A look back at 1968: Fifty years since the Prague Spring
The Czech Republic is a country greatly affected by its socialist past. Formerly united with its Slovak neighbour under Czechoslovakia, the two countries experienced 41 years of a one-party communist rule that left behind a deep sense of disillusionment and frustration. Although there were continuous attempts at overthrowing this rule, it was not until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that the regime finally collapsed. The memory of the communist regime is still vivid in our minds and it forms an essential constituent of our national identity.
This year the Czech nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of a crucial event that marked a decisive turn in the political development of the country. In January 1968, 20 years after the Communist Party came to power, a period of political liberalization began that brought new hopes of freedom and release. However, this endeavour didn’t last long and on 21 August of the same year, the troops of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in order to halt these reforms. This period became known as the “Prague Spring” and it is often remembered as one of the first steps towards democracy.
Prague Spring, 1968
The roots of the reformist tendency may be traced all the way back to the beginning of the sixties, that witnessed a prominent economic crisis, a postwar critique of Stalinism, and a general release of political tensions in Europe. A liberal wing of the Communist Party was developed alongside its conservative base. Its representatives demanded a plurality of opinions and supported the need for a reform. On 5 January 1968, a reformist Alexander Dubček was elected the first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) – an event that was later designated as the commencement of the Prague Spring. His vision was to build up a more sustainable and humane regime, the so-called “socialism with a human face.” Dubček became the symbol of the reformist process.
What followed was a series of key events, all of which had their own influence on the political development. In March the current president of Czechoslovakia Antonín Novotný resigned from his office and was replaced by the hero of the WWII Ludvík Svoboda. Other prominent positions within the government were occupied by more liberal political figures. April witnessed the formation of a new political agenda that defined the scope of the reform in both social and economic terms. Censorship was partly abolished and religious communities used this opportunity to form new social organizations with a touch of anti-communist conduct.
This development caused resentment in the conservative wing of the Communist Party, especially among the representatives of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia. Their discontent took the form of a counter-revolution. The tension reached its climax in July with a letter from Warsaw that threatened with military intervention in the case “Czechoslovakia would proceed in its departure from the socialist development.” After a series of negotiations with the Soviet leader Leonid Brežněv, the Czechoslovakian representatives made several concessions in the hope of sustaining a certain degree of political compromise. This illusion collapsed on the night of August 20, 1968, with the invasion of the Soviet troops.
The experiment of the Prague Spring thus failed and a phase of normalisation followed, the purpose of which was to reestablish the social conditions of the previous decades. The hope of provoking some of the western democracies to support the Czechoslovakian reformist attempt was abandoned and the country remained under the communist regime until November 17, 1989 – the day of the Velvet Revolution. Although the aspiration to democratic status had to be postponed for another two decades, the nation never stopped dreaming of their liberalization that was inaugurated in the Prague Spring of 1968.
Reflections of the Prague Spring in popular culture
This period of the Czech history has not only inspired other anti-communist reforms (such as the Beijing Spring or the Croatian Spring in former Yugoslavia) but also became a frequently reflected-upon theme in art and popular culture. The Prague Spring has been referenced in numerous songs by both Czech and international singers, in various works of literature, and even in several films capturing the mood of the communist era. The most popular examples would be Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Jan Hřebejk’s film Cosy Dens (known under its Czech title Pelíšky). The number 68 was also subsequently considered a national symbol and it continues to be so, as the Czech ice-hockey player Jaromír Jágr wears it on his jersey.
The 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, 2018
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, various cultural events are held all around the country. An international conference entitled “The Prague Spring: 50 Years After” took place in the month of June, organized by the Institute of Contemporary History in the Liechtenstein Palace in Prague. Over 100 prominent historians from 11 countries discussed there the importance of this historical period in relation to contemporary political challenges. Another conference with a similar theme under the title “Envisioning Emancipation: The Year 1968” is planned for November of this year in Vila Lanna, Prague.
As a part of the Czecho-Slovakian project “The Common Century,” the Moravian Museum located in Brno is preparing an exhibition commemorating the most important events that took place between 1918, the year when Czechoslovakia originated, and today. The exhibition includes authentic historical material from the Prague Spring, especially pictures, short films, and printed matter. A similar happening is currently in progress in the West-Bohemian town of Cheb, presenting pictures from August 1968. Another exhibition under this project that is concerned with the Prague Spring takes place in Náchod, entitled “Fateful Eights – 1918, 1938, 1948, 1968.”
The celebrations of the 50th anniversary culminate on Tuesday 21 August in Vinohradská Street in Prague, near the building of the Czech Radio (Český rozhlas). It was precisely here that some of the most violent encounters took place 50 years ago, with 17 people dead as victims of the invasion. Despite the efforts of the occupants, the broadcasting of the Czech Radio was not interrupted and continued to provide fresh news of the invasion all the way through. A commemorative act for the victims of the occupation will present prominent figures of the contemporary political scene. Other celebratory events are held throughout Prague, including concerts, exhibitions, and social gatherings. If you happen to be in Prague today, feel free to join in the festive mood of the finally liberated Czech nation.
August 20, 2018