Michael Simmons draws on many years experience of living in, and reporting from, central Europe to look back at the upheavals in Czechoslovakia of 1968.
Seven years on from the Soviet-led invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia, the poker-faced authorities in Prague still felt the need to justify the trauma that had shaken their country. ‘With Soviet help,’ said a guidebook published in 1975, ‘Czechoslovak society was saved from civil war… There is no future for an independent and socialist Czechoslovakia outside of alliance with the Soviet Union.’ Did US policy-makers at the time go along with that view?
Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State, declared some years after the event that developments within the Warsaw Pact area were ‘never an issue of war and peace between us and the Soviet Union – however ignoble this sounds’.
The Soviet leadership in the early summer of 1968 – some Stalin appointees, others covertly nursing potentially reformist ideas – was divided by what was happening in Prague. The tune in Czechoslovakia was being called by the relatively inexperienced Slovak Alexander Dubcek, who was capable of obduracy in policy-making but could be susceptible when it came to ostensibly reasonable deviations from the Party line. This clearly happened with proposals discussed by some intellectuals during the so-called Prague Spring; their political viability was another matter.