Prague Spring

views updated May 17 2018



In January 1968 the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz), Antonín Novotný, was replaced by a little-known Slovak member of the party's ruling presidium, Alexander Dubček. In the ensuing months, a vigorous program of liberal-democratic reform emerged from within the party itself. It quickly found resonance among the rank and file of the party and throughout society, and touched off a rebirth of democratic politics.

The party's new course quickly won a level and quality of popular support unprecedented in the Soviet bloc. Yet as the popular movement developed, the leaderships of Czechoslovakia's allies grew increasingly alarmed. During the ensuing months of intensifying crisis the Czechoslovak leadership walked a tightrope, striving to appease its allies without alienating popular support. The "Prague Spring" was interrupted by the Sovietled invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968.


The sudden blossoming of democratic reform in Czechoslovakia surprised many observers. Until 1963 Czechoslovakia had presented an image of internal stability and unquestioning imitation of the Soviet practices. However, the Prague Spring had been long incubating. The CPCz was a mass-based party with strong national and democratic traditions. Paradoxically, it is precisely these strong democratic and national roots that help to explain the harshness of the regime that developed after 1948. Suppressing the democratic traditions of the CPCz and transforming it into a tightly disciplined Soviet satellite was a formidable task, the success of which was not deeply rooted.

In 1963 the tide began to turn. Tendencies long articulating beneath the surface began to have greater and more visible effect. The main impulses for change came from crisis in the national economy, desire for greater national autonomy in Slovakia, and developments in the international communist arena. The leadership, facing a wide range of acute problems, finally began to experiment with reforms. Forces of opposition and pluralization began to crystallize, which the regime was never after able to bring under control. Although implementation of reforms was inconsistent and incomplete, the trend toward liberal reform was never reversed.

By 1967 the leadership's policy of partial and vacillating reform had reached a dead end. The regime's authority had eroded severely because of increasing frustration with its failure to solve the accumulation of pressing problems facing the country. The atmosphere of fear that had provided the regime with stability had dissipated and turned to contempt. During this period elements in the party and society were able to articulate their ideas and gain increasing influence within the power structure. By midyear, the leadership had realized that they would either have to undertake widespread repressive measures or tolerate developments that were rapidly undermining its power base. Halfhearted attempts at repression only aggravated the situation. The Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union in June, which saw the most bitter criticism to date of party policies, was followed by a series of repressive measures against the writers and their organization. By fall, discontent in Slovakia with the party's centralistic policies became acute. This discontent was reflected by Slovak members in the party leadership. Novotný alienated them by attacking them as bourgeois nationalists. Finally, overall morale throughout the country had reached an alarming low point, and the economy was again on the brink of disaster.

The leadership was seriously split. The conviction was gaining ground within the higher party echelons that the crisis could not be resolved as long as so much power remained concentrated in Novotný's hands. As Novotný's weakness became increasingly apparent, even many of his former supporters deserted him. Novotný appealed to the Soviet party general secretary Leonid Brezhnev to intervene. Brezhnev flew to Prague and met with members of the Czechoslovak leadership. In leaving, Brezhnev told his hosts that the leadership question was their own business. In the end, Novotný voluntarily resigned the party leadership and himself proposed Dubček as his successor, while remaining for the time being as president of the republic.

Dubček did not come to power as a dedicated reformist with a clear program. His initial moves, though suggestive of reform, were cautious. Yet it had become clear that attempts to contain reform within neo-Stalinist institutional and ideological strictures were not viable. The new leadership faced a staggering challenge. Having inherited a party and society in crisis, it had to struggle on at least two fronts: to win the confidence of the population and of progressives within the party, by demonstrating commitment to change, and to overcome the influence of entrenched conservatives within the country's power structure.

In February, steps were taken to separate the jurisdictional domains of the government and the party aparat (bureaucracy) , and to ensure that policy was made by elected bodies rather than by the aparat. The Czechoslovak writers were again allowed to publish a weekly newspaper. In February and March, the first personnel changes were made. The party presidium took steps to curtail censorship. And it promised to improve the system by which lower party bodies were informed about party affairs. Members of the presidium also attended a total of sixty-seven district and regional party conferences, explaining the leadership's new policies. Among other things, the revival of party life was emphasized, and elections by secret ballot promised.


Involvement in the political process was at first hesitant. Not everyone believed that the change in party leadership meant real change. By March, however, a nationwide discussion had begun to gain momentum. It concerned domestic and foreign politics, the nature of socialism, and the country's precommunist past. The reform process acquired its own momentum, never being entirely under the control of the party. The leadership sought to reassert its influence by demonstrating that the party was the force most capable of leading the reform process.

On 5 April a draft program of liberal reform, The Action Program of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, was approved by a plenary session of the central committee. The rapidity with which this document emerged indicates that its contents had been prepared before the change of leadership. What was particularly new and significant about it was its unqualified endorsement of a consistently reformist program. For the first time, the party explicitly accepted a connection between economic and political reform. It addressed the demands of Slovaks for greater autonomy by proposing a new federal constitution. The constitution would also provide for a strict division of powers: The National Assembly, not the Communist Party, would be in control of the government. Courts would be independent and would act as arbiters between the legislative and executive branches. Civil rights and liberties would be guaranteed, and those whose rights had been violated in the past would be fully rehabilitated. A radically new concept of the Communist Party and its "leading role" in society was outlined. Internal party democracy was to be maximized to the point where even minorities would be guaranteed the right to their own opinions. The party's "leading role" was to be based on the voluntary support of the people, earned by the party, rather than imposed by force. Dubček characterized the party's new course as "socialism with a human face."


The emergence of such a thoroughgoing, openly publicized program of liberal-democratic reform in a context of spontaneous, unmanaged political activity further alarmed the leaderships of Czechoslovakia's Warsaw Pact allies. Problems, tendencies, and pressures similar to those in Czechoslovakia existed in all these countries, including the Soviet Union itself. All had long been cautiously striving to repair the dysfunctional aspects of the political and economic system that had developed under Joseph Stalin. Yet all were also concerned about the subversive effects of reform on the monopoly of power that under-girded their authority. All were following the various efforts of their allies to address this dilemma. Czechoslovakia's emergent example of comprehensive reform based on genuine popular support, not fully managed by the party, increasingly frightened the allies. Dubček's epithet of "socialism with a human face" implicitly raised questions about the character of their own regimes.

The East German and Polish leaders, Walter Ulbricht and Wladyslaw Gomulka, were particularly alarmed. Both faced imminent crises of authority and were already hard-pressed in containing intense pressures for change. Neighboring on Czechoslovakia, they were directly exposed to developments there. Ulbricht and Gomulka strove to impress on the Soviet leadership the danger represented by the Prague Spring. They were the most militant advocates of force to quash it. The Hungarian leadership under János Kádár tended to be supportive of the Czechoslovak reform movement. In contrast to Ulbricht and Gomulka, Kádár had long been cautiously pushing reform to the limits of Soviet tolerance. From Kádár's perspective, success of the Czechoslovak reformists would strengthen his position, while Soviet rejection of the Prague Spring would be detrimental to reform in Hungary. Although similar tendencies and ideas were also developing in Bulgaria and in the Soviet Union itself, both regimes were still firmly entrenched, so that they were not directly threatened with infection by the Prague Spring. It was mainly East Germany (GDR) and Poland that were threatened with a collapse of regime authority.

Throughout the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovak leadership stressed its loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and friendship with the Soviet Union and its other allies. This theme was articulated in the leaders' public speeches and embodied in all programmatic statements of the Czechoslovak party. It was affirmed at all meetings with Soviet and allied representatives. Nevertheless, by July it had become clear to the allies that developments in Czechoslovakia were unacceptable. Relations between Czechoslovakia and its allies had reached a point of acute crisis.

In early July, the Communist parties of the USSR, Poland, the GDR, Hungary, and Bulgaria invited the presidium of the CPCz to a conference to be held in Warsaw to discuss the situation. The Czechoslovak leadership, unwilling to be forced into the role of the accused, rejected the invitation. It proposed instead to discuss the situation in bilateral negotiations on Czechoslovak territory. The Warsaw conclave was held on 15–16 July without Czechoslovak participation. It resulted in the dispatch of an ultimatum-like letter to the Czechoslovak leadership. The response of the CPCz presidium, though moderate in tone, was firm in substance. It rejected the accusations, stressing that the CPCz relied on the voluntary support of the people. It would not reinforce its authority with repressive measures. It declared that Czechoslovakia had loyally fulfilled its obligations under the Warsaw Pact, and would continue to do so. It stressed that Czechoslovak socialism should accord with the country's conditions and traditions.

During the period of crisis touched off by the Warsaw Letter, a national unity almost without precedent anywhere was forged in Czechoslovakia. The CPCz spontaneously became the carrier of that unity. The Warsaw Letter marked a radical turning point in the internal political situation in Czechoslovakia. Up to this point, there had been considerable differentiation of political views in Czechoslovakia. Many believed that the leadership was not going far enough or fast enough with reform. Thousands of resolutions of support poured into party headquarters and more than a million people lined up in the streets to sign an appeal to the party presidium to maintain its position.

After protracted, tortuous private and public exchanges, the Czechoslovak and Soviet leaderships reached agreement on a bilateral meeting of their leaderships. The Soviets proposed that the meeting be held in the Soviet Union. But the Czech leadership held out for a meeting on Czechoslovak territory. The meeting finally took place from 29 July to 1 August in the Slovak border town, Čierna nad Tisou. The Soviets arrived in an intransigent mood, hoping to split the Czechoslovak delegation. When this failed, they adopted a conciliatory attitude. The negotiations ended with a communiquéthat said virtually nothing except that a multilateral meeting would be held on 4 August in the Slovak capital of Bratislava between representatives of Czechoslovakia and the signatories of the Warsaw Letter. An agreement was signed at the Bratislava meeting. The communiqué released after the meeting was couched in orthodox communist phraseology. Nevertheless, it was seen as putting the seal on a Czechoslovak victory and an end to the period of crisis.

During the night of 20–21 August 1968, without warning, Czechoslovakia was occupied. Despite claims of the occupying powers that "leading Czechoslovak Party and state officials" had requested their assistance, no such officials ever came forward. A movement of peaceful, coordinated resistance emerged spontaneously. It protested the invasion, demanding the return to power of the arrested reformist leaders and proclaiming determination to continue the post-January course of the CPCz. The occupying forces were unprepared for such a response. After the failure of ad hoc attempts to establish a new authority, the Soviet leadership returned to power the very same leaders arrested on 21 August. The denouement was complex. Many important aspects of the reform movement that had disturbed the Soviet leadership continued to thrive and even evolve further, almost as if there had been no military intervention. Only after Dubček was forced to resign in April 1969, did the ice age return. The warmth of the Prague Spring, its cultural and political dynamism and effervescence, was over.

See alsoCzech Republic; Czechoslovakia; Dubček, Alexander; Havel, Václav; Warsaw Pact.


Eidlin, Fred. "January, August, and After: Czechoslovakia's Triumph and Tragedy."Radio Free Europe Research Czechoslovakia 21 (1969), 34pp.

——. The Logic of "Normalization": The Warsaw Pact Intervention in Czechoslovakia of 21 August 1968 and the Czechoslovak Response. Boulder, Colo., and New York, 1980.

Golan, Galia. The Czechoslovak Reform Movement: Communism in Crisis, 1962–1968. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

——. Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia: The Dubček Era, 1968–1969. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.

Hamsik, Dusan. Writers against Rulers. Translated by D. Orpington. London, 1971.

Hejzlar, Zdenek, and Vladimir V. Kusin. Czechoslovakia, 1968–1969: Chronology, Bibliography, Annotation. New York, 1975.

Journalist "M." A Year Is Eight Months. Garden City, N.Y., 1970.

Kusin, Vladimir V. The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: The Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia, 1956–1967. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Littell, Robert, ed. The Czech Black Book. New York, 1969.

Mlynar, Zdenek. Night Frost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism. London, 1986.

Skilling, H. Gordon. Czechoslovakia's Interrupted Revolution. Princeton, N.J., 1976.

Fred Eidlin

Prague Spring

views updated May 18 2018

Prague Spring


By: Anonymous

Date: August 21, 1968

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Photographer: This photo was taken by an anonymous Czech photographer and smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. It now resides in the archive of the Bettmann Archive of the Corbis Corporation.


The arrival of Communism in Czechoslovakia differed from other countries in Soviet Eastern Europe. Whereas Communism elsewhere followed some form of Soviet occupation after World War II, from December 1945 there were no Soviet troops on Czechoslovakian soil and the country was democratic with full parliamentary elections. How it came to adopt Communist rule in 1948 has been dubbed the 'elegant takeover,' but it was hardly a takeover at all. Rule was effectively handed over to the Communist Party, the country's largest political organization, after a string of parliamentary crises brought the collapse of the liberation government of Edvard Benes.

Although Czechoslovakian Communism had popular roots it was soon discredited. The democratic system was dismantled and the country underwent a harsh period of Sovietization in the 1950s, which was marked by purges, summary arrests, and repression. Economic problems also arose, which, by the late 1960s, were crippling the country and further undermining Communist Party rule.

In an attempt to rectify these problems, the Slovak Alexander Dubček was made the Communist Party's First Secretary on January 5, 1968. Aged forty-six, he was seemingly the model Soviet apparatchik, having spent thirteen years of his youth in the USSR and another three as an adult student of Moscow's Soviet Higher Party School. Yet Dubček, for all his apparent immersion in the ways of the Communist Party, was by Soviet standards a progressive leader brought in to mitigate reformist pressure from within Czechoslovakia.

The task facing the new leader was complex, since he had to please Moscow and the Czechoslovakian people simultaneously. Dubček had to revitalize the Czechoslovakian economy, but needed to do so within the rigid parameters imposed by Marxist economics. He needed to earn public confidence by loosening the stifling party control of state and social institutions, but had to accomplish this without provoking a negative Russian response, such as occurred in Hungary twelve years earlier.

Dubček quickly set about reviving the ranks of the Communist Party. A stream of dismissals and resignations (as well as several suicides) purged senior party ranks of many of the hardliners so despised by the Czechoslovakian people. Dubček appointed known reformers to key positions within the government, including the Defense and Interior Ministries. He helped restore the credibility of the party by denouncing the terror of the 1950s and rehabilitating its victims, both living and dead.

Although Dubček would profess and maintain his commitment to Marxism-Leninism and the rule of the Communist Party, he authorized a vast public debate in the spring and summer of 1968. Officials met the people and engaged in discussions about the country's future. Interest groups were formed and flourished, and students and intellectuals debated Czechoslovakia's future. This period became known in the West as the Prague Spring (although it lasted long into the summer).

This debate was never seriously directed against Communism or Socialism, and a return to capitalism or the decollectivisation of agriculture were never formally or substantially broached. Nor did it assume an anti-Russian tone, despite the grievances against the USSR nursed by many Czechoslovakians. Rather it was seen by Communist Party bosses in Prague and initially Moscow as an experiment in 'Socialism with a human face' and a way of renewing the Communist system.



See primary source image.


It was not long before the momentum behind the Prague Spring moved beyond Dubček's control and provoked deep concerns in Moscow. In particular, Dubček's rehabilitation of purge victims gave way to a paroxysm of revulsion against the preceding two decades of Communist rule. Rather than revitalize the Communist Party, it diminished its credibility, even if it added to Dubček's growing stature. On June 27, 1968, a group of Czechoslovakian intellectuals issued a statement entitled "Two Thousand Words." It was an indictment of two decades of Communist dictatorship and mixed ringing endorsements of Dubček and demands for a faster pace of reform with veiled criticisms of Moscow. Dubček distanced himself from the statement, but it gained enormous popularity amongst his countrymen.

Before the publication of the "Two Thousand Words" statement, Moscow had looked at developments in Czechoslovakia with restraint. The USSR did not intervene in Czechoslovakian affairs, despite clamoring from its East German and Polish client states, who viewed the developments just over their borders with concern, fearing that the reform movement could bubble over and compromise their own regimes.

However, the "Two Thousand Words" statement seemed to tip the balance against Dubček. On July 3, the Soviet President, Leonid Brezhnev, warned that "we cannot remain indifferent to the fate of socialism in another country" and Pravda, the newspaper and Soviet Communist Party mouthpiece, began comparing the situation in Czechoslovakia with that of Hungary in 1956, when Soviet tanks were sent in to quell reformists. On July 15, the Warsaw Pact members collectively demanded Dubček reimpose censorship; a demand he rebutted three days later.

The final straw for Moscow seemed to come on August 10 with the publication of a draft of new party statutes, which were to be formalized at an Extraordinary Party Congress the following month. Key among these was a statute calling for the election of party officials by secret ballot. This notion was regarded as heretical by adherents to Marxism-Leninism, for whom unity and discipline were their central tenets. This statute would also likely lead to the removal of conservatives from the political offices they still retained, further loosening Moscow's grip on the country.

On the night of August 20, 1968, 7,500 Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to suppress what it now deemed a politically and ideologically dangerous renaissance. They were joined by up to 500,000 troops from the USSR and Soviet client states. About eighty Czechoslovaks were killed and hundreds were wounded as the invasion met huge non-violent civil resistance and attracted global criticism. Moscow, for its part, claimed that the invasion had been 'invited' by concerned Czechoslovakian Communist Party members.

Dubček was arrested and sent to Moscow for "negotiations." These so-called negotiations resulted in the Moscow Protocol of August 26, an arrangement forced upon the Czechoslovakian leader, which banned all organizations that violated Socialist principles and restored censorship. A later treaty was signed that allowed for the "temporary" stationing of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia to oversee the "normalization" of the country. Dubček was replaced as Communist Party Secretary the following year and given the ambassadorship to Turkey, apparently in the hope that he would defect. When he didn't he was recalled and banned from the Communist Party in 1970.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia was justified under the terms of what became known as the "Brezhnev Doctrine." This doctrine held that if Socialism was threatened in any state, then other Socialist governments had an obligation to defend it. For most of the next two decades, it was this doctrine that supported the edifice of Communism in Eastern Europe, even when the region suffered chronic economic crises in the late 1970s and 1980s. Although Soviet tanks were not dispatched in the same way again, the threat of invasion by Russian and Warsaw Pact forces stymied reformism across the region and served as the impetus for the imposition of martial law in Poland after Solidarity's emergence in 1980–1981. Not until the rule of President Mikhail Gorbachev would the Brezhnev Doctrine be abandoned. This was the first step leading to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Rather than strengthen the hold of Communism on Czechoslovakia, the Soviet invasion undermined the ideology and dissipated any Russophilia that had lingered after the USSR's liberation of the country from Nazi Germany. The economic difficulties that the reforms of the Prague Spring intended to rectify were never properly addressed, leaving Czechoslovakia teetering towards stagnation. Moreover, as one reformist pointed out, Moscow's intervention "proved something most Czechoslovak reformers… did not even dare to believe at the time, namely, that the established Marxist-Leninist theory is incompatible with a genuine, modern, democratic, economic and political system and, what is more, that it is not even open to reform." [Radoslav Selucky, Czechoslovakia: The Plan that Failed.]

On his return from Turkey, Alexander Dubček was sent into internal exile with an appointment as a "forestry official." In reality he lived under severe restrictions and for years was not permitted to associate with anyone beyond his immediate family. In 1989, he re-emerged into public life, this time as a key ally of Vaclav Havel, who led Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution." He was elected speaker of the country's Federal Assembly and, when Czechoslovakia was poised to split into two countries in 1993, he was positioned to become a leading figure in post-independence Slovakia. Just two months before Slovakia became an independent country, Dubček was killed in a road accident at the age of sixty-eight.



Crampton, R. J. Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century—and After. London: Routledge, 1997.

Rothschild, Joseph, and Nancy M. Wingfield. Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Selucky, Radoslav. Czechoslovakia: The Plan that Failed. London: Nelson, 1970.

Gordon-Skilling, H., Jaromir Navrotil, Antonin Bencik, Vaclav Kural, Marie Michalkuva, Jitka Vondorova, and Vaclav Havel. The Prague Spring 1968. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998.

Prague Spring

views updated May 09 2018

Prague Spring (1968) Short-lived political and social reorganization in Czechoslovakia. From 1945, Czechoslovakia was subject to the hard-line communist policies of the Soviet Union. In January 1968, Alexander Dubček, a liberal communist, gained power and initiated reforms intended to create “socialism with a human face”. Political prisoners were freed, censorship abolished, the power of central bureaucracy curbed, and non-communist political parties legalized. In August, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, imposing a Soviet occupation on a furious, but powerless populace.

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