For the United States, 1968 was characterised by the burgeoning anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements but for Eastern Europe, that same year was defined by the Prague Spring which ended with a Soviet invasion.
The reform movement began on the 5th of January when Alexander Dubcek became leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. His idea was to transform the one party system and have real elections, while keeping the Communist party predominant but without totalitarian aspects. At that time the country was suffering from economic problems, a lack of autonomy and there were too many restrictions on media, speech and travel.
Dubcek announced his programme of reforms in April. His aim was to lead the country to political democracy and give greater personal freedom to the people. He wanted to end censorship and increase freedom of speech.
From an economic point of view farmers were given the right to form independent co-operatives, thus freeing them from the obligation to follow Party rules.
The main idea was the democratisation of the country, to “have socialism with a human face”.
Invasion and civil resistance
In the meantime, Dubcek tried to convince Moscow that Czechoslovakia would remain in the Warsaw Pact and that the reforms were nothing to worry about. However, Moscow didn’t trust him and the Soviet leader, Brezhnev, considered it too risky to let any Soviet block country have its own way and more freedom (it could cause a chain reaction in other countries and cause problems for leaders of other communist parties).
During the night of 20th/21st August, troops from the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks entered the country (followed by a further 300,000 troops). The troops weren’t just from the Soviet Union, there were also contingents of Polish, East German, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. Only Romania and Albania refused to take part in the intervention. (Nicolae Ceausescu was already in power as Prime Secretary of the Romanian CP and declared himself to be a supporter of Dubcek. This was not because of his democratic ambitions but that is another side to the story).
The Czechoslovakian army did not enter the fight, Dubcek told them not to resist. The invaders did, however, encounter civil resistance and acts of sabotage. For example road signs disappeared or were painted over, the only signs that remained were those pointing towards Moscow. People painted graffiti on walls and even on Soviet tanks, one of the most famous slogans being “An elephant cannot swallow a hedgehog”.
Although the resistance was mainly non-violent, 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed and more than 250 people (all civilians) were wounded. The troops stayed for a month.
Dubcek was arrested but not executed. He remained in power until April 1969 and he had to reverse his reforms. He was replaced by Gustav Husak who worked on “normalisation”, to rebuild the system as it was before. Dubcek commented “They may crush the flowers but they can’t stop the Spring.”
Similarities and differences with the Hungarian revolution in 1956
During the Cold War this was the second important attempt of a country from the Soviet block to change its system and have more freedom. The first was Hungary’s uprising in 1956. In both cases it started as a reform movement. The new leader didn’t want to form a completely new system, but just tried to give more freedom to the people.
The difference is that the Hungarians had an uprising, and the reformers chose to fight and declared they wanted to leave the Warsaw Pact. The uprising and revolution lasted less than two weeks. More than 2600 people were killed and 20,000 were injured. 229 people were sentenced to death.
12 years later, Dubcek attempted in vain to convince the Soviets that in spite of the reforms, Czechoslovakia would remain in the Pact. Brezhnev didn’t want to risk a country deciding to leave the Eastern Block as the reforms developed further. The presence of the Soviets was enough to suppress the Prague Spring and within one year turn back the changes.
Echoes of 1968
In 1968 people still believed that they could reform socialism, the invasion proved them wrong. It was the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that ended 41 years of Communist rule.
The Soviet invasion received worldwide criticism, from the United Nations Security Council to countries like Canada, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. The invasion and suppression of the Prague Spring widened the gap between Western leftist and Soviet views.
The Prague Spring inspired a lot of musicians and writers. One of the best known works is Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. Kundera was forced to leave the country in 1975.
Immediately after the Soviet invasion, around 70,000 people left the country, and in later times this figure rose to around 300,000.
The number 68 became iconic. For example, the legendary ice-hockey player, Jaromir Jagr’s jersey number is 68, as a reference to the Prague Spring. The player’s grandfather died in prison during the invasion.