Havel’s Biafra of spirit? Prague Spring and the student movement

by Jan Kavan

Wenceslas square 2018

Exhibit in Wenceslas Square, Prague, 2018. Image: David McKelvey via Flickr

Continuing our special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference: Prague Spring and Its legacies on Saturday 28 April 2018, Czech politician Jan Kavan, a student leader in the 1960s and founder of the Palach Press Agency, looks back at the impact of the student movement on the events of 1968 and vice versa.

I was one of the Czech student leaders in the period 1963–1969 and therefore involved in the movement that brought about the Prague Spring of 1968. By the end of that year, I was one of the Czech student leaders who formed an alliance with individual industrial trade unions as part of the resistance against the Soviet occupation and especially against the concession-making government.


The cooperation between students and writers

By the early summer of 1967, we had established close cooperation between students and writers, who demanded more freedom of press, association and assembly and less strict control by the party of all forms of social activities. By the autumn, this cooperation was enhanced by a tentative collaboration with more radical Communist Party (CP) reformists such as František Kriegel, Petr Pithart and others.

At the very end of October 1967, there was a spontaneous student demonstration at Strahov College following the umpteenth electricity cut in the dormitories. Thousands of students began to march to the city centre, shouting ‘We want light’. However, the only way from the student dorms is past the Castle where the Central Committee of the Communist Party was experiencing a clash between the reformists joined by Slovak leaders such Alexander Dubcek, and the conservative leadership led by President Antonin Novotny. Novotny immediately assumed that the ‘light’ the students were demanding could not have anything to do with electricity and he ordered the police to stop the march at all costs. The brutality used by the police was at that time unprecedented in Prague. It enabled radical student leaders to take over the protests and organise political meetings putting forward purely political demands, which were immediately endorsed by the Writers’ Union.

I was then the editor of our student New Bulletin, which was able to publish a detailed description of the Strahov demo but also our vision of the society we wanted to live in, where such repression would be outlawed. The Bulletin was soon banned and I was threatened with expulsion from the university (two of my friends and colleagues, Jiri Muller and Lubos Holecek, had been expelled and drafted into the army), but the resulting atmosphere forced the authorities to start negotiating with us. In a way, the student political protests were a catalyst for the confrontation between the party reformists (Slovaks, economists, liberals) and conservative/Stalinist leaders.


The Party reformists take power

On 5 January 1968, Alexander Dubcek replaced Novotny as the new First Secretary of the Communist Party. He was chosen as a compromise, with both sides believing they could manipulate an indecisive and weak man with no strong power base.

The unprecedented change in a Communist state that took place in March 1968 was the de facto removal of censorship of the press. As a result, there were daily revelations of corruption in the highest places, the cruel past crimes of the CP, details of Soviet domination in everything, and the political trials of the 1950s, etc. Newspapers were sold out by early morning.

The Party reform movement that started with the January coup d’état began to acquire some revolutionary aspects. By early April, the reformists were no longer in full control of events and had to respond to the mood of the people. A new civil society began to emerge. But at the very top of the power hierarchy there were very few changes. Dubcek later admitted that his greatest mistake was not to purge most of Novotny’s old guard. The all-powerful Party Presidium was divided 5:5.


The people become active

Open public meetings mushroomed. I especially recall a large meeting which we, the young, organised on 20 March and which was simultaneously broadcast on TV and radio. Top Party reformists, well-known writers and student leaders spoke out. I asked, among other things, for a more balanced foreign policy and equal treatment of all of our neighbours from Germany and Austria to the Soviet Union. Lubos Holecek, still in military uniform, reinstated at the university only the day before, rejected all ‘isms’ in the name of the young generation, and warned that we would formulate our own programme clearly rejecting the leading role of the Party and differing from the proposals of the Party reformists. However, he also made clear that for the time being, conditionally, we would support the Dubcek leadership because it allowed us to speak out and organise ourselves, though there was no guarantee of such support becoming permanent. He clearly warned that if the ‘political monopoly of the Communist Party failed to secure the activity of the masses’, the students would have to seek a different model of socialism.

There was clear support for the emerging civil society. There was also unequivocal solidarity with the Polish students, who then faced major repression. In March 1968, 20,000 Warsaw students marched and shouted, ‘We do not want to study without freedom’, but also, ‘Cela Polska czeka na swego Dubczeka’ (The whole of Poland awaits its Dubcek). One of the student leaders, Eugeniusz Smolar, admitted that the Poles had always perceived ‘the Czechs as opportunists and cowards and so we were very surprised by them’. Smolar later emigrated to London where I worked closely with him. Together we launched the quarterly East European Reporter in the early 1980s.


The Action Program of the reformists

In April, the reformists finally produced their ‘Action Program of the Communist Party’. This stressed the need for ‘a new model of socialist democracy’ and equality between Czechs and Slovaks. It condemned past injustices and even criticised the Communist monopoly on power. The rest of the Soviet bloc was stunned, but in Prague it was perceived as too little too late. It no longer responded to the reality that was galloping ahead.

Students and writers were already demanding fully fledged democracy rather than the reformist ‘democratisation’ of society. Dubcek was worried: ‘Don’t they understand that by going so far so quickly they are doing harm to me?’ I remember a meeting in London much later, in the early 1970s, with Zdenek Mlynar, a close ally of Dubcek and a leading intellectual reformist, who blamed the students (specifically mentioning Lubos Holecek and myself) for being too radical and impatient during the 1968 spring and summer. He believed that if we had taken Dubcek’s exhortations for moderation more seriously, the Russians might not have invaded the country. When we responded that if people were muzzled and their activities strictly controlled from above, it was still a concentration camp, he retorted: ‘Yes, that is true, but it would be a concentration camp where people are allowed to sing’. This was the dilemma of the reformists in a nutshell.

Dubcek did not want to re-impose controls from above by what he termed ‘administrative methods’. And he enjoyed the support of the people. In the summer of 1968, 89% of the people expressed their support for ‘socialism with a human face’ and only 5% for capitalism. It was undoubtedly the first Communist country with such huge and genuine popular support for the government. Not for long.


The invasion

On 21 August 1968, the armies of five Warsaw Pact countries, led by the Red Army, invaded Czechoslovakia. The attack caught both the people and the government by surprise and the country was not prepared in military terms. People responded with passive resistance. The leaders prevaricated, with few exceptions, such as the old veteran of the Spanish Civil War Frantisek Kriegel. Dubcek’s response was illustrative: ‘It is my personal tragedy. My whole life I dedicated to cooperation with the Soviet Union and they do this to me’. They did it to the whole country, but he missed that point.                            

Paradoxically, the Czech press was even freer after the invasion than before, when some chief editors had imposed a degree of self-censorship on themselves in order not to provoke the Big Brother in the East. There was nothing to be lost after the invasion and the media took full advantage until the real clampdown in 1969.

The reformist leaders were more afraid of Moscow than of their own people. The ideals of Prague Spring were not defeated on 21 August by the Russian tanks but on 31 August by the capitulation of the CP leaders taken by force to Moscow. The defeat was confirmed by the onslaught of so-called ‘normalisation’ after April 1969 and by the suppression of Czech demonstrators by Czech police on the first anniversary of the invasion in August 1969.


The cooperation between students and workers

In autumn 1968, after the invasion, the ideals expressed by the reformist Action Program of the CP were, ironically, defended by the students, who were lukewarm about them during the spring, rather than by its authors. The student occupation strike in November 1968 led to a nationwide wave of support for them and created fertile ground for student–worker agreements in defence of the Prague Spring reforms. Students spoke daily in factories to thousands of workers. In late January, there were 200,000 people at their public demonstration. They were not attempting to tell the workers what to do: they simply tried to share their experience with them. The defence agreements between the student union and all the Czech industrial trade unions were backed by the threat of a general strike.

The rising disillusionment was briefly halted in January 1969 by the self-immolation of student Jan Palach, who died not so much in protest against the Soviet occupation, as in protest against the permanently retreating concessions made by the Dubcek government.

The Jan Palach memorial, Prague. Image: Alex Lillo via Flickr

Apathy and feelings of betrayal prevailed. By April 1969, when Dubcek was finally removed from power, there were only few sporadic protests. Significantly, Gustav Husak, who replaced Dubcek, revealed his greatest fear in his inaugural speech: ‘Some people go into factories and stir up anti-Party tendencies; on every occasion there appear slogans such as “Students and Workers Together”, “Students, Intelligentsia, Workers, Unite”’. Later he attacked them again: “Various opposition blocks have been formed, for instance the block of workers and students … various agreements and treaties have been concluded … we consider them to be illegal’. Demoralisation set in.


Cooperation across frontiers

During my 20 years in exile in London I remained in close touch with the Czechoslovak opposition at home, where the backbone of the human rights opposition groups were the activists of 1968. I was responsible for smuggling about 25 tons of literature (also copiers, cameras etc) to Czechoslovakia. My couriers also smuggled out of the country all Charter 77 and VONS (Committee for Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted) documents, samizdat books, films and photos. I published it all via my Palach Press. We made secretly filmed material available to the BBC’s Panorama, Granada’s World in Action, Thames TV, and also to the US, Canada and elsewhere.

In  the late 1970s and especially during the 1980s, I connected the Czechoslovak Charter 77 human rights group with opposition groups in Poland (Solidarnosc, KOR) and Hungary (Democratic Opposition), and later also with groups in East Germany and the former Yugoslavia. My main partners in all of those countries were nineteen-sixty-eighters, as they were often referred to, for example, Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron in Poland, and Miki Haraszti, Ferenc Köszeg and Janos Kis in Hungary.

We wanted to avoid, at all costs, the repetition of the historical events that enabled the Soviets to divide and easily conquer us. The cooperation between these dissidents led in 1989 to the establishment of the Visegrád Group of countries.



November 1989 was also spearheaded by a student demonstration, though joined very quickly by others. Charter 77 leaders underestimated the importance of November 17. However, they were able to quickly take full advantage of the situation. There were not many students at the Prague Laterna Magica meetings and none during the negotiations with the crumbling Communist establishment. In November 1989, I was interviewed in Prague by John Simpson and I observed that we were witnessing the birth of a ‘Thatcherism with a human face’. However, this was soon transformed into wild privatisation (‘We cannot wait for the lawyers’, ‘Slovakia would be a burden that would slow us down’ – Václav Klaus). In the political field, there was widespread rabid anticommunism, Jacobin measures were used against alleged opponents, including former dissidents. Many young people felt that their revolution had been betrayed.

Many students in the 1990s concentrated on their career and making money. There were sporadic protest movements, but they had no clear vision of the future and the establishment safely ignored them. Today, there are again some protests, provoked for example by the appointment of a KSCM MP – a former policeman who, in January1969, was filmed using a baton against unarmed demonstrators – as Chairman of the parliamentary committee overseeing police. These demonstrations in a number of Czech cities were aimed not only against the KSCM but also against the new Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, who quickly changed his mind and withdrew his support for the appointment. And that was the end of the demonstrations.

Many young people are against the establishment. They are critical of Russia, the EU, NATO, traditional political parties and widespread corruption. But this is another story. I have two daughters in their 20s. One of them supports the Greens, the other prefers the new party, the Pirates. Both are protest parties. Personally, I believe that major protests will emerge only if the economic situation worsens. Today, we have the lowest unemployment in the EU, there is growth and the Czech currency is strong and stable.


Watch our Cambridge Minute: Journalist Peter Bielik shares the story behind his father's iconic 1968 photo, 'The Bare-Chested Man in Front of the Occupiers Tank'

About the author

Responsive image
Jan Kavan is a member of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD). He was Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic from 1998-2002 and Deputy Prime Minister from 1999-2002. He was a member of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly from 1990-1992, the Senate of the Czech Republic from 1996-2000, and the Chamber of Deputies from 2002-2006. He was President of the United Nations General Assembly from 2002-2003.
You May Also Like