Prague Spring of 1968: a time of expectations

Wenceslas Square in august 1968

The second half of the 1960s in Czechoslovakia was a time of change. Things were happening that had not been seen, or even heard of, for almost two decades, since the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia took over the country in February 1948. Twenty years later, people in Czechoslovakia began to wonder whether Soviet-type of 'socialism' was the only way to go. On the eve of the anniversary of the crushing of that movement, we look back at a momentous era in modern Czech history.

Joseph Stalin
After the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the 20th assembly of the Soviet communist party, the regimes in Soviet Union and its satellites in central and eastern Europe hesitatingly began to open up to new ideas. In Czechoslovakia, one of the first signs of thawing came in 1960 with an amnesty for most political prisoners. People who were sentenced to long years in prison in show trials during the first years of communist rule were coming home. In June 1967, the Czechoslovak Union of Writers held its 4th congress in Prague where Ludvik Vaculik, Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, Arnost Lustig and others strongly criticized the regime. Four decades later, Arnost Lustig explains what was going on at the congress.

"Milan Kundera and I joined the presidium. I suggested that censorship should be abolished because if Marxism is so powerful that it can explain everything, and if the party is omnipotent, why do we need censorship. They said I was naïve and that I don't understand. One man tore his shirt and showed me his scars from the Spanish Civil War. He said he would never betray the party. I said it was not betraying the party, it was suggesting."

Several writers were expelled from the party after the writers' union congress, but the flow of criticism and pressure 'from below', as the expression had it, could not be stopped. Some high-ranking party members embraced these new concepts of how things should be done, and at the plenary session of the central committee of the Communist Party in January 1968, they elected a new first secretary of the Party, the most powerful position in the country. Instead of conservative Antonin Novotny, the reformist Alexander Dubcek was now at the head of the Communist Party.

Oldrich Cernik,  photo: CTK
After the January events, as the historical session of January 1968 became known, the reformists began shaping new policies with a profound effect on all areas of life in Czechoslovakia. Most importantly, the country's economy badly needed to recover from 20 years of slavishly following the Soviet model of building heavy industry. Oldrich Cernik became Czechoslovakia's prime minister in April 1968. This recording was made a month later.

"The most important issue is to change the bearing of our economic planning in such a direction so that the results of the work of the whole society correspond to our needs. That is, so that production is directed towards satisfying the miscellaneous needs of the people. It often happened in our economy that we produced for the sake of production."

Ota Sik
Within six months, Czechoslovakia underwent a change many people had never thought possible. Several organisations, including some banned by the communists in the 1950s, were revived, including the gymnastic association Sokol and the scouts. New magazines were founded, TV started broadcasting debates with politicians, and people were allowed to travel again. Here's the architect of the Czechoslovak economic reform Ota Sik speaking at a students' rally in Prague in May 1968.

"I believe that our peoples who have strong democratic traditions and who hate so much any political constriction and oppression can put in practice the kind of socialist democracy that we have not seen anywhere else. We can create a model of socialist society that will become really attractive for the working peoples of all capitalist countries, and that will have a tremendous impact on the development of the left-wing movement in Western countries."

But this optimism soon proved exaggerated, as developments in the country provoked increasing annoyance both with Czechoslovak hard-liners and the "international communist movement", that is, the Soviet Union. After several modest signs of disapproval, a stronger ill omen came in July. Representatives of five countries, headed by the Soviet Union, met in Warsaw to discuss the situation in Czechoslovakia; they sent the Czechoslovak leaders a letter warning them of carrying on with the reforms. A day later, the hugely popular first secretary of the Czechoslovak communist party Alexander Dubcek addressed the nation on television.

"The presidium [of the Communist Party] has said that we will keep following the direction that we started pursuing in January of this year. The Party is supported by the trust of our people. The people will not allow any return of pre-January times. Our journey will not be easy. What we need is to work quietly and in solidarity on the common task. We need to rectify errors and deformations, while getting away from the narrow group of people who bear responsibility for them."

In just about a month, the people had little choice as to whether to allow things to return to how they were or not. Soviet troops put Czechoslovakia at the centre of the world's attention for utterly different reasons than the ones Czechoslovak reform communists had in mind.