The Prague Spring of 1968 is the term used for the brief period of time when the government of Czechoslovakia led by Alexander Dubček seemingly wanted to democratise the nation and lessen the stranglehold Moscow had on the nation’s affairs. The Prague Spring ended with a Soviet invasion, the removal of Alexander Dubček as party leader and an end to reform within Czechoslovakia.
The first signs that all was not well in Czechoslovakia occurred in May 1966 when there were complaints that the Soviet Union was exploiting the people. This developed when people in Slovakia complained about the government in Prague imposing its rules on the Slovaks and overriding local autonomy. A weak economy exacerbated the situation and none of the reforms that were introduced worked. The workers remained in poor housing and led the most basic of lifestyles. The same occurred in rural Czechoslovakia where farmers had to follow Party lines with regards to cultivation and innovation was frowned on.
In June 1967, there was open criticism of Antonin Novotný, Party Leader, at the Writers’ Union Congress. In October 1967, students demonstrated against Novotný and early in 1968 he was replaced as First Secretary of the Party by Alexander Dubček. He had not courted leadership of the anti-Novotný movement but as the man who had handed in a long list of complaints against him (September 1967), Dubček was the obvious choice.
On April 5th 1968, Dubček embarked on a programme of reform that included amendments to the constitution of Czechoslovakia that would have brought back a degree of political democracy and greater personal freedom.
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. The state of housing for the workers became a very common theme.
Dubček also announced that farmers would have the right to form independent co-operatives so that they themselves would direct the work that they did as opposed to orders coming from a centralised authority.
Trade unions were given increased rights to bargain for their members.
Dubček assured Moscow that Czechoslovakia would remain in the Warsaw Pact and that they had nothing to worry about with regards to the reforms.
This did nothing to reassure Soviet leader Brezhnev and on the night of August 20th/21st troops from the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to reassert the authority of Moscow. The bulk of these troops were from the Soviet Union but to give the impression that they represented the whole of the Warsaw Pact who were united in disapproval of what Dubček had done, there were contingents of Polish, East German, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops involved.
The reforms of Dubček were abandoned. He was arrested and sent to Moscow. Here he was told what was expected of Czechoslovakia and he was released and sent back to Prague. Dubček announced that the talks in Moscow had been “comradely” and he returned still as First Secretary of the Party. Dubček did as was required and announced that all reforms were ending. However, his days were numbered and in April 1969, Dubček was removed from office.
The Prague Spring had proved that the Soviet Union was not willing to even contemplate any member of the Warsaw Pact leaving it. The tanks that rolled through the streets of Prague reaffirmed to the West that the people of Eastern Europe were oppressed and denied the democracy that existed in Western Europe. However, to the masters in Moscow what they had ordered ensured the maintenance of the Warsaw Pact – something that they considered was vital to the survival of communism in Europe as a whole.