The Prague Spring (Pražské jaro) is the name given to Czechoslovak history from January 1968 to August 21, 1968, when Alexander Dubček steered communist Czechoslovakia in a more moderate course. This period was brought to an abrupt end by the other five Warsaw Pact members, led by the USSR, with their forces’ invasion on August 20, 1968.
The Communists’ Takeover of Power
After World War II, the Czechs were bitter about Western powers’ attitude in drafting the Munich Agreement (March 1938). In that treaty, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, and France (without Czechoslovakia’s participation itself) stipulated that Germany could annex the Czech Sudetenland. As a result, the communists gained ground in Czechoslovakia. A coalition government came to power in which the communists played an important role.
In early 1948the communist interior minister fired 8 non-communist police officers. Democratic ministers in the government protested against this dismissal, submitting their own. In February 1948, the communists then appointed party members or sympathizers in their place. The communist coup was a fact. Later, the Communists would refer to these events as of February of the Victory (Vítězný únor).
With the May 1948 elections approaching, the communists became more hostile to democratic processes and institutions. The voters could only choose from lists of the National Front and, to be sure of a victory, the result was falsified. They won the election with an unlikely 89.2 percent.
In the 1950s, the Czechoslovak communist rule went through political repression accompanied by rigged political processes, death sentences, and political opponents’ detention. In 1953 people took to the streets in Plzeň and Ostrava to protest against the deteriorating economic situation. The uprising was forcibly crushed, and the leaders were sent to labor camps. The communist regime hushed up even the fact that the uprising had taken place.
Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
In 1960, the country officially became a socialist state under the constitution at Antonín Novotný.
The 1960s started with changes. Some political prisoners from the 1950s were restored. The third Five-Year Plan was supposed to resolve the economic crisis but failed in 1963. That is why several economic reforms were promulgated to reintroduce some elements of the free market economy. Political and artistic freedoms had increased somewhat during this period. Independent research was again possible in the scientific and technical fields. Journalism and the arts enjoyed the freedom they had not known since the communists took power in 1948.
The country was already considered the liberal brother of the communist family at that time. The Soviet Union kept a close eye on changes in the country. They considered Czechoslovakia as the least reliable element of the Warsaw Pact.
In the light of the reforms, the population once again dared to criticize the communists openly. The Communist Party was accused of the material and moral decline of society and the political persecution of the 1950s. Even the party’s leadership role was openly questioned.
For the first time since the end of the Second World War, even voices were raised to reconnect with Western European countries. On October 31, 1967, riot police forcibly crushed students’ peaceful demonstration against their shabby housing.
Czechoslovakia fared better economically than other communist countries. However, a serious agricultural crisis in 1967–1968 brought great discontent to the country. More and more protests were made against the central government in Prague.
It became clear that the communists were out of touch with the farmers and the workers. Several progressive reformist members of the Communist Party took advantage of that discontent to gain more influence within the Party.
On January 5, 1968, Alexander Dubček unanimously replaced party leader Antonín Novotný, who had been in charge of the party since 1957 and was a follower of Brezhnev, as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubček led a more moderate course.
Novotný remained president of the Socialist Czechoslovak Republic until he was removed from office on March 22. On May 30, 1968, he was completely expelled from the Communist Party.
Dubček stood for socialism with a more human face. He wanted to make the Czechoslovak state more democratic with more liberal communism than in the USSR’s other satellite states. He announced his reform plans on April 10, 1968.
In April, the Communist Party came up with the so-called Program of Action, which admitted the past mistakes and expressed the desire to introduce a more modern form of socialism based on far-reaching democratization and pluralization of society as a whole, political, economic.
Scientific and cultural field. The citizens’ initiative was fueled, and the role of party ideology was pushed back. Dubček also wanted to abolish censorship in this context to freely express criticism and thereby gain access to information about the world outside the communist press. Dubček also wanted a separation between the police and the secret services and equality of other political parties with the communist party.
These innovations sparked a wave of protest movements and demonstrations in the country. The people wanted to make full use of their free speech and took to the streets en masse. The students wanted to participate in Western youth culture, and the workers wanted to show their displeasure, hoping for an improvement in their situation.
The Kremlin saw all this with sorrow, and on May 4, 1968, called Dubček to account. This meeting came to nothing, and four days later, Dubček had a secret meeting with the other Warsaw Pact members to convince them that developments in his country posed no danger to the Soviet Union.
He could not convince them of this because, on May 9, troops were already seen on Czechoslovak soil. Dubček was not intimidated, however, and continued to steer his progressive course.
On June 27, 1968, the Manifesto of 2000 words appeared, which openly criticized the country’s abuses, blaming the blame for this mainly on the conservative wing of the communist party. It was openly said that the Communist Party-controlled the country and had fallen into a “power-hungry organization,” as stated in the manifesto.
Furthermore, the reform efforts were praised, but at the same time, the conservative members of the Communist Party who stood in the way of reforms were criticized. More reforms were demanded without, however, giving up the monopoly position of the Communist Party.
A response was not forthcoming. As early as July 3, an article appeared in Pravda stating that the Soviet Union was prepared to use force if necessary to keep socialism alive.
The Warsaw Pact demanded the reintroduction of censorship, measures against the reformers, and national party authority maintenance. Dubček did not respond to these demands.
Soviet ideologue Alexandrov strongly condemned the 2,000-word Manifesto. A letter from the Warsaw Pact followed on July 14 and 15, 1968, clearly stating that the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s current course was unacceptable and threatened to divert the country from the socialist path.
The Soviet Union feared that Czechoslovakia developments would have a knock-on effect in the other Warsaw Pact member states. Partly for this reason, Brezhnev wanted to intervene in Czechoslovakia, but he was afraid that an invasion would provoke a West’s reaction.
That is why he first made sure that he did not expect a military response from the West. When he felt assured of this, he launched the invasion of Czechoslovakia. On the night of August 20–21, 1968, Russian tanks entered Prague. Even Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria gave troops. Romania and Albania did not.
The troops of the GDR post at the border without invading Czechoslovakia. In all, 150,000 soldiers were sent to the country. The operation was code-named ‘Operation Danube.’
The first target of the tanks was Radio Prague. The radio station was destroyed, but thanks to an underground radio station, which the Russians built themselves to continue propaganda in the event of an enemy attack, they managed to continue to broadcast until August 27.
The station called on the people to resist, among other things, by writing on the walls that the Russians had to go home and remove all signage. This last call was so successful that at one point, only the signposts to Moscow remained. Pravda then stated that the counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia should not be given a chance.
Moscow wanted to install a government; it could control, but no one was willing to cooperate with the invaders. The incumbent politicians were arrested and taken to Moscow.
However, the resistance in Czechoslovakia remained alive. Ludvík Svoboda, president of the republic and man of great authority in the Warsaw Pact, traveled to Moscow to demand the leaders’ release.
This happened, but not without a political agreement with far-reaching consequences. Censorship was reintroduced, the secret congress’s decisions were overturned, and the influence of the party on the people’s daily lives was strengthened.
In exchange for these concessions, the Soviet Union withdrew some of its troops. The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union remained in Prague from September 1968 to December 1968. In the end, some 50,000 soldiers remained in the country.
Almost all reforms have been reversed. Unrest and discontent grew in the country, along with the uprisings. This came to a head when on January 16, 1969, student Jan Palach set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square in Prague in protest against the overturned reforms. Three days later, he died of his injuries. A dozen more people would follow his example.
On April 17, 1969, the Soviet Union replaced Dubček with Gustáv Husák. In the fall of the same year, he proceeded to purge the communist party. He removed anyone suspected of disloyalty to the Soviet Union.
In protest, 350,000 party members resigned their membership. Husák returned to pre-1968 repressive policies, thus demonstrating himself as a follower of Soviet policies. Dubček was ambassador to Turkey for a while but was politically sidelined. He took up a position at the Slovakian Forestry Commission but returned to politics in 1989.