Alexander Dubček – the smiling leader of the Prague Spring

Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel in November 1989

This Saturday marks the centenary of the birth of Alexander Dubček, one of the most charismatic leaders of 20th century Czechoslovakia who led the country during the Prague Spring. A Communist Party loyalist, Dubček is seen today largely as a tragic figure, who caved in to Soviet demands following the 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Whether he is jumping into newly opened public swimming pools or receiving flowers with a wide open smile, it is hard not to get a positive feeling when looking at Alexander Dubček.

The famous Czech song writer and entertainer Jan Werich characterised this effect that Dubček had on people in a recording that survives in the archives of Czech Radio.

“He has little eyes, he laughs, his optimism is infectious and he behaves just like you or me. He is like an ordinary person, a human being. People like to support an ordinary person like that.”

“He is like an ordinary person, a human being. People like to support an ordinary person like that.”
Jan Werich

For a long time in public memory, Dubček was the tragic hero of the Prague Spring. A symbol of hope and optimism crushed by the forces of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies who invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Despite being one of the signatories of the “police baton law” of 1969, which made it easier for Communist police forces to strike down on protest movements, Alexander Dubček famously received an affectionate hug from Václav Havel in November 1989 and, after the Velvet Revolution, he came close to becoming Czechoslovak president.

Today, Dubček is remembered in a more complex way in the Czech Republic. Smiling images of him still accompany the many documentaries exploring the events of the 1960s, but there are also voices critical of his role in the de facto capitulation to Soviet occupation and the onset of normalisation. For example, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Czech statehood in 2018, President Miloš Zeman placed Dubček into what he sees as a list of cowards who caved in to pressure and signed the Moscow Protocol aimed at legalising the 1968 invasion.

Alexander Dubček | Photo: archive of Czech Parliament

“Let’s talk about why in 1968 there was just one brave individual [in Moscow] – Frantisek Kriegel – and all the rest lost their wits in fear. And it didn’t help them at all. First these idols received the position of Chairman of the Federal Assembly, then they fell to the position of Ambassador to Turkey, and then they lost even that.”

A vital part in understanding Alexander Dubček, is acknowledging that he was a committed communist already from an early age. His family moved to the Soviet Union when he was just three years old, in part to find work but also to help build socialism in Lenin’s revolutionary state. He would spend the next nine years of his life in a commune in what is today Kyrgyzstan, before moving to the Central Russian city of Gorki.

The Dubčeks only returned to Czechoslovakia in 1938, when Alexander was 17 years old. A trained mechanical locksmith, he worked in the town of Dubnica nad Váhom in what was then the western part of the German puppet state of the Republic of Slovakia.

In the same year that saw the start of the war in Europe, Dubček joined the Communist Party of Slovakia, which was at that time an illegal organisation. He would lose a brother and get wounded in the Slovak National Uprising of 1944. After the end of the war and the Communist Coup of 1948 Dubček became a party functionary in Slovakia and quickly rose through the ranks, being selected to study at the Political University in Prague as well as attending courses in Moscow during the 1950s.

“First these idols received the position of Chairman of the Federal Assembly, then they fell to the position of Ambassador to Turkey, and then they lost even that.”
Miloš Zeman

Having experienced the denunciation of Stalin during his time in Moscow, Dubček was a proponent of rehabilitating the Communists who had been persecuted in the purges of the early 1950s, among them the man who would one day replace him as general secretary– Gustáv Husák.

In 1963, Dubček was elected to the position of first secretary of the Central Committee of the Slovak Communist Party and it is from December of that year that the first recording of his voice survives in the Czech Radio archives. It is a speech in which he is welcoming Leonid Brezhnev, the man who would soon replace Nikita Khrushchev as leader of the Soviet Union and later play such an important role in the events that would unfold in Czechoslovakia and in Dubček’s own life.

“Today’s glorious manifestation of the workers of Bratislava culminates this month in which we honoured the brotherhood between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. These days are all the happier and more important, because we are also celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Mutual Assistance and Post-War Cooperation between Czechoslovakia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This treaty meant the onset of a new qualitative relationship between our two countries and influenced the social and political developments in our people’s history…It became the basis for the orientation of modern Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy and the starting point for our long-term and unbreakable alliance with the Soviet Union.”

Alexander Dubček in 1963 | Photo: Jaňo Ragnaris,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Dubček’s speech in front of Leonid Brezhnev wasn’t just commemorative congratulation. The rising star of the Czechoslovak Communists also made sure to highlight his country’s support of the Khrushchev thaw.

“We would also like to emphasise the revitalising influence of the XX. and XXII. Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which had a stimulating influence also on the internal life of our own Party here in Czechoslovakia.

“Our Central Committee is gradually revaluating all aspects of our Party’s and society’s life. It has already approved a whole array of measures which form the basis of repairing past mistakes. Pushing back against the anachronisms of the personality cult, applying Leninist methods at the workplace, developing the democratic essence of socialist society are distinct signs of today’s life.”

The next several years in Czechoslovakia would be marked by growing tensions between the liberalising and conservative wings of the Communist Party. In January 1968, the Central Committee of the Communist Party reached a compromise and elected Alexander Dubček General Secretary of the Party.

In order to gain more leverage against the conservative wing of the Party, Dubček began relying more on harnessing the power of public opinion and introducing a new political culture. Slogans such as “socialism with a human face” started appearing and censorship was de facto removed. At its plenary session in April 1968, the Party’s Central Committee approved several initiatives that would later be described as revisionist. Dubček himself gave this speech after the April session:

“He was very much anchored in that system of nomenclature within the Communist Party.”
Michal Stehlík

“We must do everything to ensure that our conclusions reflect the societal thinking of our people, because it is their input which will decide whether we can realise the targets we have set out. It is hard to come up with a recipe that will entice the widest possible group of society to fulfil these tasks. Who is the most important factor in fulfilling them? When you come home, tell the functionaries on the basic, district and regional levels of our Party, the workers in the factories and in agriculture that they are the important ones, the decisive ones in ensuring our future journey forward. They were the ones who we spoke about at this important Central Committee meeting of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

“You should tell those who are working in radio, in television, and in other such services, that they are also the important ones who we were talking about. Tell them that they have a huge propagandistic, organisational and state building role in fulfilling the tasks that we agreed on at this plenary meeting.”

Roughly from around June 1968, Dubček started losing control of the situation. On one hand, Czechoslovak society was pushing ever more for reforms and the redress of injustices that had been committed during the first 20 years of Communist rule. On the other, there was rising pressure from Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, to end the reform movement. It was not just Brezhnev but also the leaders of other Warsaw Pact alliance members, such as Poland’s Władysław Gomułka, who were warning against what they saw as a growing counter-revolution movement in Czechoslovakia.

In July 1968, five conservative members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party met with a Soviet delegation in the eastern Slovak town of Čierna nad Tisou and secretly signed an invitation letter for the Soviet Army.

A month later, Warsaw Pact forces began the invasion. Dubček and several other leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party were arrested and taken to Moscow. They would eventually be joined by an official Czechoslovak delegation led by President Ludvík Svoboda. Dubček and all of the others except František Kriegel would end up signing the Moscow Protocol, which effectively rolled back all of the reforms enacted by Dubček and the Prague Spring movement, as well as allowing for Soviet troops to be stationed in the country. Dubček’s initial task would be to dismantle the reforms and maintain the trust of the population.

Michal Stehlík | Photo: Pavel Hrdlička,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

After returning from the Soviet Union that summer, Dubček gave an emotional speech on Czechoslovak Radio.

“In this difficult situation we have no other choice but to give all our strength to ensure that we succeed in our upcoming tasks. Please excuse me if, on occasion, I take a pause in my speech…”

Historian Michal Stehlík from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes believes that Dubček ultimately failed in the biggest challenge placed on him during his political career.

“He was very much anchored in that system of nomenclature within the Communist Party. He faced both internal pressures to enact change and external pressures from Moscow not to do it. He did not succeed in the hard task that history had placed in his hands.

“If a person whose world has effectively broken down is almost crying and keeps asking in August 1968 how it is possible that his comrades could have done such a thing to him, you can see they have still remained dominated by the party logic.”

The Moscow Protocol also counted on largescale changes of functionaries within the Czechoslovak Communist Party. These would be carried out in the subsequent years, affecting not just the party itself but also the leadership in much of the country’s key institutions, such as the State Security Service.

“His ‘democracy’ is limited by what he understands under the term ‘socialism’.”
Karel Kühnl

Dubček was forced to resign as First Secretary in April 1969. He held the position of Chairman of the Federal Assembly for a few months thereafter before receiving the position of Ambasador to Turkey. However, he was recalled in 1970 and stripped of his membership in the Czechoslovak Communist Party, himself becoming a victim of the so-called “anti-reactionary” purges that he agreed to. He would work in one of the country’s regional forest administrations until 1989, his letters of protest ignored by his former party colleagues. However, despite his fall, Dubček remained loyal and did not engage in any dissident activity.

Karel Kühnl, a journalist in Radio Free Europe, used these words to describe Alexander Dubček’s idea of democracy in 1988.

“His idea of ‘democracy’ and it is necessary to use quotation marks, does not exceed by a single millimetre what he seems to think of as internal party democracy. His ‘democracy’ is limited by what he understands under the term ‘socialism’.”

Dubček was still in his 60s when the Velvet Revolution started a year later and, for many, still a symbol of the hopeful Prague Spring. This brought him partly into the spotlight that year and the former Communist leader had high hopes of being elected Czechoslovak president. However, this would not end up happening. Instead, he once again became the Chairman of the Federal Assembly and, from this position, would preside over the election of Vaclav Havel.

In his acceptance speech Dubček drew parallels with 1968.

“I see in this also recognition of a certain continuity between these revolutionary days and those of 1968, a moral validation with the hopes of the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the Prague Spring.”

He remained in the position until June 1992 after which he served as an ordinary MP. He would die that same year following a car accident which saw the state-owned BMW that he was sitting in skid off the road at high speed. Dubček survived the immediate crash and was hospitalised for several months, but would ultimately succumb to his injuries in Prague’s Na Homolce hospital on November 7, 1992, less than three weeks short of his 71st birthday. Three decades on, despite repeated investigations stating that the crash was an accident, there are still conspiracy theories about what really happened to Alexander Dubček that day.

Authors: Tom McEnchroe , Pavel Hlavatý