The ambivalent anniversary that lost its heroes

by Jaroslav Veis

Jan palach memorial 2-2

The Jan Palach memorial in Prague. Image: nemomemini via Flickr

Continuing our special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference: Prague Spring and Its legacies on Saturday 28 April 2018, Jaroslav Veis takes a critical look at the ambiguities in the Prague Spring narrative.

‘The Duality of Prague Spring’ is the title that Petr Pithart – politician, historian and one of the most prominent authors on Prague Spring, or more correctly the Czechoslovak Spring, with whom I worked closely for some 15 years – gave one of his essays. He may have been the first Czech to approach its legacy critically, first in his highly acclaimed book Osmašedesátý, written in 1978 and published in Köln under the pseudonym J. Sládeček in 1980. I regard ‘The Duality of Prague Spring’ as one of his most important observations. If he was not the first, at least he was among the first few to draw attention to this significant specific feature, describing it as the tension between communist reformers and civic society. The communist reformists were just reacting to events (both at home and in the Soviet bloc), while civic society rapidly resuscitated itself after 20 years of suppression.

Yes, duality was typical of the Czechoslovak Spring of 1968 in all respects. It was there even before the Spring started and is still present in our evaluation 50 years later. And the further we get from the year 1968, the more facets we add to all the events. Perhaps the Spring’s chief characteristic is not only duality but also ambivalence.

Let us begin even before 1968, in the atmosphere of 1960s that led to the Czechoslovak Spring. Was it set in motion by changes in the Soviet bloc, by a modest loosening of the ties with Moscow? Or by the changes in Czechoslovak society, the new mindset of cultural and political elites, and the first contact of Czechoslovak baby boomers with the West?

Were the sixties a golden era, the story of cultural elites trying to free themselves from the iron pliers of ideology and socialist realism? Or was it a period when the Slovak nation tried to emancipate itself from the unitary state? Or was the starting point simply the tension between Czech and Slovak communist apparatchiks? Though not mentioned too often, the only theme of the Czechoslovak Spring which survived the Soviet occupation and its suppression was, paradoxically, the federalisation of Czechoslovakia.

And finally, the question you still hear, which was asked in the early 1990s with increasing intensity: Was the Czechoslovak Spring a story of a great experiment with the left-wing alternative, i.e. socialism with human face, and its crushing by tanks? Or was it a story of people who for a couple of months hoped they could restore the pre-war social structure – a system of political and economic competition?

At the very end of 1968, Milan Kundera wrote the essay Český úděl (‘Czech Fate’), in which he stressed the importance of Czechoslovak events for the world and appreciated the behaviour of the Czech people. Václav Havel’s sober response had the same title, but with a question mark added. In his words, the nation wanted something normal in a civilised world: freedom, especially freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech, I believe, is the key issue in all events. It was not granted; it emerged one day in early March 1968 when censorship ceased to exist and speech became free, spontaneously, for journalists, writers, students and anybody who cared. It was not given to the people by their governing body (the communist reformers) – the people took it to be one of rights man is born with. It was free speech that provoked the Soviets most, and freedom of speech was what Jan Palach asked for in his last letter: ‘Stop the censorship that was reintroduced after the Soviet occupation’.

Now, 50 years later, one could feel that the Czechoslovak Spring is slowly fading into oblivion. We have seen it before. At a conference held in Prague to commemorate its 40th anniversary, Ludvík Vaculík, writer, journalist and one of its protagonists, said he had a strange feeling that the world is more interested in it than we are.

Its duality – or ambiguity – is only one possible explanation for this. Another is, in my opinion, a specific characteristic of the Czech stereotype: the tendency to view the world without context. We love to think, discuss, plan, and see our history without context. We are ready to pretend that history started on any date we decide and do not take into account anything that preceded it or that we are not comfortable with. The Czechoslovak Spring 1968 and its legacy are certainly not comforting. So we let others analyse and commemorate it.

Common wisdom has it that every important era has its heroes. The trouble with the Czechoslovak Spring is that it has victims, perhaps heroic victims but not heroes. For a while it seemed that the reformers could be the heroes. But this was an illusion – after the invasion they were taken to Moscow where all but one, František Kriegel, signed the so-called Moscow Protocol. Kriegel was also one of only four Czechoslovak MPs who did not vote for the Moscow Protocol – both quite heroic acts. But his heroism did not survive into the 1990s because of his role in the communist coup d’état in1948; he was a secretary in the People’s Militia. It doesn’t matter how he behaved in subsequent decades – once guilty, always guilty.

So the only hero who survived the test of time, i.e. the normalisation that started in the 1970s and the development of Czech society after 1989, is Jan Palach, a heroic victim. His sacrifice of life is the message that remains alive not only in history but also in art. Novels and poems were written about him, even a short TV series, ‘The Burning Bush’ was made, directed by Agnieszka Holland. But again a paradox: the real hero of the story is not Jan Palach, but a young lawyer Dagmar Burešová who, on behalf of his family, sued one of the communist leaders for libel.

The role of the victim-hero is a much stronger symbol in Czech culture than the heroic fighter. Looking back, we can start with St Wenceslaus and via Jan Hus we get to Jan Masaryk in 1948 and Jan Palach in 1968. This may be because we accept the myth of the whole Czech nation as the victim of historical circumstances, repeatedly,  in 1938, 1948 and 1968.

About the author

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Jaroslav Veis is a journalist, translator from English and writer. He was ducated at Charles University, Prague, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. From 1997 to 2012 he was Advisor to the Speaker of the Czech Senate, Petr Pithart.
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