A Brawl amongst Brothers – The Imbroglio that was the Prague Spring of ’68

 “Too good to be true”, the Czechoslovak people’s dream of freedom, brought about by liberal reforms of the new 1968 government, came crashing to a dramatic end with the Warsaw Pact invasion of the ČSSR, just half a year after the Prague spring had begun.
Though the Soviets’ reaction was forceful, one question remains: was Czechoslovakia even trying to break away?

Khrushchev’s destalinization campaign in the USSR[1]sprouted dreams of freedom in the civil society. Hungary’s revolution and Polish reforms further stoked the hopes for freedom, including calls to end censorship.Departments of Marxism-Leninism in also voiced alternative ideas.[2] However, the Soviet’s brutal response to the Hungarian revolution finally crushed any remaining openly voiced hopes for democracy in the ČSSR.[3]

Antonín Novotný’s succession by Alexander Dubček in January 1968 suddenly placed a reformist as the general secretary of the Communist Party, and it appeared that the internal power struggles and indecisiveness about Czechoslovakia’s future were overcome.
Initial reforms were slow and mainly focused on the federal structure ofCzechoslovakia. Rudé Právo[4]published an article titled “What Lies Ahead”, emphasizing that Dubček would“further the goals of socialism” and “maintain the working-class nature of the party”. However, it also drew criticism from the Soviet ambassador for announcing a “Czechoslovak path to Socialism […] on the basis of tested equal rights principles”. [5]

A key factor contributing to the escalating speed at which reforms were demanded and subsequently delivered was the appointment of Eduard Goldstücker as the chairman of the Czechoslovak Writer’sUnion and editor-in-chief of “Literární noviny”. In February, he appeared on television, openly criticizing Novotný’s policies and so testing the new regime’s tolerance. Goldstücker faced no repercussions. Rather than oppressing differing opinions in the media, Dubček hoped to create a sense of trust between himself and the media. This attitude that allowed for the “Literární listy”[6]to turn from a hardcore communist medium to the reformers’ mouthpiece, publishing the 2,000-word manifest and reaching a circulation of over 300,000by August[7].[8]

Dubček was at heart a reformer. Just a month after being appointed[9],he delivered the passionate “20th anniversary of the ‘VictoriousFebruary’” speech, in which he admitted mistakes in the party’s leadership style and highlighted the importance to build a “a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia”.[10]To achieve this, he would implement an “Action Program”, which would shift the economy towards consumer goods production, but further promised freedom of movement, speech and the press. Dubček’s personal belief was that “Socialism …must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy” – reflected in the preamble of the Action Program and later quoted in Dubček’s autobiography, evidencing the importance it must have had to him personally. It is an understatement to say that the Brezhnev’s USSR did not share these sentiments.

Portisch claims it was not initially Dubček’s intention to introduce far-reaching reforms to the Czechoslovak system.Instead, the comparatively minor reforms catalyzed the public’s resentment and to Dubček adapting to the given circumstances, turning him from a mild reformer to a committed challenger of the old-established Soviet-style system that was imposed on Czechoslovakia.[11]

Though reforms were increasingly drastic, it was not intended to break away from the USSR’s sphere of influence or turn away from Czechoslovakia’s socialist brother states. The action program emphasizes that “the development of international economic relations will continue to be based on economic co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries”.[12] Further recognizing that“the basic orientation of Czechoslovak foreign policy […] is in alliance and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other socialist states. We shall strive for friendly relations with our allies – the countries of the world socialist community”. [13]Furthermore, the KSČ[14]“shall place special emphasis on friendly ties, mutual consultations and exchange of experiences with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with the communist and workers’ parties of the socialist community.”[15]

Contrary to this portrayal of Czechoslovak -Soviet friendship stands the Soviet Union’s viewpoint. Considering the tensions between East and West in the Cold War, it is unlikely that the Soviet Union would have risked provoking a confrontation with the West unless they saw a sufficiently significant reason to do so. It can be argued that the USSR’s& Warsaw Pact’s troops would not have invaded Prague had Moscow not interpreted the Czechoslovak position to be unquestionably hostile and Czechoslovakia wishing to break away. The Soviets must have perceived a more fundamental shift inCzechoslovak leadership than the socialism “without self-proclaimed leaders, grey work places and unemotive bureaucracy”.[16]The divisions within the KSČ may have aided this, the hardline communists begging for help from Moscow, including through their letter to Brezhnev.

Arguably, invading Czechoslovakia would not have been necessary had the KSČ been on official Soviet line; for then the leadership in Prague would have imposed the measures that Moscow commanded and not resisted, thus eliminating the need for armed intervention.
Eastern European buffer states were a direct consequence of Russia’s historically rooted insecurities, and therefore in the USSR’s eyes it was essential to maintain control over these regions to ensure Moscow’s security.

The Warsaw letter, delivered to the KSČ 37 ahead of the invasion, stated that “We[17]cannot agree to the fact that hostile forces push your country off the course of socialism and pose a threat of separating Czechoslovakia from the socialist community. Now, these are not just your affairs.” The letter states that the political course of Czechoslovakia is the business of all socialist brother states.[18]Thus, the Brezhnev doctrine began. There would be no “Czechoslovak path to communism.”

The “Letter to Brezhnev” by the Stalinist opposition of the KSČ provided the SovietUnion with propagandistic material (it was stylized as a “cry for help by a socialist brother party” to which the USSR graciously responded), but it also strengthened the position of those who were calling for a forceful resolution Czechoslovakian liberalism.
Nonetheless, there was great dispute about the approach towards Prague amongst the Warsaw five[19]. New research shows that Brezhnev was long opposed to militarily invading Czechoslovakia, having had phone calls with his personal friend Dubček begging him to re-establish the KSČ’s control. [20][21]Meanwhile, it was particularly the hardliners GDR and Bulgaria and members of the Soviet military pushing for military intervention, trying to create a sense of urgency in Moscow.[22]East Germany had experienced an uprising in 1953, leaving Ulbricht’s SED traumatized; he feared that happenings in Czechoslovakia could spill over the border and challenge his own party.

Dubček’s reforms were initially intended to bring limited change but spiraled out of his control. He ended up leading an involuntary revolt against Soviet control, much to their disliking and that of the “socialist brother states” – brothers which ended up invading and killing almost100 civilians and injuring nearly 1,000 more. Miscommunication and differences in ideas, within the party and communist bloc, on what it meant to be an internationalist socialist meant that some saw reforms as essential to ensureSocialist survival not just in the ČSSR, but due to socialism’s international nature, the entire socialist world. To the others, including the USSR, however, it was a dangerous trend that was leading Czechoslovakia away from socialism and towards western imperialist fascism; in the eyes of the Warsaw five, there was no greater service to the socialist cause than to provide military assistance to those Czechoslovak communists loyal to Moscow.

The Czechoslovak reformers’ stated aim was to reform socialism, not to turn their back on their Socialist brothers and especially not Moscow. They did this, but in the process showed the underlying flaw of Soviet-led communism: it was imposed by force.

[1] 1956

[2] Kusin, Vladimir V. The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: the Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia 1956-1967. CambridgeUniversity Press, 2002.

[3] Janek, István. “Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.” West Bohemian Historical Review VII, Jan. 2017.

[4] Czechoslovak Communist Party’s official newspaper

[5] Navrátil Jaromír. The Prague Spring 1968: a National Security Archive Documents Reader. Central European University Press, 2006.

[6] Re-named from Literární noviny

[7] Making it Europe’s most-read magazine

[8] Holý Jiří. Writers under Siege: Czech Literature since 1945. Sussex AcademicPress, 2010.

[9] February, 1968

[10] “Prague Spring Remembered.” THE VIENNA REVIEW, www.falter.at/the-vienna-review/2008/prague-spring-remembered.

[11] Portisch, Hugo. Aufregend War Es Immer. Ecowin, 2017.

[12] “The Action Programme of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Prague, April 1968 : Komunistická Strana Československa : FreeDownload, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Nottingham, Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation,archive.org/details/actionprogrammeo08komu/. (Page 16)

[13] See above, page 22

[14] Czechoslovak Communist Party

[15] See above, page 23

[16] Pustejovsky, Otfrid. In Prag Kein Fenstersturz. DTV, 1968.


[18] “Warschauer Brief an Das Zentralkomitee Der KP Der Tschechoslowakei Vom 15. Juli 1968 Und Dessen Antwort.” Herder-Institut:Themenmodule,www.herder-institut.de/no_cache/bestaende-digitale-angebote/e-publikationen/dokumente-und-materialien/themenmodule/quelle/1363/details.html.

[19] USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, GDR

[20] Sputnik.“Prag 1968: Was Moskau Angst Machte Und Breschnew Bauchschmerzen Bereitete.” Sputnik Deutschland, 19 Aug. 2018,de.sputniknews.com/politik/20180819322000405-prager-fruehling-regelung/.

[21] “Ende Eines Frühlings – Prag 1968.” Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF).

[22] https://www.ksta.de/forscher–ddr-draengte-auf-einmarsch-bei-prager-fruehling-13361108

Title image taken by František Dostál and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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