Alexander Dubček led Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968. Though Alexander Dubček was a communist, he erred on the side of reform, which went against what his masters in Moscow would have wanted for Czechoslovakia as they feared the break-up of the Warsaw Pact. Dubček’s fall from grace and power was swift.
Alexander Dubček was born in 1921 in Uhrovek, Slovakia. When he was aged four, his family moved to the Soviet Union and he grew up in the solidly communist country where the rule of Joseph Stalin was supreme. Dubček became a product of the Soviet education system and became a loyal communist. In 1938, Dubček returned to Slovakia and secretly joined the Communist Party in 1939. The occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and the Second World War focussed the attention of the people against a common foe so that internal politics mattered little. In 1944, Dubček joined the Slovak Resistance.
The end of the war brought huge changes to Eastern Europe. The Cold War and the enmity between East and West meant that Stalin demanded an effective barrier around the Soviet Union so that if war in Europe did occur, countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania would take the brunt before and if the battlefield reached the Soviet border. Above all else, Stalin wanted to avoid the horrific devastation suffered by the Soviet Union during World War Two and the Eastern Bloc became his protective barrier.
Immediately after World War Two, the Russian secret police, the KGB, removed anyone who was considered to be a problem from East European nations under Soviet control. Loyal communists were installed into government positions so that all these countries would be loyal to Moscow without question. Dubček had not yet reached such heights but was appointed a Communist Party official in 1949. Between 1955 and 1958, he was sent back to the Soviet Union to receive “political education” and his success in this area propelled him into higher government posts.
By 1958, Dubček was seen as a good reliable communist who would support the leadership in Moscow. When he returned to Czechoslovakia, Dubček was appointed Principal Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party in Bratislava. He gained a reputation for effective leadership in Slovakia and as a man who did not want to buck the system.
In the mid-1960’s there was mounting dissent towards the Party’s leader in Czechoslovakia, Antonin Novotný who failed to solve the country’s increasingly difficult economic situation. While he did not lead the attacks against Novotný, Dubček did allow himself to be put forward as the man who should succeed him. On January 5th 1968, the party’s central committee nominated Dubček to succeed Novotný after the Czechoslovak Party Central Committee passed a vote of no confidence in Novotný.
What happened next must have come as a great surprise to the communist leaders in Moscow. Dubček announced that he wanted the Czech Communist Party to remain the predominant party in Czechoslovakia, but that he wanted the totalitarian aspects of the party to be reduced. Communist Party members in Czechoslovakia were given the right to challenge party policy as opposed to the traditional acceptance of all government policy. Party members were given the right to act “according to their conscience”. In what became known as the ‘Prague Spring’, he also announced the end of censorship and the right of Czech citizens to criticise the government. Newspapers took the opportunity to produce scathing reports about government incompetence and corruption.
Dubček also announced that farmers would have the right to form independent co-operatives and that trade unions would have increased rights to bargain for their members. Crucially, however, Dubček stated that Czechoslovakia had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact.
Between July and August 1968, he met senior Moscow politicians on the Slovakian-Ukraine border to reassure them that they had nothing to worry about and that what he was trying to achieve would have no bearing on the Warsaw Pact and its ability to compete with NATO. He repeated the same message to all members of the Warsaw Pact on August 3rd 1968.
However, Dubček was informed by Moscow that they had discovered evidence that West Germany was planning to invade the Sudetenland and that the Soviet Union would provide Czechoslovakia with the troops needed to protect her from invasion. Dubček refused the offer but he must have known that this would count for nothing.
His reassurances about not leaving the Warsaw Pact were ignored and on August 20th/21st Soviet troops (with token forces from other members of the Warsaw Pact) invaded Czechoslovakia. Dubček was arrested by released after talks in Moscow. Dubček claimed that the talks had been “comradely” and that he was abandoning his reform programme. As a result, Dubček remained as First Secretary until April 1969 when he was appointed Speaker of the Federal Assembly until he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1970. Following his expulsion, he was banished to Bratislava where he worked in a timber yard.
For the next nineteen years he was, and had to be, politically dormant. However, Dubček had a political renaissance in 1989 when the Cold War ended. In November 1989, Dubček was once again appointed Speaker of the Federal Assembly. He was fiercely against the split between what was to become the Czech Republic and Slovakia as he felt that a continued union between the two best benefited both. However, he never got to see the ultimate development and outcome of the ‘Velvet Revolution’ as in July 1992 he was badly injured in a car accident and died from his injuries in November 1992.