Alexander Dubček: hope and despair in 1968

Alexander Dubček and Margita Kollarová

The political reforms of the 1960s accelerated dramatically when on January 5 1968 Alexander Dubček became First Secretary of the Communist Party, the most powerful position in the country. Dubček immediately set Czechoslovakia on a course of economic and political reform, to create what was described as “socialism with a human face”. Today we are going to hear two recordings of Dubček from 1968 that show both the hopes with which the year started and the despair which followed the Soviet invasion in August.

First we go to a meeting of the party Central Committee on April 1, which Dubček opened with a speech outlining the reforms. This extract reflects some of the paradoxes of the time. Dubček’s sincere belief in change and his real enthusiasm at public support for the reforms is evident, but at the same time the speech is veiled in familiar jargon about the leading role of the party:

“What has made this whole process so special is that above all - especially in terms of the pace of change – it has been determined by the creative and spontaneous activity of the broad mass of the people, with the communists in the vanguard. In this spirit and in accord with the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, people have acted without the slightest manipulation and without being given commands from above…. The role of the party is to recognize people’s understanding, to raise it to a higher plain, to support progressive thinking and acts …”

Soviet invasion in 1968
Dubček remained convinced that the political system could be reformed from within even as the Soviet Union put growing pressure on Prague to reverse the process of change. He was completely shattered when his friend and comrade Leonid Brezhnev broke his word and sent tanks into Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20. The entire Czechoslovak politburo was immediately swept off to Moscow and bullied into coming to terms with the invasion. They returned a few days later, but when Dubček went on air on August 27, he was a broken man.

He tried to describe and explain the situation, talking in phrases that had little meaning, and after several sentences his voice broke down completely. He apologized to listeners and then went silent. The Czechoslovak radio journalist Margita Kollarová later remembered the moment - that in many ways symbolized the tragedy of 1968 - in an interview for Radio Prague:

“There was a silence. I didn't know what to do, whether I should start saying something, to apologise to listeners, but that wouldn't have been the diplomatic thing to do, so I waited and I indicated to the people around that I needed a glass of water for Mr Dubček. They brought the water. As I put the glass on the table in front of him, the sound it made brought him back to his senses. After quite a long time he began to speak again. There were tears running down his face. It was only the second time in my life that I'd seen a man cry.”