Prague Spring: dream for ‘human’ socialism crushed

Source: Yahoo! / / By Karinne DELORME /

Paris (AFP) – The Prague Spring 50 years ago sought to introduce “Socialism with a human face” in then communist Czechoslovakia but was crushed by Soviet tanks seven months later.

havel dubcek
Dissident leader-turned-president Vaclav Havel confers with Alexander Dubcek, by then parliament speaker but former leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, during a 1990 visit to Prague by late Pope John Paul

Here is an account of how it unfolded:
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– Reformist elected –

On January 5, 1968 the unpopular head of the powerful Communist Party, Moscow’s pointman Antonin Novotny, is dismissed and replaced by reformist Alexander Dubcek.

Two months later Novotny is also ousted as head of state. He is replaced by former army chief General Ludvik Svoboda.

Dubcek, aged 46, becomes the symbol of a desire for reform that ignites the country.

The Communist Party undergoes an overhaul, adopting a programme aimed at replacing Stalinism with “socialism with a human face”, recognising freedom of expression and liberalising the economy.

On April 8 a centre-left government is set up.

– Press freedom –

The media gradually secures more independence and readers snap up the first issue of “Literarni listy”, a Union of Czechoslovak Writers review which publishes articles by previously censored authors.

“In the space of several months, one of the most dull presses in the world has been transformed into a fascinating mirror on a society in full crisis of emancipation and recovery,” AFP writes on April 14.

Censorship is abolished in late June.

– Communist partners worried –

The reformists appear to have the upper hand as well as public support, and Dubcek is surrounded with allies.

But alarm bells sound among orthodox communists in Czechoslovakia and in surrounding countries in the Warsaw Pact alliance who fear ideological contagion.

The Pact’s Soviet masters are determined to keep control of the strategically placed satellite.

In May the German Democratic Republic (GDR) formally condemns the Czechoslovak “counter-revolution”.

In Moscow the Communist Party’s Pravda newspaper lashes out at “anti-socialist members”.

In mid-July the parties in the Pact — the Soviet Union, GDR, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria — demand from Czechoslovakia “a resolute offensive against anti-socialist forces” and the end of press freedom.

In the “Warsaw Letter”, they call for the deployment of troops at the border between Czechoslovakia and West Germany.

– Prague Spring crushed –

At 11:00 pm on August 20, 1968, about 200,000 Soviet soldiers backed by others from the GDR, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria sweep into Czechoslovakia. Their numbers quickly rise to 600,000.

NATO leaders do nothing but mouth protests at what Moscow assures them is merely an “inter-communist squabble”.

The day after the invasion, an AFP journalist reports: “Tensions are high at the Radio Prague headquarters which is surrounded by Soviet tanks, as is the Central Committee and the Hradcany Palace … Nobody can understand this intervention — astonishment is on everyone’s faces.”

As Soviet forces spread out across the country and seal the borders, Dubcek and his allies are led off in handcuffs.

Thanks to massive public demonstrations they escape criminal prosecution but are taken to the Kremlin to sign with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev the so-called Moscow Protocol that formalises Soviet occupation.

The Soviet troops overcome rare pockets of resistance.

More than 100 people are killed in the four months of the intervention. The country is to remain in Soviet hands for the next 20 years.

– ‘Normalisation’ –

On January 16, 1969 a 20-year-old student, Jan Palach, sets himself alight in Prague’s historic centre in protest against the Soviet crackdown, dying three days later.

Dubcek is ousted as head of the Communist Party in April by Moscow-backed Gustav Husak, who carries out a process of “normalisation”, with massive purges, a ban on travelling to the West and the creation of a “crime against the socialist economy”.

Other key figures forced back into the shadows include playwright Vaclav Havel.

He becomes the first president of Czechoslovakia after the bloodless Velvet Revolution in 1989 that heralds the departure of Soviet troops and end of communism.