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.
That Spring was all about reform – a word which did not then have much currency in Moscow – and it is not surprising that the unimaginative and inadequate Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist party, and the dour Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin felt that the Kremlin’s policy-makers were losing the plot. They were aware that Dubcek could be an unsettling and possibly contagious influence.
When the Soviet Union’s own reformist Mikhail Gorbachev went walkabout in Prague in 1987, the people of that city cheered. Some even wore ‘I love Gorby’ badges. The hapless Czechoslovak hardliner Gustav Husak, still clinging on as Party leader, seemed out of his depth as he followed behind. When a senior member of Gorbachev’s entourage was asked what was the difference between the new Soviet prescription of perestroika and glasnost and what Dubcek had been offering in 1968, he had a succinct answer: ‘Nineteen years’.
Vaclav Havel, who was to become his country’s first post-Communist president in December 1989, told me two years earlier that it was a ‘paradox’ that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev was trying to do what Czechoslovakia had done twenty years before. But when Havel himself, as leader of the Velvet Revolution, sought to bring the forlorn Dubcek into his team, there was some perplexity in Prague. There was a feeling that he belonged to that ‘other country’, the past.
In that summer of 1968 there were other ‘world problems’ and preoccupations, just as there had been in 1956 when Khrushchev ordered an invasion of Hungary. Then the West had been preoccupied with Suez; now there was a war in Vietnam, Willy Brandt was about to become West Germany’s ‘new broom’ Chancellor and the White House was about to prepare for Richard Nixon to visit China. Young people in many Western capitals were in the throes of their own social revolutions.
The Czechoslovak invasion unsettled the Warsaw Pact as well as NATO. It was dealt a blow by the refusal of Romania to participate in the invasion, as well as by condemnation from Yugoslavia and China. Bucharest had been seeking closer relations with Dubcek’s Prague even as other Pact leaders were plotting his downfall.
The fallout from the invasion of Prague on the one hand, and the arrival in power of Willy Brandt and his Ostpolitik on the other, was fundamentally to change the course of East-West relations and to bring forward a debate on the feasibility of détente and ‘peaceful co-existence’. The intervention in Prague also led to a corrosive apathy and damaging falls in Communist party memberships in Western Europe. Then, when a year after the invasion the multi-lateral Strategic Arms Limitation Talks were initiated and Western proposals for Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) began to be treated with growing respect by a beleaguered Soviet leadership, allegiance to Moscow from non-Soviet Communists was again inevitably weakened.
The people of Czechoslovakia recognized these trends. The Dubcek leadership – tired, emotional and publicly tearful at the end – had been dealt a fatal body-blow but the Moscow-led Communist ‘movement’ had shot itself in the foot. At a keynote interview on the impact of the invasion on the Czechoslovak economy in the summer of 1969, a senior editor tried to assure me that the country was doing ‘very well, thank you’ – but as he spoke a symbolic thunderstorm broke over the centre of Prague.
An experienced diplomat demoted to the role of press officer with a camping-equipment shop told me the Czech people themselves would recover. It was the Czech people, unexpectedly for Moscow, who had jeered the invaders, who had turned signposts the wrong way to confuse the troops, and who had blindfolded Prague’s statues so they would not see the enormity of what was going on. The Red Army had had a very different reception when it had come as ‘liberator’ over twenty years before.
The Czech people had learned to be stoical in 1938 and 1939 when Hitler’s armies marched in. How many troops in the East German contingent of the Warsaw Pact were ‘visiting’ Prague for a second time? At that time, too, the bizarre but life-saving Czech sense of humour, which probably had its origins in the way that Good Soldier Schweik would sigh and shrug his shoulders in adversity, had been apparent. Prague’s waiters would hand Nazi officers the wrong menu in the restaurants, would say they couldn’t understand, would say that this or that delicacy was ‘not on today’, and so on.
The ‘normalization’ period that followed 1968 was intended to bring dissidents and critics back into line. One in three of the Communist party’s 1.5 million members were removed; all High Court judges, State bank directors and cultural figure-heads were removed; more than 250,000 people, many well-placed professionals, were sacked; well over 150,000 emigrated. Three prime ministers (one federal, two national), thirty ministers and seventy-seven deputy ministers were removed. Hungary, by contrast, had survived its purges, and was now a decidely ‘liberal’ people’s democracy.
But dissidents who were vocal were not always popular; people did not like being castigated for their submissiveness. Reflective people inside the country knew they had right on their side, that those in power were second-rate time-servers, and that the climate in Europe and beyond was not unfavourable. Intellectuals in-side Czechoslovakia – and conspicuously Vaclav Havel – were getting heard. In an interview with the BBC, Havel declared that ‘I never wanted to be political’, and later told a French journalist that he was ‘neither a Communist nor an anti-Communist’ and criticized the Husak regime not because it was Communist but ‘because it is bad’.
When Gorbachev told the Soviet party in 1986 that it should adopt a ‘considerate and respectful’ stance to other country’s (socialist) experience, Czecho-slovakia’s intellectuals knew they were vindicated. ‘What a sad thing it must be,’ the writer Ludvik Vaculik said in an essay smuggled out of Prague, ‘to rule this country these days: whom can these people fully trust, on whom can they rely?’ Gorbachev himself later told Havel that he had sensed ‘a deep dissatisfaction’ in people’s attitudes when he visited Prague in 1987, and that under Husak ‘the air was suffocating’.
But 1968 was only one of a succession of traumas visited on Czechoslovakia in the last seventy-odd years. In 1992, the country split in two as Slovakia again went independent. Since then, political affiliations in the Czech Republic have been erratic with what some have called ‘unholy coalitions’ emerging between the right and left. In 1992, a leading intellectual Eduard Goldstuecker, exiled after 1968 but by then back in Prague, told me the country was living in ‘a state of unresolved chaos’. In other words, some elements had lost their bearings, gripped by intermittent uncertainty. In the spring of 2008, hundreds of artists and writers were again demonstrating against the Government’s latest policies for the arts. The ‘culture’ that once epitomized Central Europe has once again been disorientated.