The Prague Spring was a term coined by the Western media to describe attempts to reform communism in Czechoslovakia during the mid-1960s. Czechoslovakia was a relatively young nation, formed after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919. It was invaded by the Nazis at the start of World War II, then liberated by the Soviet Red Army in 1945. But as in other eastern European nations, the Soviet liberation soon turned into an occupation – and Czechoslovakia was transformed into a Soviet satellite state, ruled by a loyal Stalinist and saddled with a one-party state and socialist economic planning. The Prague Spring was an attempt by the Czechoslovakian people to moderate and soften socialism, to bring an end to political oppression and economic austerity. For a short time, democracy appeared to take root and blossom behind the Iron Curtain, as the government of Alexander Dubcek sought to create “socialism with a human face”. But the experiment was short-lived, with the Soviet Union leading other Warsaw Pact nations into an invasion of Czechoslovakia. When the Red Army rolled into Prague it encountered not violent opposition, but a people united in support of their government and against the iron-fisted rule of Soviet communism. The Czechoslovakian reforms were eventually quashed and the reformist government replaced – but the Prague Spring captured the attention of the world.
Sandwiched between East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania, Czechoslovakia was another eastern European country swallowed by the Soviet bloc in the late 1940s. In 1946 the Communist Party took power in Czechoslovakia, after an election in which it won 38 percent of the votes and 31 percent of the parliamentary seats. Over the next two years, communist policies proved unpopular with many Czechoslovakians. Misuse of the police and armed forces, the nationalisation of industry, plans to collectivise farms and Soviet interference in Czechoslovakian domestic politics all eroded support for the Communist Party. The communists were expected to lose power in elections scheduled for mid-1948 – but these elections were never held. In 1948, with Soviet tanks massed threateningly on the border, Czechoslovakian communists seized complete control of the nation in a bloodless coup. Klement Gottwald, a former cabinet-maker, loyal to Moscow and the policies of Stalin, became the new president. All other political parties were banned; censorship of the media was introduced; fourteen former political leaders were given show trials, most of them executed.
‘Socialism with a human face’
As in other Soviet satellite states, industrialisation was the main aim of the new regime. But by the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia’s economy had begun to stagnate. The country was reliant on food imports but its industries had not progressed sufficiently to match these with exports. The standard of living deteriorated; food and consumer goods were both difficult to obtain and very expensive. Intellectuals criticised the centralised economic planning of the communist government – and the government began to listen. In 1965 it accepted a package of proposed reforms called the New Economic Model, which suggested the re-introduction of capitalist features, like the removal of price and wage controls. Factory managers and bureaucrats were to be given greater freedom in decision-making, so they could respond to resource availability and the needs of the market. This reformist push matured in the spring of 1968, when the local Communist Party issued another manifesto, the Action Plan, calling for Czechoslovakia to follow its own form of socialism – “socialism with a human face” – instead of blindly following the Soviet Union. It would be fundamentally democratic, tolerant of debate and different opinions; individual rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech and the ability to travel abroad, would be protected by law.
Gunter Bischof, historian
The impact of the Czechoslovakian reforms rippled through the Soviet bloc. In July 1968, Warsaw Pact nations drafted an ultimatum to the Prague government, demanding it wind back its reforms, re-impose censorship and one-party control, and deal with the “counter-revolutionaries” responsible for these deviations from Soviet-style socialism. The Czechoslovakian government ignored this ultimatum, prompting the Warsaw Pact delegates to meet again in August to decide on a course of action. They deemed Czechoslovakia to be a rogue state and authorised an invasion. On August 21st 1968, around 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops rolled across the borders into Czechoslovakia. The government in Prague, led by Alexander Dubcek, decided not to resist the invasion; Czechoslovak armed forces were ordered to remain in their barracks.
The people’s resistance
The absence of military opposition surprised the invading Warsaw Pact troops, who had anticipated strong resistance. But what alarmed them even more was the response of Czechoslovakian citizens. The invading troops were met in the streets by civilians, armed not with weapons but with words, placards and protest. They tore down and replaced street signs so invading tanks could not locate important buildings. They gathered in throngs in main streets, outside public buildings and infrastructure, blocking the way and harassing the Warsaw Pact soldiers. Posters and graffiti reading “Russians go home!” were plastered all over Prague; locals engaged the invaders in debate, asking why they were in Czechoslovakia and inviting them to join with the rebellion. A group of rebels barricaded themselves inside Prague’s main radio station, broadcasting inspiring messages and criticisms of the Soviet Union. More than 100,000 people filled the street outside the radio station, an attempt to protect it from troops sent to close it down. The radio station was eventually overrun and turned off – but the broadcasters simply went underground and kept transmitting from there.
Though there was little fighting and fewer than 80 people were killed, the Prague Spring was always destined to fail. Members of the Czechoslovakian government, including their leader Dubcek, were located, arrested and removed to Moscow. Though they were not harmed, they were subjected to intense pressure, intimidation and probably threats, before being returned to Prague a week later. Dubcek told his people that Moscow had authorised him to continue with a program of “moderate reforms” – but within months he had been replaced by Gustav Husak, a communist more loyal to Moscow. Between 1969 and 1971, Husak’s regime embarked on what it called ‘normalisation’: essentially a ‘winding back’ of the reforms begun by the Dubcek government. Reformist politicians, bureaucrats and academics were removed from positions of influence; police powers and censorship were reinstalled; centralised economic controls were restored. Husak would remain in power in Czechoslovakia for the duration of the Cold War.
There was widespread international criticism of Moscow’s incursion into Czechoslovakia. In the United Nations, a number of countries voted for a resolution condemning the Soviet intervention, though the resolution failed because of the USSR’s veto. The American reaction was comparatively mild, chiefly because the US and its leadership were more focused on the worsening quagmire of the Vietnam War; also, US-Soviet relations had been easing and president Lyndon Johnson did not want to antagonise Moscow. Europe’s non-Soviet communists condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia as an act of imperialism. The leaders of Finland, Romania and Albania all criticised Moscow’s treatment of Prague. There was even a small but visible protest in Moscow itself, though this was quickly suppressed.
1. The Prague Spring was a peaceful but unsuccessful attempt to liberalise and reform socialist Czechoslovia.
2. Economic stagnation in the early 1960s prompted the Czech government to introduce ‘socialism with a human face’.
3. Warsaw Pact nations responded in 1968 with an ultimatum to wind back liberal and democratic reforms.
4. Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia when this ultimatum was ignored, however there was little fighting.
5. Despite peaceful but widespread popular resistance, Czech political leaders were replaced by Moscow and its reforms were wound back under a new pro-Soviet government. The Soviet response to the Prague Spring attracted much criticism but no direct action from the US and its allies.