Łukasz KAMIŃSKI: The Prague Spring of 1968. The consequences of the invasion in Autumn

The Prague Spring of 1968. The consequences of the invasion in Autumn

Photo of Łukasz KAMIŃSKI


Historian, employee of the University of Wrocław. In 2011-2016, he was the president of the Institute of National Remembrance. Founder and president of the Paweł Włodkowic Institute, a research and educational center specializing in issues related to the heritage of totalitarian systems and dictatorships. In 2017-2021, the president of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, a non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge about totalitarianism.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

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We usually treat the Prague Spring and its military suppression as an episode in the history of the Cold War. In fact, which might seem surprising from today’s perspective, the intervention of the Warsaw Pact troops did not affect the process initiated still before 1968 of détente in the relations between the East and the West, states Łukasz KAMIŃSKI

.It is not by chance that if we recall the Prague Spring, it is principally in the context of the invasion of 21 August 1968. This is due to the fact that the events in Czechoslovakia were not a typical crisis of the communist system. The reforms were initiated at the top level of the party, not as a result of social protests. In the first weeks, the advocates of changes in the party were even worried about the social apathy with respect to the announced reforms.  The society only moved on the mass scale upon the invasion, trying to save the achievements of the Prague Spring.

What also does not help the remembrance about the reform process is their leader, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček. On the one hand, he initiated the changes and defended them in his talks with Moscow, while on the other, on 26 August 1968, he signed the “Moscow Protocol” that was an act of capitulation, and consistently complied with provisions.  Furthermore, after being removed from power – as the Chair of the Federal Convention – he signed the “baton law” used for repressing protest participants.  Until 1989, he did not engage in any opposition initiatives.

Finally, another problem is posed by the fact that although the Prague Spring meant liberalisation of the communist system (including abolition of censorship, and weakened role of the security forces), one cannot speak of introduction of a true democracy (or even about such plans). After the collapse of the Eastern Block it thus ceased to be a point of reference. This does not, however, mean that it should be forgotten and studied by just a small group of historians.

We usually treat the Prague Spring and its military suppression as an episode in the history of the Cold War. In fact (which might seem surprising from today’s perspective), the intervention of the Warsaw Pact troops did not affect the process initiated still before 1968 of détente in the relations between the East and the West. For example, disarmament talks were continued which ended with signing the Soviet-American treaty SALT I in 1972. At the time when communists in Czechoslovakia supressed the last echoes of the Prague Spring, the preparations to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe were on their way. For comparison, it is worth reminding that the communist coup in Czechoslovakia (February 1948) was a major element that contributed to the establishment of NATO.

Does it mean that the events from 1968 had no long-term effect? To the contrary.

From the international perspective, the most important effect of the reformatory movement’s failure was the deeper divide in the global communist movement.  Moscow’s influence gradually weakened from the early 1960s, and the process rapidly accelerated after August 1968. This resulted in the birth of the “Eurocommunism.” This variant of the Marxist doctrine assumed that the revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat are not necessary for building the socialist system, as it can be achieved in a parliamentary manner and by compromising with other political movements. What is worse, Eurocommunists rejected the leading role of Moscow. This is a sad paradox: Western communist parties were not shaken by the bloody pacification of Hungary in 1956, but only by the much less brutal suppression of the Prague Spring.

During several years, Eurocommunism was approved by the greatest communist parties of the West: French, Spanish, Italian, and many smaller. This was a grand failure of the Soviets who, from now on, had to bear the appeals from former comrades to stop repressions against the opposition movements throughout the Eastern Block.

Paradoxically, the pacification of the Prague Spring also increased the attractiveness of another alternative to the Soviet Marxism-Leninism: Maoism, despite its more totalitarian nature at the time. This was certainly also affected by the slowly ending Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (started by Mao two years earlier), but the Chinese propaganda willingly used the opportunity created by the Soviets.

What might also seem surprising from today’s perspective, positive heroes of the period included… Nicolae Ceaușescu. The policy of the Romanian dictator raised Moscow’s anxiety still before the Prague Spring, but for other reasons than the changes in Czechoslovakia. For example, he refused to break diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six-Day War (1967). Fearing that Romania might become the target of the next invasion, the future “The Genius of the Carpathians” organised a grand rally in Bucharest on 21 August 1968. He declared solidarity with the Czechs and Slovaks, condemning the invasion, and appealed to defend the independence. The moving speech brought him not only authentic social support, but also opened the way to Western salons. Soon, however, Ceaușescu’s self-esteem pushed him towards the cult of personality and pursuing crazy economic projects. The memory of former triumph returns years later, specifically in December 1989, he organised another grand rally at the same place in Bucharest counting on support for his handling of rebels from Timișoara. This time, however, instead of ovations, he faced booing and had to flee by helicopter and, a few days later, he was executed following a parody of a court trial.

From the Polish perspective, the most important were the long-term consequences of the Soviet experience related to the intervention in Czechoslovakia. The year 1968 is principally associated with the term of the Brezhnev Doctrine. It assumed that, in the event of a threat to the communist regime in any socialist country, other “people’s democracy” countries had the right to maintain the regime even by using force. Notwithstanding the fact that it was Władysław Gomułka, not Leonid Brezhnev, who formulated the doctrine, the matter is much more complicated.

We often forget that the intervention was a military success, but a political failure. The Warsaw Pact troops faced mass resistance not only of the society, but also of national authorities, the media, and the communist party itself. On 22 August, in secrecy, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia held the 14th extraordinary convention in Prague (delegates were elected before the invasion). They adopted a resolution condemning the invasion and appealed for an hour of general strike on the next day. On 23 August, practically the entire country stood still. The resistance was so strong that the group of advocates of the “brotherly help” could not take over the power and formulate even a symbolic government.

In that situation, Brezhnev was forced to release Dubček and other imprisoned leaders. Although the talks ended with signing the aforementioned “Moscow Protocol”, negotiations testified to the Soviet leader’s weakness. Despite the military success, he was unable to impose his will to the Czechs and Slovaks, or even to the party apparatus. The situation in Czechoslovakia only stabilised through the long period of “normalisation”, done not with the hands of the occupants, but of the Czech and Slovak communists.

This was the fundamental lesson Moscow learnt from the experience. What proved effective was not the military intervention, but pacification of the society with the hands (armed with batons, and originally also with guns) of the local communists. The same tactic was used during the crisis in Poland (1980-1981). Military intervention was resigned from, and the focus was to exert pressure on Polish communists so that they should use the force themselves. One can thus risk a thesis that Czechoslovakian tragedy of 1968 saved Poland against a similar fate later.

Long-term consequences principally affected the Czechs and Slovaks themselves. The most important ones was taking away the hope for a change as a result of brutal repressions and mass cleansing in the “normalisation” period. Most society turned away from public matters, focusing on private lives and looking for their own “little stability”. When Charter 77 was established several years later, it gathered marginal support. It is thus not an accident that, during the Revolutions of 1989, the Czechs and the Slovaks were almost the last ones to walk the streets – over a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall and after removal of Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov from power.

Łukasz Kamiński

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