The Prague Spring that keeps disappearing

by Pavel Seifter

Prague spring

Josef Koudelka, public domain.

There is something odd about the Czech fascination with the magical number 8 in the nation’s history. While other nations celebrate their victories, Czech anniversaries stand for defeats and humiliations. Czechoslovakia, created in 1918 – did not survive the 20th century. 1938 represents the end of the First Republic, 1948 is remembered for the Communist putsch. 1968 is best known for the Soviet invasion.

Elsewhere, 1968 stands for students’ revolts, the civil rights movement, feminism, hippie culture, the protest movement against the war in Vietnam – and a lot more. In Prague, 1968 is mostly viewed as an episode in the history of Communist totalitarianism, a struggle between two Communist factions. A quarter of the Czech population has no idea what 1968 was about and most of the rest do not care. How can this be explained?

What tells us most about the past are the traces of memory – a changing interplay of remembering and forgetting. Repetitions through forms of ritualised celebrations and commemorations are part of that. Together this represents a process of collective selection. That is how we forge an identity and meaning for ourselves.

The events of 1968 ended as an unfinished work, interrupted by external interference. There was no accomplished liberation, no lasting achievement (with the exception of a lame federalisation of the country) which could be picked up by future generations. The Prague Spring was freedom in making, not freedom achieved.

The Prague Spring was buried twice: once in the period of ‘normalisation’ after the Soviet occupation and then again after 1989.

There was no closure for the Prague Spring. When the opportunity finally arrived in 1989, the Velvet Revolution was concerned with other, more immediate tasks: sending the occupiers and their tanks back home, focusing on the transition, reconnecting with the West. The legacy of 1968 was a distraction. The history of the Prague Spring therefore remained unfinished and ambiguous. As if 1968 had happened on a different planet. By 1989 the West had moved on. Socialism was out of fashion. Communism collapsed. The Soviet Union disintegrated. Liberal capitalism drifted into neoliberal globalism and lost its Other. It was the ‘end of history’. How could the memory of 1968 and its unfinished business possibly fit into this new world?

A number of reasons and circumstances led to the virtual disappearance of 1968 from any meaningful public debate and from the collective memory. The post-1989 discourse of anti-totalitarianism ironed out any nuances of post-war history. In a political environment of ‘no alternative’, the Prague Spring was dismissed as ‘third-way’ politics. Well-known protagonists of 1968 – Karel Kosik, Eduard Goldstucker, Jiri Pelikan and others – had a point when they complained that the Prague Spring was buried twice: once in the period of ‘normalisation’ after the Soviet occupation and then again after 1989.

During the early period of post-Communism, the established code of national remembering and understanding history had been delegitimised and the coherence of the past and its events rejected. This was partly in favour of personal histories, thereby introducing a gallery of missing heroism, partly to inject a new history of good and evil, villains and victims into a new narrative.

The end of Czechoslovakia in 1992 left the Prague Spring behind in a country that no longer existed. The Czechs and Slovaks entered into two separate states, thereby also into two separate histories and memories. 1968 was orphaned.

A factor that made it difficult to deal with the resulting heap of fragments and emotions, together with worn stereotypes and myths, was the disappearance of the intelligentsia with its classic role in forging collective memory and national identity. In the 1960s such an elite role was still performed by writers, philosophers, historians, filmmakers, artists and journalists. After the Velvet Revolution, that platform disappeared. Historians alone are no substitute.

To make something out of historical memory in the absence of a horizon is a frustrating task. The first experience of an ‘end of history’ occurred after the defeat in 1968. Accepted by the majority of the population as a fact of life, there was a perception that communism and the Soviet occupation were here to stay forever. 

Kundera’s concern is the nation and its mission, Havel insists on the individual and his responsibility.

The frustration of the moment was captured by the controversy between two key intellectual figures in 1968, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel. In a pair of essays published in the months following the invasion, the two writers reveal their reaction to the crisis. Kundera praises the supposed Czech national tradition of ‘critical thinking’, while Havel calls for a more politically engaged ‘criticism’. For Kundera, at the heart of Czech survival lies literary and intellectual integrity; for Havel, true criticism demands concrete acts of resistance. This distinction can be followed in their literary careers through the 1980s, when Kundera and Havel became the best-known voices from the Czech exile and dissident communities respectively, and the Prague Spring regained widespread attention with the worldwide success of Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Two themes running through the debate still resonate: the responsible citizen and the moral character of the nation. Kundera’s concern is the nation and its mission, Havel insists on the individual and his responsibility. Kundera worries about the fate of Central Europe, Havel replies that it is us – not the Russians – who are responsible for our own fate. The philosopher Karel Kosík who joined the debate in 1969,  calls for an ‘open past’; Havel differs: he wants an ‘open present and a closed past’. 

The issues and essence of the debate, namely the attempt to reconstitute both the individual and society as autonomous subjects, are there to be rediscovered by every new generation. It does not matter which side was right or wrong. What matters is the creative tension of the debate and the power to trigger a sense of civic involvement.

Sixty years ago, the Czech journalist Ferdinand Peroutka contemplated the following: ‘Once this dictatorship is over, the main question will be "What is the moral state of the nation?" since that is the foundation on which the new freedom will rely.'

1968 provided the answer. First in Spring, by the people bursting into the opening space of freedom; then in Summer, by the extraordinary defiance and resistance of the nation in the face of the Soviet invasion. That was a demonstration of character.

In contrast, after the last gasp on the barricades in August 1969, an unbearable spectacle unfolded of a nation abandoned by its leaders, sinking into deep demoralisation. The country never truly recovered. Neither the dissidents nor the Velvet Revolution had the power to repair the damaged spirit of the nation and its citizens.

This article is part of a special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference 2019: Post-1989 Transformation and Historical Memory.

About the author

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Pavel Seifter was Czech Ambassador to the UK from 1997 to 2003. Until his recent retirement, he was a visiting research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance and at the Department of International Development, LSE.

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