The Prague Spring – a summary

On the night of 20-21 August 1968, Soviet troops appeared in Czechoslovakia and on the streets of Prague to quell the growing movement of liberalisation, a movement known as the ‘Prague Spring’. Here, History In An Hour summarizes the events of the Prague Spring, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and its aftermath.

Socialism with a Human Face

On 5 January 1968, amongst growing discontent of economic failure, the Czechoslovakian communist party appointed Alexander Dubcek as its new chairman. Dubcek promised reform, democratisation and, using Nikita Khrushchev‘s phrase, ‘socialism with a human face’. He eased press censorship, allowed greater artistic and cultural freedom, pardoned victims of political purges, eased travel restrictions, promised to guarantee civil rights and liberties and permitted a degree of democratic reform.

Leonid BrezhnevBut while urging democratic communism, Dubcek remained loyal to Moscow and at no point was he advocating the dismissal of his or the country’s socialist principles. The Soviet leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev (pictured), saw it otherwise, becoming increasingly concerned with what they considered Dubcek’s treachery and Czechoslovakia’s counterrevolution.

Evidence of the transformation was immediately apparent – young men grew their hair, women wore mini skirts, anti-state newspapers appeared, films and plays long since banned by the regime reappeared, including the work of dissident playright, Vaclav Havel.

In July 1968, Brezhnev, fearing Czechoslovakian independence, met with Dubcek and demanded that he re-imposed strict communist control over his people and ordered Dubcek to reign in his ‘counter-revolutionary’ methods. Dubcek promised to compromise but over the coming weeks, it came clear to Moscow that nothing was being done. Brezhnev applied greater pressure, often ringing Dubcek and bellowing at him down the telephone.

Soviet Invasion

Meeting on 15 August, the politburo decided that enough was enough. Dubcek’s failure to bring Czechoslovakia back in line angered the Soviet Union, and on 20 August 1968, Brezhnev, with support from other Warsaw Pact leaders, ordered in the tanks. The politburo arranged it so that loyal members of the Czechoslovakian government requested Soviet help in dealing with the counterrevolutionary threat. The politburo did not want to appear as occupiers but merely responding to pleas for help.

Soviet invasion of CzechoslovakiaHalf a million Soviet troops (including token numbers from Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany and Poland) and 2,000 tanks moved in quickly, taking control of Prague’s airport and vital points of communication before making a forceful presence on the streets of the capital. Dubcek told his people not to resist. But if the Soviet soldier expected a warm welcome by the good people of Czechoslovakia, as Moscow had told them, they were soon disabused of the idea as Czechoslovakian youths threw stones at their tanks. But faced with such a show of strength, unarmed resistance, limited as it was, soon crumbled. Eleven Soviet soldiers and 72 civilians were killed.

‘You have let us all down’

Alexander DubcekDubcek (pictured), rendered powerless, was, along with his immediate colleagues, arrested at gun point, hit with a rifle butt and bundled unceremoniously into an areoplane and taken to Moscow. In Moscow, Brezhnev, with tears in his eyes, shouted at Dubcek, ‘I trusted you,’ he said, ‘you have let us all down.’

Dubcek and colleagues were forced into signing declarations of renewed loyalty to Moscow. He was returned to office in Prague, his work carefully censured. Within the year, however, he was removed from power and exiled to a minor post, first as ambassador to Turkey, then further still as a forestry inspector in Bratislava. He was replaced by Gustav Husak, a man more loyal to Moscow and devoted to the socialist cause. Czechoslovakia’s brief flirtation with reform and democracy, its Prague Spring, was over.

Husak immediately reversed Dubcek’s reforms, rid the party of its more liberal members, and imposed greater authoritarian control over the country, a process referred to as ‘normalization’. (Husak was to remain in power until the collapse of Czechoslovakia in December 1989.)

Brezhnev Doctrine

Brezhnev, in a speech in November 1968, reiterated the right of the Warsaw Pact to intervene if any Soviet satellite compromised the hegemony of the Eastern bloc by looking West. Known as the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, it ushered in another period of suppression, and the straitjacking of the arts and ideological strictness.

The writers and artists that led the cultural revolution of the Prague Spring had their works banned. Members of a dissident group, Charter 77, including Vaclav Havel, were imprisoned. A fan of The Beatles, Havel said he was not so much a Leninist as a Lennonist.

The Soviet invasion prompted, within the Soviet Union, the first open demonstration in its history – on 25 August 1968, several Russians demonstrated on Moscow’s Red Square, shouting ‘Shame on invaders!’ and ‘Long live the free and independent Czechoslovakia!’ The demo lasted but a few minutes but it was a start.

In Czechoslovakia also, there were minor protests against the reimposition of authoritarian rule, most notably on 16 January 1969 when a student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Palach was to die of his injuries three days later.

Cold War in an Hour Rupert Colley

Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.