The complexity of Prague Spring and its legacies: multiple perspectives, few answers and more questions

by Jakub Csabay


Dr Pavel Seifter delivering the keynote speech at the Central Europen Conference: Prague Spring and Its Legacies, April 2018

Concluding our special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference: Prague Spring and Its Legacies on Saturday 28 April 2018, conference co-organiser Jakub Csabay reflects on the conference and the questions that continue to be raised by the events of 1968.

The Prague Spring of 1968 is primarily remembered through anniversaries of the Warsaw Pact Invasion on 21 August. This tends to be misleading in terms of its oversimplification and ignorance of processes that preceded the invasion – including the short Prague Spring period – as well as those that followed.

My high school history teacher used to say that history and historiography are about the lenses through which we look at historical events and developments. The Cambridge Central European Conference 2018, Prague Spring and Its Legacies, attempted to challenge the simplified way in which Prague Spring is viewed through the 1968 invasion by giving voice to a variety of views and perspectives, and thus provide multiple lenses through which to look at the story. In the words of the conference’s co-organiser, Dr Jana Howlett,  Emeritus Lecturer in Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University: “The conference brought together a number of participants in the events of 1968, some of whom had decided to stay in Czechoslovakia, and some who felt they could only function in the West. They were joined by members of the post-1968 generation, whose experiences have been very different.”

Any critical moment in history essentially comes down to the lives and stories of human beings and communities, which the geopolitical dimension, however important, tends to overlook, oversimplifying as a result the processes and agencies in the broader picture. Moreover, in contrast to the geopolitical perspective, people-centred accounts are more likely to offer a point of association and can thus be more understandable for audiences of various backgrounds. In this regard, and in terms of providing multiple perspectives – first-hand, academic, artistic, Czech, Slovak and British amongst others – the conference was a success.

In his opening speech, Dr Pavel Seifter, historian and former Czech Ambassador to the United Kingdom, reflected on the significance of Prague Spring as it is perceived in Czech and Slovak minds and discourse as well as on the intricacies associated with this issue. The first panel, chaired by Dr Jana Howlett, explored the variations in societal aspirations and the ways they have developed in the former Czechoslovakia and the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia, with Prague Spring constituting the historical baseline. Both academic and first-hand reflective contributions were made by Czech professor Jan Kuklík, 1968 student leader Jan Kavan, and Slovak researcher Dr Adam Hudek.  A more visual aspect to the story was presented by Mr Peter Bielik, whose father, Ladislav Bielik, authored one of the iconic photographs of 1968, ‘The Bare-Chested Man in Front of the Occupiers’ Tank’. Following this, a completely different dimension of Prague Spring and its Legacies was illuminated by Mr Richard Bassett, who offered the perspective of a foreign correspondent in Prague in 1989, observing how the Prague Spring events were perceived just prior the Velvet Revolution. The second panel, chaired by Dr Jan Čulík, Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow, explored the role artists and intellectuals have played in Czech and Slovak society from the 1960s to the present, with particular reference to Prague Spring. In this regard, interesting views were presented by Czech journalist and writer Jaroslav Veis, film producer and musician Jan Maxa, and Slovak film director Patrik Lančarič. The conference closed with a short speech by and discussion with Professor Mikuláš Teich from Cambridge, who provided a personal reflection on the main theme of the conference: Prague Spring and Its Legacies.

Artwork by contemporary Slovakian artist Hannah Čekovská ©. Based on Ladislav Bielik's photograph 'The Bare-Chested Man in Front of the Occupiers' Tank'.

On the other hand, the conference was less successful in relation to gender and the gender balance of speakers. This was not intentional but rather due to a combination of organisational factors and several invitations to participate being declined by female speakers. While relevant content and expertise were arguably prioritised over other criteria, including the gender balance of speakers, the situation unfortunately reflected the position the issue of gender has had in the historical period as well as in the historiography. In this regard, the organisers received open criticism and it is therefore only right to acknowledge this limitation, and also raise it as an important area to address in future.

Finally, the generational dimension, particularly in terms of the interplay between speakers and audience, provided some noteworthy food for thought. The present-day student generation´s understanding of important historical milestones like Prague Spring often comes from subjective, yet important, insights from family anecdotes or popular movies such as Petr Jarchovský´s and Jan Hřebejk´s Pelíšky (‘Cosy Dens’). This is accentuated by limited or barely any coverage of recent and contemporary history in Slovak and, to a lesser extent, Czech high school education.  Interestingly, many of the speakers were at the time of the 1968 events roughly the same age as the Czech and Slovak students who attended the conference and represented the dominant share of its audience.

Even more interesting, but perhaps not surprising, is the fact that a significant number of the questions raised related to contemporary developments in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or even more broadly Central Europe, for example anti-government protests, including those following the murder of the young Slovak journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, in February 2018. Certain parallels, for example between Jan Palach’s death in 1969 and Ján Kuciak´s in 2018, have notably been highlighted by Slovak intellectual Martin Milan Simečka. In spite of obvious differences in circumstances between 1968 and today, it seems, surprisingly or not, that present-day students appear to be asking themselves similar questions to those their counterparts were asking 50 years ago, be they in relation to broader questions of individual or group identity, historical memory or guilt, or other more specific questions concerning values and politics. It was as if the younger generation today hoped to find answers to current problems faced by societies in the region through the ‘wisdom’ gained from Prague Spring and other historical milestones. Is this due to a continuous similarity of problems in the region or to similar problems among younger generations in different histortical epochs, or both? There is obviously no simple right or wrong answer to this question or many of the questions that were raised at the conference, yet debating about, exploring and gaining an understanding of such historical and contemporary questions in a national or international environment constitutes a small step forward not only for any young society but also those that are more mature.

About the author

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Jakub Csabay is currently completing an MPhil at the Centre of Development Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge. He is coordinator of the Cambridge Central and Eastern European Forum and co-organised the Cambridge Central European Conference 2018: Prague Spring and Its Legacies.
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