Czechoslovakia's 10-day revolution that was two decades in the making

Historian GORDON LUCY on how the fall of Communism in the eastern European country in 1989 had its genesis in Alexander Dubcek's brave attempt at reform 21 years earlier

Monday, 27th August 2018, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 3rd September 2018, 12:17 pm
An Alexander Dubcek memorial, erected in 2006, at the Národní muzeum in Prague

In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev freely acknowledged that his liberalising policies of ‘glasnost’ (usually translated as ‘openness’) and ‘perestroika’ (‘restructuring’) owed a great deal to Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’ in Czechoslovakia.

When asked what the difference was between the ‘Prague Spring’ and Gorbachev’s reforms, Gennady Gerasimov, Gorbachev’s spokesman, candidly replied: ‘Nineteen years’.

‘The ‘Prague Spring’ was the all too brief period between January 5 and August 21 1968 when Alexander Dubcek, the new first secretary of Czechoslovak Communist Party, sought to de-Stalinise Czechoslovakia and to create ‘socialism with a human face’.

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Vaclav Havel was elected as Czech president in 1989

This entailed a partial decentralisation of the economy, a degree of democratisation and a loosening of restrictions on the media, freedom of speech and travel.

Dubcek, a Slovak, also federated Czechoslovakia into two separate republics, the only reform to survive the end of the ‘Prague Spring’. Dubcek’s liberalising reforms were anathema to Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader. Dubcek sought to allay Soviet fears by reiterating Czechoslovakia’s commitment to socialism, its friendship with the USSR and its membership of the Warsaw Pact.

In July the Warsaw Pact held menacing manoeuvres throughout Czechoslovakia but these were halted after Brezhnev, Dubcek and their respective politburos met.

However on August 21 1968, just as tension between Dubcek’s government and USSR appeared to be easing, 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops, drawn from Poland, the DDR, Hungary, Bulgaria and the USSR, and 2,000 tanks invaded.

Although there were non-violent protests, there was, at Dubcek’s request, no serious armed or military resistance.

Nevertheless 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed and some 700 were wounded. Dubcek was hauled off to the Soviet Union and was replaced as first secretary by Gustáv Husák, who was loyal to Moscow, reversed Dubcek’s reforms and purged the Communist Party of its liberal members.

At least Dubcek did not suffer the fate of Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Communist reformer a decade earlier.

Nagy was secretly charged with organising the overthrow of the Hungarian people’s democratic state and with treason.

He was secretly tried, found guilty, sentenced to death and executed by hanging in June 1958.

Khrushchev had Nagy executed as ‘a lesson to all other leaders in socialist countries’. Dubcek, on the other hand, was given a job with the forestry service.

The Chinese denounced the invasion as ‘barefaced fascist power politics’ and Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime as ‘a flagrant violation of national sovereignty’.

Both the Chinese and the Romanians were guilty of rank hypocrisy.

The Chinese were merely denouncing the USSR, China’s only rival for the leadership of international Communism, whereas Ceauşescu was gulling the gullible in the West. Both regimes were repressive and neither had any genuine sympathy for Dubcek’s project.

In November 1968 Brezhnev spelled out the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ which justified military intervention in Czechoslovakia: Moscow was obliged by ‘its socialist duty’ to intervene to defend the ‘socialist gains’ of its allies.

In January 1969 Jan Palach, a 19-year old student, committed suicide by self-immolation in Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague as a political protest.

A month later Jan Zajíc, another student, burned himself to death in the same place, followed in April 1969 by Evzen Plocek, a reform-minded Communist.

At the time their selfless self-sacrifice achieved nothing and the Communist authorities did their utmost to suppress all knowledge of their deaths.

For the next two decades Czechoslovakia experienced the political equivalent of a nuclear winter.

The only ray of hope was the formation of Charter ’77 in January 1977 by Václav Havel and a diverse group of largely Prague-based intellectuals and dissidents, many of whom would play prominent roles in the events of 1989.

They sought to expose the failure of the Communist authorities to honour the rights provisions of a number of documents which they had signed, including the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the ‘Helsinki Accords’) and United Nations covenants on political, civil, economic and cultural rights.

Although subject to arrest, imprisonment and harassment, members of Charter ’77 courageously managed to keep alive the hope of freedom and better times in Czechoslovakia.

On the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death in January 1989, protests ostensibly in memory of Palach escalated into what would be called ‘Palach Week’.

The series of anti-Communist demonstrations in Prague between January 15 and 21 1989 were suppressed by the police, who beat up the demonstrators and used water cannons.

‘Palach Week’ was the dress rehearsal for the fast-moving events of November 1989.

On November 17 the Czechoslovak authorities allowed a demonstration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the brutal suppression of a student demonstration in German-occupied Prague. The authorities then emulated the behaviour of the Nazis.

The brutality of the Communist authorities sparked a series of mass demonstrations from November 19 which lasted well into December. On November 19 some 200,000 people demonstrated in Prague.

The following day there were an estimated half-million demonstrators in the city. Many of these demonstrations, demanding free elections, were held in sub-zero temperatures.

On November 24 1989 the entire Czechoslovak politburo resigned and three days later there was a two-hour general strike throughout the country. On November 28 the Communist Party announced that it would relinquish power and dismantle the apparatus of the one-party state.

On December 10 President Husák (as he had become) appointed the first largely non-Communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948 and Husák resigned.

Before the end of the month Dubcek was elected speaker of the Czechoslovak parliament and Václav Havel was unanimously elected president.

On November 23 1989 Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian and political commentator, told Havel that the overthrow of Communism ‘in Poland ... took 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, in East Germany 10 weeks, and in Czechoslovakia ... 10 days’.

Havel was so delighted with the quip that he insisted that Garton Ash repeat his observation on camera.

In one sense substantially true but in another sense the Czechs and Slovaks had embarked on the road to freedom two decades previously.