Socialism With a Face: Prague Spring 1968

Paul Goldsmith: Tanks in the Street (1968)

In January of 1968, Alexander Dubcek took the position of First Secretary from Antonin Novotny, a man who struggled working with the youth and intellectuals who were beginning to take on a western influence in their lives. While Dubcek promised to stay in the Warsaw Pact, some of his policies were influenced by western ideals. The policy that caused the most controversy between Dubcek and Brezhnev was the Czech Action Programme. This programme had goals, “calling for complete cultural freedom, economic reform based on the “socialist market,” and restrictions on the secret police, it provoked an outpouring of debate throughout the country” (Siegelbaum). With new reform, students and intellectuals were at the front of the movement and were the biggest advocates for more freedoms.

Through the Eyes of Moscow

The Soviet Union was growing uneasy of the events taking place in Czechoslovakia. This movement that began advocating for a more democratized form of Socialism was beginning to spread throughout the Easter Bloc and even some Soviet intellectuals hoped it would spread to the Soviet Union itself. This was a threat to what Moscow had had in place throughout the Eastern Bloc and a threat to the Warsaw Pact.

In March, a meeting was held in Dresden, East Germany between the Warsaw Pact leaders where they questioned Czechoslovakia’s efforts to democratize Socialism. The biggest takeaways from this meeting was that it was to late to reverse the reform taking place. These leaders were also concerned with the impact that the media would have now that they had the freedom to promote propaganda throughout the Eastern Bloc. Talks of a Warsaw intervention was now the agenda of the Soviet Union and its allies.

With one last attempt to create a compromise, Dubcek and Brezhnev met at the end of July for four days in the small town Cierna nad Tisou. During this time, Brezhnev stated that a counterrevolution had begun and that it needed to be stopped immediately. Following the meeting, Brezhnev continued to pressure Dubcek to put a stop to the counterrevolution through a series of angry phone calls. In one of the calls, Brezhnev told Dubcek that “he did not keep his promises from Cierna nad Tisou.” (Radio Free Europe) This signaled that greater and more drastic measures were going to carried out in the near future.

The Invasion

On the night of August 20th and into the next morning, hundreds of thousands of soviet and other Warsaw Pact allied troops rolled into Prague in tanks and trucks. People took to the streets to protest and fight for the freedoms that Dubcek had given them. A majority of the protesters were students while many people of the older generation stayed home in fear of losing their jobs, business, and families. Dubcek encouraged the protests that there be should be no resistance however, some outraged protesters ignored the requests. Fires began to arise throughout the city and Soviet soldiers were forced to retaliate with guns as some of the protesters tried to attack them. Some of the protesters were able to overtake tanks and vehicles setting fire to them in the streets.

Students Battle the Tanks (1968)

Protesters also set up barricades throughout the city, often times being human barricades. The biggest confrontation was at the main state radio station in Prague where Soviet soldiers were met by hundreds of people ready to defend the radio station. The soldiers began to open fire on the building which resulted in many deaths of protesters.

The aftermath of invasion was that the resistance was toppled and Dubcek was ousted from his position however, he wasn’t removed until April of 1969. A new regime was formed and put in his place to reverse all the reform that had been put in place. This new era was called the period of “normalization.”

Dubcek’s influence didn’t disappear, it just took nineteen years for it to have an impact. Gorbachev gives a lot of credit to Dubcek and his influence on the glasnost and perestroika policies.

Dubcek: I am with you (1968)

Through the Eyes of the Soldiers

One thing that was so fascinating about the counterrevolution and the invasion was the interaction between the soldiers and the protesters. “Soviet and other soldiers and officers could be seen conversing with Prague citizens. Sometimes these conversations were calm, at other times they were vehement” (Mayevsky). These conversations often occurred when the protesters were acting in a more peaceful manner than burning tanks and trucks. The protesters would argue for their rights and why they deserved them while the soldiers tried to convince them why they were wrong and that they were disrespecting the principles of Communism. The soldiers also found at times that the protesters were brainwashed by the media and the propaganda. The view of soldiers and protesters arguing was seen throughout the city and either ended in an outbreak of violence or the protesters backing down.

The Fraternal Peoples (1968)

A lot of the invasion was caught on camera and this short video clip offers more images and videos of the events that took place during Prague Spring.

Prague Spring 11968

Citations

4 thoughts on “Socialism With a Face: Prague Spring 1968

  1. Excellent blog Josh, I especially liked the short Youtube film that showed the two sides of the Czech people interacting with the Russian military. Prague is today a really beautiful European city and yet it carries this negative history of events in 1968.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Tom. I thought the film was really neat and the fact that we have film from Prague Springs allows us to more fully understand the impact that the invasion had on the city and the people.

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  2. What a fascinating post, Josh! I agree with Tom that the film showing the interaction between the Soviets soldiers and Czech citizens is amazing. It’s also interesting that it’s set to a (Czech?) translation of Hey Jude, which seems like an important indicator of the international quality of the upheavals of 1968. This really was a generational revolt that transcended national borders. In the Czech case, the fact that so much of this was captured on film made it a PR disaster for the Soviets, who were (rightly) worried that letting the dissent continue to flourish abroad might give young people in the Soviet Union ideas as well.

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    1. Professor Nelson, thank you for your comment. The Soviets definitely did not want this to spread throughout the Eastern Bloc and even into the Soviet Union and Brezhnev didn’t hold back his emotions during the several meetings that occurred leading up to the invasion. Once the film was released to the world the Soviets definitely received a lot of backlash from not only the West (which seems like a no-brainer), but from other Communists as well which really speaks volumes.

      Liked by 1 person

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