Prague Spring and its legacy: The Slovak perspective

by Adam Hudek

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Image: Thomas Quine via Flickr

Continuing our special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference: Prague Spring and its legacies on Saturday 28 April 2018, Adam Hudek looks at the 1968 reform programme and its significance and legacy for Slovakia.

Prague Spring, an attempt to democratise the Czechoslovak socialist dictatorship, is internationally probably the best-known historical event in Czech and Slovak history. The violent repression of the reform process by the armies of the Warsaw Pact on 21 August 1968 is generally considered a fundamental breach in the history of the communist movement worldwide. In the words of Tony Judt, ‘[t]he illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism: that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st, 1968, and it never recovered. Alexander Dubček and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end.’

The events of Prague Spring also changed the direction of Czechoslovak development. However, in retrospect, even those directly involved were skeptical about the significance of the reforms. According to well-known dissident intellectual Milan Šimečka, Prague Spring changed onlythe facade’: ‘The Communist Party still decided everything and its leaders were not able to even imagine a possibility of political plurality.’ Another prominent figure of Czechoslovak dissent, Petr Pithart, agrees: ‘In fact, nothing in particular changed during those short nine months in 1968. No new laws were passed, no new economic standards adopted, no new institutions established.’ Both argue that Czechoslovak society was much more profoundly, and very negatively, formed by the events after the military invasion and the 20 years of so-called ‘normalisation’.

Despite the fact that the ideals of Prague Spring did not materialise and Czechoslovakia was forced to return to a Soviet-style socialist dictatorship, one crucial change linked to the reform process survived – the federalisation of the republic. This change was, of course, irrelevant for the future of the communist project, but it had a substantial impact on the development of Czechoslovakia. The story of the federalisation can also be used to point out the differences between the Czech and Slovak perceptions of the 1968 reform programme. In Slovakia, the federation was considered a primary goal and fundamental condition for democratisation.  The dissatisfaction with the existing state of Czech–Slovak relations and the position of Slovakia in the republic was widespread and almost unanimous. On the other hand, for the Czechs, it was a marginal problem. The federation was perceived as a necessary concession to the Slovaks to ensure their support for the actual democratisation.

In Slovakia, the reform programme had a distinct nationalist undertone. However, the general assertion that Slovaks preferred federalisation over democratisation and thus purposely sabotaged the reform process is ahistorical. Despite living in one state, Czechs and Slovaks entered Prague Spring with different historical experiences and expectations. The federalisation was perceived as a sine qua non in Slovakia by both radical reformers and their more conservative and nationalist opponents. The former understood it as a natural part of democratisation in the sense that the nations had the same right to equality as the individuals. For the latter, it was an alternative to radical reformism, which, in their eyes, threatened the existence of socialism. Only the military intervention on 21 August secured victory for the conservatives and nationalists led by the ‘father of the federation’, Gustáv Husák, who then became the head of the normalisation regime and a symbol of the 20-year-long era of stagnation.

All efforts by the communist regime to erase Prague Spring and its representatives from the collective memory failed. When the socialist dictatorship started to crumble in 1989, it became apparent that the Czech and Slovak public perception of Prague Spring remained overwhelmingly positive. Alexander Dubček, the symbol of the reform process, was by far the most popular politician at home and abroad. Even the first sociological surveys indicated that the public preferred some variation of socialism with a human face to Western-style capitalism.   

And yet, in a few months Dubček became a marginal figure, defeated and overshadowed by Václav Havel, while the programme inspired by Prague Spring was rejected as a dead history with no relevance to the post-communist transition. The leaders of the Velvet Revolution did not want to reform the communist regime, they wanted to get rid of it and rebuild the state according to Western models of market-oriented liberal democracy. The legitimacy of the new regime was based on a radical split with the communist past. This was symbolically achieved by electing Havel, the leading figure of anticommunist dissent, as President instead of Dubček. It seems that, in the end, even amongst the general public, in the words of Slovak historian Ľubomír Lipták, ‘the year zero syndrome thick line after the past and desire for a completely new beginning prevailed.

The dissonance between the ideals of Prague Spring and the general mood in post-communist Czechoslovakia only grew stronger with the time. The Czech rightist technocrats around Václav Klaus perceived the communist period as a time of darkness. In Slovakia, the coalition of populists and nationalists led by Vladimír Mečiar had no use for the Prague Spring legacy either. The same was true for their main opponents, the Slovak Christian Democrats. The democratic left was comprised mainly of normalisation era communists with no experience of Prague Spring. Their voters were nostalgic for the stability and certainty of the 1970s and 80s. They yearned for the era of Husák, not Dubček.

While marginalised in politics, Prague Spring and its legacy became a popular research topic in the humanities and social sciences. Many intellectuals and scholars involved in the 1968 reform process returned to academia, from which they were purged 20 years before. Their work and reflections on Prague Spring added to the already vast number of publications devoted to this topic by authors in the West and in exile. As a result, although the project of socialism with a human face was a failure, it is at least one of the best-researched and documented failures in Czech and Slovak history.

About the author

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Adam Hudek is a researcher at the Institute of History (Department of the History of Sciences and Technology) at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava. His research topics include twentieth-century Slovak intellectual history, scientific institutions and the politics of science in socialist Czechoslovakia.
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