Prague History – The Prague Spring

Prague History – The Prague Spring

Fear diminished and political/artistic freedoms increased in Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s. Changes took place in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as well. The post of First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was taken away from Antonin Novotny and given to Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak Communist who was not very well known at that time (much like Mikhail Gorbačev, who was also relatively unknown when named to the top Soviet post decades later). These changes were known as the Prague Spring.

prague spring russian tank on wenceslas square
From the top of Wenceslas Square looking back down the right-hand side

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Key officials connected with the Novotny government were gradually replaced and Novotny himself resigned on March 28, 1968. Ludvik Svoboda (the post-war Defense Minister) became the Czechoslovak president and on April 8 a new government, headed by Oldrich Cernik, was appointed. A bit like Gorbacev would do decades later in the Soviet Union, Dubcek set out to reform all aspects of life in the country. In effect, he was doing little more than giving a legal stamp of approval to the grassroots changes like freedom to travel abroad and importantly, an end to state censorship that were already taking place. The government platform, approved by the Communist Party Central Committee in April, criticized the policies of the past, especially those that had done such damage to the economy. For the first time since 1948, the government proclaimed the legitimacy of basic human rights and liberties in Czechoslovakia, and objected to the persecution of people for their political convictions.

Around this time during the Prague Spring, the public was greatly influenced by a text called “2,000 Words,” which was written by Ludvik Vaculik and published in the literary weekly “Literarni noviny”, and in the dailies “Prace” (Work) and Zemedelske noviny. The piece called on the people to struggle against everything they considered to be bad, and appealed to them to take control of their own lives. The people listened, and it wasn’t long before jazz music, rock clubs, pop culture, miniskirts and other symbols of Western imperialism were to be spotted all over the place, but most especially in Prague. Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Koudelka, Ivan Klima, Josef Skoverecky, Milan Kundera, Arnost Lustig, Milos Forman, Jiri Menzl and many other writers and artists were all living and working at this time. Culture thrived, and the Czechs are especially well known for the films they produced at this time. They also invented a precursor to the modern-day music video, which they called “television songs,” and experimented with multimedia, and Laterna Magika and other forms of Black Light Theatre date from this time. The reforms that enabled this growing freedom were, in the words of Alexander Dubcek, an attempt to create “Socialism with a human face,” and came to be known as the “Prague Spring.” They were also considered to be terribly threatening by those in power in the Soviet Union, as they compromised the uniformity of the Soviet bloc.

The Soviet Union and its satellites began to more vocally criticise the renegade Czechoslovak Republic and its Prague Spring agenda. This political pressure from around the bloc peaked in the summer of 1968. The Czechoslovaks didn’t listen. Over the night of August 20-21 1968, Warsaw Pact forces (with the exception of Romania, which refused to participate) invaded Czechoslovakia, beginning a 20-year period of occupation and “normalization”. In all, hundreds were injured. More than 200 people died including at least 107 civilians and absurdly more than 95 invading soldiers and airmen killed in a variety of ways including accidental shooting, being run over by their own tanks, car crashes and plane crashes. The Soviets insisted they had been invited to invade the country, as loyal Czechoslovak Communists had told them that they urgently required “fraternal assistance against the counter-revolution” (after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, a letter of invitation was indeed, discovered to exist). Alexander Dubcek and the other Prague Spring leaders were whisked off to Moscow. Ludvik Svoboda, the President of the Republic, left for Moscow on August 23. The results of his talks there, which were not concluded until August 28, were summed up in a memorandum in which Czech and Slovak signatories agreed to the temporary presence of Soviet troops on the territory of the CSSR. Only one member of the delegation, Frantisek Kriegel, refused to sign the memorandum.

After the failure of the Prague Spring, Czechoslovak reformists tried to preserve at least some of the achievements of their reform efforts. One of these was the constitutional issue, which gave more autonomy to Slovakia. On October 28, 1968, the Czechoslovak National Assembly approved a new constitutional law on the creation of a Czechoslovak Federation. It was signed into law by President Svoboda at Bratislava Castle on October 30, and it decreed that Czechoslovakia be divided internally into two separate Czech and Slovak Republics. The federal setup took effect on January 1, 1969. But just two months later, the Federal Assembly adopted three more new constitutional laws curtailing and in fact undermining the previous amendment, meaning that the new federation existed in name only. State administration was again strictly centralized.

About 150,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the west as a result of all this hubbub. Many of those who stayed continued to protest the invasion. In the most famous of the individual acts of protest, a young philosophy student, Jan Palach, self-immolated on Wenceslas Square on January 16th 1969. In the political purges of late 1969 and early 1970, thousands of people were removed from their jobs (and, since it was illegal to be unemployed, most of the country’s intellectual elite spent the next 20 years washing windows or floors, stoking coal furnaces or selling vegetables or newspapers) and half a million people were expelled from the Communist Party.

The easygoing leaders of the 1960’s were banned (Dubcek spent the next 20 years in the Slovak forestry service), and replaced by hard nosed hardliners. The new communist government was one of the most repressive in all of the East Bloc surpassed only by East Germany and Albania. The ensuing period of “normalization” during the 1970’s and about half of the 1980’s was a bleak and unhappy time for the nation. The architecture of the time reflects this: most of the construction during this period was focused on building large scale “pre-fabricated housing” districts on the outskirts of cities.

Ludvik Svoboda was still the President of Czechoslovakia, but by this time he was already rather old and becoming forgetful. He used to walk around Prague Castle asking where Dubcek was. This grew to be rather embarrassing, and Svoboda was forced to resign due to “illness.” Gustav Husak, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, was elected as President in his place and thus held down both top functions in the country.

In 1976, the members of a rock band called “The Plastic People of the Universe” were arrested and charged with crimes against the state for holding a rock concert. This led to the creation of the well-known “Charter 77” movement which was formed to monitor and to internationally report human rights abuses within the country. Its first spokesmen were Vaclav Havel, Jan Patocka and Jiri Hajek. They and many other groups actively resisted the Communist regime, and many of them endured long jail terms for their efforts.

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