During the decades of the Cold War between the United States and its allies and the former Soviet Union, perhaps no single event better sums up the situation on the divided European continent than the crushing of the liberalising reforms attempted by Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party government in 1968’s so-called Prague Spring.
Having warily eyed the reforms being introduced in the then Czechoslovak capital Prague by the country’s reformist Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček, the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact suddenly invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to put an end to what they saw as Czechoslovak attempts to exit the Eastern Bloc and end Communist rule.
On the night of 20-21 August, an estimated 200,000 troops (eventually many more) from the armies of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary entered Czechoslovakia from several sides, leading to the country’s military occupation.
While Czechoslovak forces were confined to barracks and Dubček called upon people not to resist, there was scattered resistance by ordinary people across the country to the invasion, not least in the streets of Prague.
Grainy black-and-white images of the time show resistance to the Warsaw Pact forces by often young people and students, with street signs being painted over to confuse the entering forces, barricades being set up and anti-Communist and anti-Soviet graffiti daubed on the walls of buildings.
An estimated 72 Czechoslovak nationals were killed in the invasion, and a further 300,000 are thought to have fled the country.
Dubček himself, accompanied by senior members of the Czechoslovak government, was spirited to Moscow by Soviet forces, leaving Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague and a power vacuum in the country.
In the subsequent Moscow Protocol signed by Dubček under strong pressure from the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, it was agreed that he would remain in office and some reforms would continue. But in April 1969 Dubček was replaced as secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and a period of “normalisation” began.
This involved the reversal of his liberal reforms such as the freedom of the press and freedom of expression together with various economic reforms.
The new Communist Party leader Gustáv Husák reinstated the powers of the police, reintegrated Czechoslovakia back into Eastern Bloc norms, and reinstated a centralised economy.
It marked the end of Dubček’s attempts at reform – described at the time as an attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face” – and Czechoslovakia, like the rest of the European Eastern Bloc, entered into the two decades of suspended animation, meaning the political, economic, cultural and spiritual stagnation of the Soviet Bloc in the 1970s and 1980s until the system’s final collapse in 1989.
It was only then that Czechoslovakia, like other formerly Communist Eastern European countries, finally shook off Soviet rule. Dubček himself returned after the collapse of the Communist system in 1989 to head the Czechoslovak parliament under the country’s new leader, the former dissident Vaclav Havel.
Some of the demands made by the anti-Communist demonstrators in 1989 explicitly referenced those made 20 years earlier by supporters of the Prague Spring.
Fifty years on, Czechoslovakia itself has disappeared from the map, with the country dividing in 1992’s “Velvet Divorce” into the successor states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Even more than that, the political and economic reforms that began in 1989 have now transformed the Czech Republic into a broadly successful middle-ranking European state, fully integrated into the European Union since 2004 and NATO since 1999.
According to a CIA overview, the Czech Republic is now “a prosperous market economy that boasts one of the highest GDP growth rates and lowest unemployment levels in the EU,” its export industries, notably of cars, comprising some 80 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Anyone of a certain age who visits Prague today – old enough, that is, to remember the capital before the transition beginning in 1989 – will be struck by the enormous changes that have come about, both here and in much of the rest of Eastern Europe.
Prague in the 1980s, at least to the casual visitor, resembled the world of a vintage postcard, there being none of the amenities one would expect to find in a comparable city in the West.
Because the Communist regime banned private enterprise, there were no shops to speak of, no hotels aside from the grey establishments run by the relevant arm of the government, and few restaurants catering to visitors.
The present writer can still remember the eerie atmosphere of the Eastern European cities before 1989, when for Western visitors crossing the so-called Iron Curtain that marked a boundary line between two competing economic and political regimes it was a journey as much in time as in space.
Some terrible disaster seemed to have afflicted these countries, though the elegant, often belle epoque, architecture of the historic city-centres indicated that things had not always been as they were then, and Prague was almost liveable when compared to the grim dystopia of Bucharest in Romania before 1989.
An exhibition of photographs of the events of August 1968 is currently on display in Prague’s Old Town Hall, and this may help to remind some of the thousands of tourists who now descend on Prague each summer how things were just 50 years ago.
The images, taken by Czech photographers, establish much of the familiar iconography of the time – tanks in the streets, student demonstrators, the look of despair on many faces as hopes of change seemed to be dashed, and the matching determination of those who stood up to resist the invading forces, if only in tragically limited ways.
Speaking to Czech visitors at the exhibition – they were far outnumbered by foreigners – Al-Ahram Weekly discovered that few, if any, of those viewing the pictures were old enough to remember the events they depicted.
All agreed that it was important for the public authorities to commemorate the events of 1968, though some also described the Warsaw Pact invasion as belonging to “ancient history,” being apparently very far removed from the Czech Republic today and the new balance of forces on the European continent.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Czech historian Jiří Suk of the Czech Republic Academy of Sciences says that the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces on 20-21 August 1968 was “a violent act of Soviet Communist imperialism… [that can be] attributed to the absurd logic of the 20th century, the ‘age of extremes’.”
Together with similar clampdowns in Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1981, it is “embedded in the historical memory of Central Europeans as a great, albeit failed, attempt at regaining freedom.”
The photographs of the time “make up a large mosaic consisting of many smaller pieces that reflect the stories of the people in the town squares of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia who together created a civil society” opposed to Communist rule in 1968, he adds.
“There was no room for passive observation; almost everyone was drawn into the dramatic events and protests… That week in August 1968 saw the sudden development of a fully free and fully democratic public space. And within this space information spread like wildfire.”
Of the actions of Dubček, Brezhnev and the other leading players of the time, Suk says that “the tragedy of August 1968 lies in a fatal misunderstanding between the spontaneous democratic will of the people and the elitist mentality of its non-elected leaders. It seemed [for a time] that this grand nationwide resistance could bridge the gap between the now free public and the still authoritarian regime,” though tragically of course this was not the case.
For Suk and others like him, “that week in August became a thing of myth” reincarnated in the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
“By playing around with two numbers, in an ingenious game presented by the circumstances, the completion of an interrupted revolution was announced: by flipping over the number 68 on the symbolical astronomical clock of fateful events the number 89 emerged,” he writes.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fifty years from the Prague Spring