolution". Instead, they were confronted by people who were angry at their presence and wanting them to leave.
The public demonstrated their feelings by carrying placards with slogans such as "Russians, go home!" and "Lenin, wake up! Brezhnev has gone mad".
Czechs and Slovaks tried to cause confusion for the occupying forces by turning around road-signs and practising various deceptions. Unfortunately, the resistance, determined and committed as it was, lacked effective co-ordination.
The United Nations proved powerless. At the meeting of the UN Security Council, the Soviet ambassador declared that the Soviet-led "intervention" had occurred in response to a "request" for assistance by the Czechoslovak authorities. This was in sharp contrast with the Dubcek Government's clear opposition to the invasion and occupation, a position that was conveyed to the Security Council by the Czechoslovak foreign minister.
The Soviet power of veto on the Security Council negated any potential for real UN counter-action. In any event, in a matter of days, the new pro-Soviet Czechoslovak representatives at the UN asked that the matter be taken off the Security Council agenda. It was an early sign that Moscow was rapidly re-establishing control of its restive satellite.
Militarily, the situation for Czechoslovakia was even bleaker than in 1938 when the Western powers abandoned it to Hitler. Then at least there were some defence treaties. It was clear who the enemy was, and the Czechoslovak army was in a better position to resist.
In 1968, the Czechoslovak defence treaties were entirely based on the USSR and its eastern bloc satellites.
The Western powers had no treaty obligations to assist Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was deemed to be within the Soviet sphere of influence, so its affairs - even an invasion by its neighbour - was regarded as an internal matter for the Soviet bloc.
Although the invasion caused a major public outcry in the West, the responses of the Western governments went no further than verbal condemnation.
Dubcek and his reformist colleagues were arrested, flown to Moscow and brought before Brezhnev and the Soviet Politburo. The intimidation and pressure there would have been reminiscent of Hitler's treatment of Czech president Emil Hacha in 1939.
After the Soviet-led invasion, the overwhelming majority of the Czechoslovak reformist leaders were coerced to accept the violent end of their experiment in freedom and to agree that Soviet troops be "temporarily" stationed on Czechoslovak territory.
That temporary occupation lasted over 20 years.
The so-called normalisation which followed the invasion is a sad and depressing story. Dubcek and his fellow reformists were removed from public life, and the Communist Party was purged of those who supported them and those who openly opposed Soviet intervention.
The Prague Spring reforms were reversed and the majority of the Czechoslovak population eventually resigned themselves to the return of Soviet-style dictatorship.
Citizens who wanted to advance their professional careers had little choice but to outwardly conform. The slightest political dissent spelt an end to any career prospects and would likely have resulted in persecution.
The only alternative was to leave and seek a new life abroad. Many thousands took this option, resulting in another national exodus.
There was no summer following the Prague Spring. Just a long, bitter, dark winter that lasted another 20 years only to be ended by the unstoppable public determination of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain.- Jan Lidicky, who migrated from Czechoslovakia in 1969, is a retired detective chief superintendent of the Queensland Police and currently works part-time as a tutor at the School of Justice Studies at the Queensland University of Technology.