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Post-Communist Refections of the Prague Spring

 

Various interpretations of the period of political and economic liberalization in communist Czechoslovakia in 1968, known as the Prague Spring, often tell us more about difficulties of today’s Czech Republic in dealing with its complicated past than about the Prague Spring itself. When the 40th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion that ended the Prague Spring was commemorated in the Czech Republic on 21 August 2008, politicians, analysts, and historians all struggled with not only explaining what actually happened in 1968, but what the legacy of the Prague Spring should be today.

 

The main reason for such difficulties lies in the fact that the past—the communist past, in particular--is still approached in a highly ideological fashion. As a result, rather than attempting to explain the meaning of the reform process itself, it was easier for politicians, journalists and historians to focus on the invasion. This particular event leaves much less room than the reform process itself for unambiguous interpretations, as it was an act of military aggression which violated international law. The invasion can be discussed and critically examined, regardless of what one may think about reforms that prompted the Soviets to invade Czechoslovakia in the first place.

 

The reluctance to examine the Prague Spring reforms was obvious during the first half of 2008. There were only a few conferences and very little discussion in the media about various developments, documents and movements that transformed the first half of 1968 in Czechoslovakia into one of the most important events in the history of the Czechs and the Slovaks, as well as the history of the communist movement.

On the day of the anniversary, an official commemoration of the invasion was organized at Prague Castle. Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, gave a speech. A Soviet T-54 tank and homemade posters protesting the invasion were on display in Wenceslas Square, where Soviet troops had clashed with the citizens of Prague in 1968. But most leading politicians limited themselves to brief statements.[1]

 

Many leading thinkers in the Czech Republic regarded the anniversary unremarkable because they believe the Prague Spring was primarily a Communist affair — an attempt by reformers to prevail over hard-liners within the party. As such, it is of little interest to today’s “authentic” democrats. Articles in Czech news media argued that leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, including First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, were naïve to think that they could sustain “socialism with a human face.” When they abolished censorship, tolerated artistic freedom, eased travel restrictions and allowed new civic movements to come into existence, they merely created a virus that threatened the communist system.[2] More than anything else, such evaluations are a sign that the trauma of communism is still very much alive today, despite the last 19 years that democracy has had to take root.

 

In fact, the political thaw that culminated in 1968 had started in the early 1960s when the Communist regime eased restrictions on culture. This, in turn, encouraged intellectuals and artists to demand further liberalization. In June 1967, the Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union became a major political event, where writers like Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik, Pavel Kohout, Ivan Klima and Vaclav Havel issued calls for greater freedom. The election of Dubcek to the highest party post was partly a reaction to this pressure.

 

Equally important was the awakening of civil society. A generation of older people who grew up in a democratic Czechoslovakia before and just after World War II joined forces with younger people who were disappointed by Stalinist communism to create a social movement. This widespread renewal of active citizenship, which showed that a majority of people wanted to be free and would pursue their dream, even with the knowledge that the Kremlin would do its best to stop the movement, was the Prague Spring’s most important legacy.

 

By the end of 1968, Kundera and Havel offered opposing views of the Prague Spring’s real importance. Kundera argued that it was a far-reaching experiment in which the Czechs, falling back on the best traditions of their history, attempted to create a new socio-political model of democratic socialism, which would offer a higher quality of democracy, free of various ills associated with capitalism. Havel, who unlike Kundera had never been a communist, offered a more sober view. In his opinion, the Prague Spring was just an attempt to revive the Western-style democracy that Czechoslovakia had once had. [3]

 

The discussion on the 40th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion also almost entirely ignored the fact that the Prague Spring had a real impact outside Czechoslovakia. The Kremlin’s decision to use brutal force to destroy the experiment had a devastating effect on the Euro-communist movement. After 1968, once powerful Communist Parties in France, Italy and other Western European countries gradually faded.

Ideas generated during the Prague Spring were a source of inspiration for Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the mid-1980s. Like the Czechoslovak leaders of 1968, Mr. Gorbachev believed that a degree of political and economic democracy could be combined with communist rule.

 

The current tendency in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to play down the Prague Spring is likely caused, in part, by feelings of shame at how easy it was for the Soviet Union to defeat the experiment, and how quickly many people reverted to collaborating with the communist regime. It is not easy to come to terms with the fact that an event that provoked so much hope could be followed by 20 years of oppression and humiliation.

 

The Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution

 

Problems with evaluating the Prague Spring openly started already during the Velvet Revolution which ended communism in Czechoslovakia. The dissident community which organized itself into a movement in 1977 with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto consisted of three groups: former reform communists, anti-communist liberal democrats, and people associated with Christian churches. This division was reflected in the fact that the three spokesmen that Charter 77 regularly elected represented the three above mentioned currents.

 

Ideological differences among various ideological grouping in Charter 77 were suppressed during the early 1980s by pursuing a common goal—the democratization of the Czechoslovak regime. There was, however, a latent mistrust between some anti-communist dissidents and former reform communists. Differences intensified especially after the accession to power by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, when it became likely that the communist regime could collapse.

 

While many former reform communists continued to believe that a new political system should follow the Prague Spring’s example of “socialism with a human face”, liberal democrats and Christian democrats in the dissident community argued in favor of a standard, Western-style democracy.[4]

 

Such differences were, in fact, reflected, in the founding of new dissident groups outside Charter 77, which defined themselves more along ideological lines than as human rights advocates. Many former reform communists thus decided to join a group called Obroda, while some liberal democrats formed a nascent political party called the Liberal Democratic Party.[5]

 

Varying attitudes toward the Prague Spring played an important role in this differentiation of the dissident community. The Prague Spring was for many, younger dissidents in particular, a formative experience; in fact, for many, it was the closest they had come to experience any kind of political liberalism. The Prague Spring, therefore, aroused strong emotions even 20 years after its suppression. While some former communists saw it still as the maximum of what was possible to achieve, if socialism was to remain the dominant social system, liberal democrats argued that the Prague Spring was only the first step in direction of building a real democracy based on Western models.

 

The chief problem for both communities was a lack of experience with their desired models of social organization. While the reform communists argued that the real potential of socialism with a human face could not be tested due to the Soviet-led invasion, the liberal democrats favored a Western-style system that most of them did not know first-hand. As a result, a large degree of idealization of both desired political systems was present in both camps.

 

It was not clear immediately after the fall of the hard-line communist regime in Czechoslovakia in which direction the country should develop. There was much idealism present even among former leading dissidents of liberal, non-communist leanings, such as Vaclav Havel. Although they preferred the restoration of a Western-style democracy, they were critical of some of its aspects, such as tendencies toward bureaucratization and consumerism. Havel and some other non-communist thinkers had also been protagonists of the concept of non-political politics.[6]

 

Some of those concepts were influenced by the Prague Spring. The concept of non-political politics is, of course, older than some of the ideas developed during the Prague Spring and, in particular, during the 1970’s and the 1980’s within the dissident communities of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary.[7] It was first discussed by the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas G. Masaryk, in the 1920’s as a “program of socialization of Czechs”. In the dissident communities of Central Europe, non-political politics meant a political system which is not predominantly based on political parties and “structures”, and in which a civil society plays an important role.

 

Clearly, “a new kind of democracy, not seen in the history of mankind,”[8] that some of the chief protagonists of the Prague Spring hoped to develop, was to be based on a civil society much more than on party structures. Seen from that angle, the concept of non-political politics was to some degree a legacy of the Prague Spring.

 

In sum, even some of the dissident leaders, who were predominantly in favor of restoring the Western-style democracy as opposed to the ideas propounded by some former reform communists, were not entirely free of the intellectual legacy of the Prague Spring. It is often argued that in the end the resolute march toward Western-style liberal democracy was decided by the street. We hear again and again that people supposedly did not want to go back to the kind of regime that the Prague Spring had aimed to develop.

 

It is partly true; yet, in the days between the beginning of the Velvet Revolution on 17 November 1989 and the election of Vaclav Havel as the Czechoslovak president on 29 December 1989, the question of the ideological underpinnings of the new democracy was not clearly decided. Alexandr Dubcek, the leader of the Prague Spring, aspired to the position of the country’s president. For many people, he was a better-known figure than Vaclav Havel. The fact that Havel and his supporters ultimately managed to outmaneuver Dubcek played an important role in further developments in the country.[9]

 

Havel’s victory was a victory for the camp of anti-communist politicians, who, however, having been part of the dissident community for many years together with the reform communists, did not have strong prejudices against “the sixty-eighters”, as former reform communists are frequently called. In fact, some of those people played an important role in the first post-communist governments.

 

In other words, “socialism with a human face” was rejected at that point as a political system worth pursuing, but the Prague Spring was still discussed with an open mind by many. Former reform communists, who came to play an important role in post-communist politics, fully accepted the rules of the liberal democracy.

 

In the new system, most of them could be described as center-left liberals. They played an important role in the Civic Forum, the anti-communist umbrella movement that won the first free elections in June 1990. Gradually, however, they were marginalized by people, who had neither a communist past, nor a dissident past, as they were part of the “grey zone” during “the normalization era” between 1969 and 1989. This resulted in a major change of discourse with regard not only to the communist past in general, but the Prague Spring as well.

 

Many new politicians who were not known for their resistance to the normalization regime decided to build democratic credentials for themselves by adopting strong anti-communist attitudes. The easiest way for many of them to do so was to lump together various periods in the development of the communist regime as well as various former communists without distinguishing among them.

 

Dealing with the past was reduced for a period of time to the practice of screening the people who wanted to work in government agencies and government-run companies for their collaboration with the former secret police. The lustration law, which was adopted by the Czechoslovak parliament in 1991, was formally aimed at eliminating from the state administration thousands of people who either held high-level positions in the communist party before 1989, or who were registered by the communist secret police as agents and informers.[10] On a less formal level, this controversial law, which was criticized by international human rights organizations as applying the principle of collective guilt, was basically a tool of legitimization for new democrats, in particular on the political right. “Dealing with past” was reduced to black-and-white categories. The so-called supporters and protagonists of the communists were identified with the help of a law; all others could feel absolved.

 

Unfortunately, this simplified approach extended into judging the communist past in general, which put the Prague Spring into the general category of “communism” –a political system which the Czech Parliament, in a law passed in 1993, declared a criminal regime.

 

Problems with communists after 1989

 

The discourse about the communist past, including the Prague Spring, was not made easier by the fact that the Czech Republic is the only post-communist country in East-Central Europe where a strong Communist Party survived the fall of communism. This, too, is—seemingly paradoxically—one of the consequences of what happened in 1968.

 

After the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Communist Party was “normalized”, as the official term goes, by the expulsion of all reform-minded people from within its ranks. More than 500,000 liberal-minded communists were purged from the party, and the party was turned into a neo-Stalinist group.

 

While in Poland and Hungary the communist party underwent a gradual process of “controlled” liberalization in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, the Czechoslovak Communist Party became an ossified relic of hard-line communism, which did not in any way truthfully reflect the meaning of 1968. In fact, the party adopted in 1970 an infamous document called “Lessons from the Crisis”, which became a binding recipe for interpreting the Prague Spring during the entire period of normalization as a counterrevolutionary affair.[11]

 

When the communist regime began collapsing, the Czech communists were in no position— neither intellectually nor personally —to transform the party into a democratic-left party. The party was preserved as a home for the old nomenclature and its sympathizers, which, however, meant that it was not able to offer any creative interpretations of the Prague Spring. In fact, most party leaders have remained more or less silent since 1989 on the issue of the Prague Spring.

 

The congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in December 1989 rejected the “Lessons from the Crisis” document and apologized to the people who had been expelled from the party in 1970, but those steps did not provoke a real discussion about 1968. The official party line has been that the Prague Spring was a valid attempt to democratize socialism and that the Soviet-led invasion was an “inappropriate” solution, but this evaluation of the Prague Spring is frequently mixed with nostalgic reminiscences about some aspects of communism-building before 1968 and during the era of normalization.[12]

 

The fact there is no strong political subject in the Czech Republic that would be interested in examining deeply the lessons of 1968, left the interpretation of 1968 in the hands of self-proclaimed anti-communists. The Social Democratic Party was revived after 1989 outside the post-communist context. Although some of its leading members came from the milieu of reform communism in 1968, most of them do not embrace the Prague Spring as an event important for the post-1989 identity of the Czech Social Democrats.

 

The current discourse

 

The interpretation of the Prague Spring was left for too long predominantly in the hands of people who perceived their anticommunism in “dealing with the past” as a tool for earning democratic credentials. The fact that a strong, undifferentiated anti-communism was made into a political instrument obstructs efforts to offer a more structured approach.

 

The center-right government of Vaclav Klaus, which in 1992 replaced the government dominated by former dissidents, set the tone for the discussion about the past for many years. The fact that the new political establishment had to struggle with the question of what to do with the unreformed Communist Party, did not make matters easier. Although Klaus himself has never been a staunch anti-communist, he, nevertheless, allowed his followers to define their newly-discovered liberal-conservative identity partly by their allegedly strong anti-communist views.

 

While anti-communist stances that are settling accounts with the period of normalization or the communist terror of the 1950’s are in general terms legitimate, the Czech version of anti-communism suffers from two specific flaws: First, it likes to ignore the fact that collaboration with the normalization regime was widespread, and that even people who portray themselves as staunch anti-communists today did participate in various communist-controlled rituals. Second, the communist period was not a uniform era and, therefore, describing all periods of the communist era in Czechoslovakia as totalitarian and wholly undemocratic is problematic.

 

The problem with Czech anti-communism is that it is used as a tool of political struggle. The right-of-center parties regularly hoist the flag of anti-communism before elections, accusing the Social Democrats of being to lenient in their dealings with the Czech communists.

 

A good illustration of conflicting attitudes toward the communist past was a discussion two years ago in the Czech Parliament of a the new state-run Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which was set to hold and study the Communist archives. In giving the institute such a complicated name, lawmakers had to define “totalitarianism.” In the end, they decided that totalitarianism in the Czech Republic includes the entire period from the Communist takeover in 1948 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

 

But including 1968 in the totalitarian period makes it difficult to explain how it’s possible that the Prague Spring produced works of literature, film and drama more significant than anything the country has produced since the fall of communism. It is also difficult to explain the abolition of censorship, restrictions on travel, or rehabilitations of political prisoners from the 1950’s.

 

Partly because the Prague Spring was included in the totalitarian period, a group of 57 social democratic deputies filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court on 27 December 2007, formulated by a prominent reform communist Zdenek Jicinsky, now a deputy for the Social Democrats.[13] The deputies also criticized the fact that the Institute is, in fact, a state institution, whose board is elected by the Czech Senate. They argued that such politicization of history is not permissible and does not contribute to an open discussion.

 

The court in March 2008 rejected the complaint.[14] It was in some ways symbolic because the ruling that keeps the interpretation of the communist past under the control of a state-run institution relying heavily on former secret police files came 40 years after the Prague Spring began to peak. The debate about this important period thus remains largely black-and-white. The head of the institute, Pavel Zacek, described the Prague Spring as a conflict between two criminal gangs. A slightly more positive description that is common in the Czech media is that the Prague Spring did not amount to much more than to a fight between two groups in the Communist Party, one of which in the end lost.

 

Other aspects of the communist past are also discussed in an arbitrary fashion. The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has made a name for itself by regularly releasing compromising information on famous Czech’s collaboration with the communist secret police. The last case in point is that of Milan Kundera, who was accused of reporting to police in 1950 a man who was later sentenced to a long-prison term. Kundera was described in an article by an employee of the Institute as someone who reported the man to police knowing that the man was a defector from the Czechoslovak army who was hiding in a student dorm.

 

In fact, it turns out, the evidence against the famous writer is woefully feeble. The police report, which the Institute used to implicate Kundera, was entirely written by a communist policeman and bears no signature of Kundera or even his personal ID number. Moreover, it merely says that Kundera, a student living in a student dorm, came to report the presence of an unknown suitcase in the dorm. Being a student dorm manager at the height of Stalinist terror, Kundera, in fact, had no other choice after the suitcase was mentioned to him by other students. He could not know whether the information about the suitcase, given to him by fellow students, was not a provocation, especially, as he had been shortly before expelled from the Communist Party.[15]

 

All we know, therefore, is that a communist policeman wrote in his report--not signed by Kundera and not listing Kundera’s ID number--that a student called Kundera came to report that there is an unknown suitcase in his dorm.

 

Mentioning this case is illustrative because it shows the difficulties with discussing the communist past, including 1968, in general. Interpretations of this past are often driven by wishful thinking, such as is the case with the Kundera affair.  

 

Perhaps it is because dealing with Communism is still very traumatic for most Czechs. The invasion ushered in a humiliating period which started with the leaders of the Prague Spring being taken to Moscow where they were forced to sign the so-called Moscow Protocols, under which more than 100,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the country for an indefinite period. It continued, in the spring of 1969, with the installation of a neo-Stalinist regime, led by Gustav Husak, under which all the liberal achievements of 1968 were destroyed. The “normalization” regime that lasted until 1989 was one of the most oppressive periods in Czech and Slovak history.

 

If the Czechs were willing to discuss the Prague Spring more openly, perhaps they would see that it was a memorable interlude. The year 1968 saw upheavals elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, with young people rebelling against the establishment and searching for new models of life. The Czechoslovak experiment was part of that global movement. And like revolutions in the West, it generated ideas that survived — especially its emphasis on human rights. A strong effort was made to build a robust civil society. Today, as the Western world seeks to revive popular interest in the democratic process, this is the Prague Spring’s most important legacy



[1] For a more detailed analysis of the commemoration, see Jiri Pehe, “Spring Awakening for Human Rights”, The New York Times, 24 August 2008. Also, see various reports by the Czech Press Agency, 21 August 2008.

[2] See, for example, Bohumil Dolezal in Respekt, 28 July 2008.

[3] The literary weekly Literarni noviny, which played an important role during the Prague Spring, offered during the first half of 2008 a fascinating series of essays by various authors, including several chief protagonists of the Prague Spring, evaluating the polemic between Havel and Kundera.

[4]On various discussions in the Charter 77 community, seeCharta 77: Od obhajoby lidskych prav k demokraticke revoluci, a collection of essays from a conference on the 30th anniversary of Charter 77, ed.  Jiří Suk, Oldřich Tůma, Markéta Devátá, published by Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR (The Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences), Prague, 2007.

77.

 

[5] For a list and agendas of various dissident grouping in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in the communist Eastern Europe, see Jiri Pehe, “A Survey of Dissident Groups in Eastern Europe”, RFE/RL,  September 1988.

[6] See Vaclav Havel, Politics and Conscience, Rowohlt Verlag,  The Charta 77 Foundation, Stockholm 1986

[7] See Milos Havelka, Non-Political Politics: Context and Traditions, Sociologicky casopis AV CR, 4/1998.

[8] Milan Kundera, Cesky udel, Listy, 19 December 1968.

[9] The most comprehensive account of the Velvet Revolution to date can be found in Jiri Suk, “Labyrintem revoluce”, Prostor, Praha 2003.  See also Milan Otahal, Zdenek Sladek, “Deset prazskych dnu, 17-27 listopad 1989”, Dokumentace, Praha 1990.

[10] See Jiri Pehe, “Parliament Passes Controversial Law on Vetting Official“, RFE/RL Report on Eastern Europe, 19 October 1991.

[11] Pouceni z krizoveho vyvoje, published by Oddělení propagandy a agitace ÚV KSČ, Praha, March 1971.

 

[12] See an analysis by the First Deputy Chairman of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Jiri Dolejs, delivered at the SPED seminar about the Prague Spring, 7 April 2008. Available on the server of the Party of Democratic Socialism, www.sds.cz.

[13] CTK, 27 December 2007.

[14] CTK, 13 March 2008.

[15] Respekt, 7 October 2008