ISH Home
After 1953: Destalinisation
1968: Prague Spring
1981:Poland and Solidarity
Towards 1989: Year of Revolution
1989-2000: after communism
Further reading

Central and Eastern European States -
Prague Spring and after


By the mid-60s, the proclamations could no longer mask the true scale of economic decline. Some prominent Party members, including Alexander Dubcek, were prepared to acknowledge the problems and urged reform. Novotny opposed such moves but could not muster support from party colleagues when he needed it. His antagonistic attitude to the Slovaks meant even ideological hardliners there were unwilling to offer support. Leonid Brezhnev, the new Soviet leader also declined to offer Novotny his support, commenting only that "it's your business,"  when asked to pass judgment on the rival party factions. In January 1968 Dubcek replaced Novotny as First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. His open, approachable manner and easy smile contrasted with the austere severity of previous Party bosses and made him the personification of "socialism with a human face". The reformists had gained the upper hand and in April articulated their political aims in an Action Programme. This was a key moment in what became known as the Prague Spring. The document called for increased democratisation including more open debate with representatives of other groups in society, the use of opinion polls to inform policy, a relaxation of censorship, the freedom to travel abroad and greater autonomy for Slovakia. The economy was to be guided towards a socialist market in which businesses would remain state-owned but would compete with each other and be subjected to the forces of supply and demand. This was not to be an attempt to dismantle the system but simply to improve it.

The Action Programme contained the shibboleths required of loyal members of the Soviet Empire, "The basic orientation of Czechoslovak foreign policy ....revolves around alliance and cooperation with the Soviet Union and the other socialist states..." and reasserted the leading role of the Party, but from Moscow's perspective it represented a serious challenge to the foundations of the Soviet Empire. Beyond the Party membership, ordinary Czechoslovaks, encouraged by these liberalising measures were able to speak out, no longer cowed by the threat of a late night visit from the security forces and a long spell in a labour camp.

Potential opposition parties emerged such as K-231 which represented the demands of ex-political prisoners to be be fully rehabilitated. Students formed independent unions and writers tested the limits of the new freedom by criticising the Party's past mistakes. KAN - the Committed Non-Party Members - sought to articulate the political views of non-Communists. Vaclav Havel, a KAN member, described the atmosphere as one where, "fear vanished, taboos were swept away, social conflicts could be openly named and described, a wide variety of interests could be expressed, the mass media once again began to do their job, civic self-confidence grew: in short, the ice began to melt." However, expectations soon extended beyond the provisions of the Action Programme. Dubcek's offer of Party led democratisation was not enough when the greater goal of genuine democracy seemed attainable.


As spring turned to summer, it seemed as if events had taken on a momentum beyond Dubcek's control. Neighbouring regimes, fearing a domino effect, became nervous at the prospect that their own populations might demand similar freedoms. East Germany's Walter Ulbricht and Poland's Wladislaw Gomulka urged Soviet intervention. Brezhnev took steps to bring Czechoslovakia back into line. Previously arranged Warsaw Pact military manouvres in Czechoslovakia were brought forward and extended, a not so subtle reminder of Soviet power. At a series of meetings through the summer, Dubcek was warned of the dangers of deviating from the Soviet approved version of socialism but steadfastly stuck to his principles. Finally, in August, the Prague Spring ended as Soviet and other Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia. 

The Action Programme recognised the need for the Communist Party to strive constantly to earn the people's consent but fudged the obvious question of what happens when that consent is withdrawn? The expectation that rival groups in a multi-party system would remain content with a subordinate role also seems unrealistic. Certainly, Brezhnev viewed events as a step towards capitalism and a threat to Soviet hegemony in the region. The Brezhnev Doctrine made clear what should already have been obvious from previous challenges such as the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, that the Soviet Union would intervene to enforce its own interpretation of socialism whenever it felt threatened. 

The Brezhnev Doctrine, Speech to Polish Workers' Congress, November 1968

"The peoples of the socialist countries and Communist parties certainly do have and should have freedom for determining the ways of advance of their respective countries. However, none of their decisions should damage either socialism in their country or the fundamental interests of other socialist countries, and the whole working class movement, which is working for socialism. This means that each Communist Party is responsible not only to its own people, but also to all the socialist countries, to the entire Communist movement. Whoever forgets this, in stressing only the independence of the Communist Party becomes one-sided. He deviates from his international duty. It has got to be emphasized that when a socialist country seems to adopt a "non-affiliated" stand, it retains its national independence, in effect, precisely because of the might of the socialist community, and above all the Soviet Union as a central force, which also includes the might of its armed forces. The weakening of any of the links in the world system of socialism directly affects all the socialist countries, which cannot look indifferently upon this... Czechoslovakia's detachment from the socialist community would have come into conflict with its own vital interests and would have been detrimental to the other socialist states. Discharging their internationalist duty toward the fraternal peoples of Czechoslovakia and defending their own socialist gains, the U.S.S.R. and the other socialist states had to act decisively and they did act against the antisocialist forces in Czechoslovakia" 

Dubcek's reforms had been immensely popular in Czechoslovakia, but lead to demands for even more radical change that threatened the Party's leading role. A lifetime within the Party had denied Dubcek the perspective of those on the outside. In the same way, Dubcek's natural inclination towards an idealistic view of the Soviet Union made the invasion of 1968 a revelation and a crushing blow. Hungary's Janos Kadar, unsure whether Dubcek was being brave or foolish, asked him, "Do you really not know the kind of people you're dealing with?"  The Czechoslovak Army, as in 1939, was ordered not to confront the invading forces though many citizens fought back in brave but ultimately futile acts of resistance. Clandestine radio stations managed to remain on air long enough to refute the Soviet depiction of the invasion as 'fraternal assistance' requested by the Czechoslovaks themselves to confront 'counter-revolutionaries'. A final free meeting of Party members reaffirmed the ideals of Prague Spring even as Dubcek and his colleagues were removed at gunpoint to Moscow. There Dubcek and his colleagues were threatened and bullied until they signed a document of capitulation agreeing with the Soviet version of events.


In January 1969 Jan Palach, a Czech student, set fire to himself in the centre of Prague in protest at the invasion. Thousands attended his funeral, unable to fight the invaders; they could at least express their contempt by publicly honouring a desperate act of martyrdom. In April, the Czechoslovak ice hockey team defeated the Soviet team in the World Championships sparking celebrations which soon turned into anti-Soviet riots.

These events were taken as proof that Dubcek had lost control of the country and prompted the Soviets to install Gustav Husak as leader in his place. The failure of Prague Spring demonstrates the difficulties of attempting reform from within. Dubcek and his fellow reformers had risen through the party ranks in the preceding decades and could hardly have been unaware of the crimes committed by the Party, the show trials, the executions, the dishonesty, or of the brutal cynicism of the Soviet leadership. Their own complicity in these events made them flawed standard bearers for a new era of reason and justice. The Soviets' concern that the Prague Spring, had it been allowed to continue, would eventually turn Czechoslovakia into a democratic state and undermine the Empire may well have been correct.

As Gorbachev's later experience shows, dictatorships are at their most vulnerable when attempting reform. However, the invasion also crushed a genuine attempt by a communist party to adapt to new political and economic challenges. Was this a missed opportunity for the Soviet Empire to regenerate? Or simply another doomed attempt at divining a Third Way? As it was, the reimposition of rigid Soviet control established a regime that could do little more than manage decline. Without change in Moscow there was little prospect of any change to this grim reality in the satellite states. 

Verdicts on Dubcek and the Prague Spring

"I must say, I am convinced that you must share some of the blame for your present situation."
Vaclav Havel, open letter to Alexander Dubcek, August 1969, quoted in J.Keane, Vaclav Havel: 223.

"The truth was that he (Dubcek) had not allowed himself to see Soviet communist rule for what it was. Pluralism, democratisation, market reform and the abolition of censorship in Czechoslovakia ... represented the antitheses of Soviet style rule at home; they posed a real threat to the stability of other Communist states in the region whose people would undoubtedly be encouraged to do the same. Anyone who truly acknowledged the totalitarian essence of Soviet communism would have realised this. Dubcek was wilfully blind to the system he had grown up around."
Shepherd, R, - Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution and Beyond, Macmillan Press, 2000.:29 "

"The Czechoslovak experiment was wrecked on its own paradoxes......Dubcek believed that an outspokenly anti-liberal, ...dictatorship could be improved upon by simply changing the people holding key jobs, possibly also by including new people and introducing limited reforms. One conclusion seems evident, however reluctant one is to accept it: the Dubcek experiment was not possible."  P Tigrid, Why Dubcek Fell, 1971:198

" "Dubcek was the first and last genuinely popular Communist leader of Czechoslovakia. The slogan 'socialism with a human face' was coined for him.....his ready smile made it easy to identify him with the concept.....Dubcek's popularity was based on the fact that he believed in his own words and policies, and accordingly people trusted him for his sincerity."
Dowling, M - Czechoslovakia, Arnold, 2002: 107

" "His rather weak leadership was one of the reasons why events soon got out of hand during the Prague Spring.....It was a dream before its time....the reforms were an attempt to square the circle." Henderson, K - Slovakia, the Escape from Invisibility, Routledge, 2002 "

"I can only say, think of me what you will, I have worked for thirty years in the Party, and my whole family has devoted everything to the affairs of the Party, the affairs of socialism."
A. Dubcek

"Dubcek and Dubcekism are one of the more important phenomena of the post-war world. Scepticism about the hypothetical future of this experiment may be misplaced....It is possible that by allowing the full play of democratic forces within the Party itself, Dubcek might have enabled the Communists to remain both sensitive and responsive to the aspirations of the people."
W.Shawcross, Dubcek: 207

"Dubcekism stood for right-wing opportunism and was characterised by its double-faced policy and a contradiction between words and deeds. It was a loss of class approach in solving the vital internal and international problems, a complete failure to understand the international context of Czechoslovak development in the present world divided along class lines" Pravda (Bratislava, 8th October, 1969) quoted in W.Shawcross, Dubcek: 193


Gustav Husak led Czechoslovakia through the next twenty years of 'normalisation'. The Party was purged of those associated with the Prague Spring, censorship was restored, travel restrictions reimposed, the maximum period of detention without trial was extended, and there was a return to centralised economic control. The state demanded at least an outward appearance of compliance. As the wayward satellite returned to disciplined loyalty, tens of thousands of its citizens left the country. The new government had been undemocratically imposed from Moscow, was clearly dependent on the continued Soviet military presence and therefore could not attain popular legitimacy. In these unpromising circumstances Husak had to consolidate his rule and achieve some form of social contract with the people. The state proved able to provide basic economic security; full employment, free universal health care, subsidised holidays, and pensions were guaranteed. Workers' wages were lower than their western counterparts' but the average Czechoslovak could afford a modest supply of consumer goods and by the late 1980s, Czechoslovakia ranked second in the world in the number of country cottages per capita; as much as 80% of families had access to these second homes.  In these ways a form of consent existed and the police state retained all the apparatus of coercion (prison, loss of career) where this proved insufficient. For many the lesson of 1968 was that rebellion was futile. 

Despite the risks, there were those who rebelled. In contrast to the mass workers' movement in Poland, Czechoslovak opposition was based around small groups of intellectuals typified by the playwright, Vaclav Havel. Under the strict repression of the 'normalisation' years it proved difficult to broaden the opposition movement. Change from within the Party had been tried and had failed, many potential reformers had left the country, others, satisfied that the state could provide the basics retreated into an apolitical tolerance of the status quo. Government propaganda strove to portray dissidents such as Havel as self-indulgent, bourgeois dilettantes out of touch with the real concerns of the working class. Havel's opposition is summarised by his moral exhortation to "live in truth." The conviction that if the state is sustained by lies the greatest threat to it is to speak the truth. Havel's background shaped his principles. He was born into a prominent, wealthy family in 1936 and as a child experienced the disasters of the Nazi occupation. To the post-war communist regime, families such as Havel's were class enemies and were made to suffer the confiscation of property, exclusion from education and harassment. Nevertheless, Havel carved out a career as a playwright, using membership of officially sanctioned writers' groups to push the bounds of censorship. His plays often contained thinly veiled criticisms of the absurdities of Communism and in 1971 they were banned. 


In 1975 Havel wrote an Open Letter to President Husak which was circulated amongst dissidents, published abroad and broadcast from western radio stations back into Czechoslovakia. The letter criticised Husak's regime for its cynical oppression of the people... "..for fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him...Fear of the consequences of refusal leads people to take part in elections, to vote for the proposed candidates, and to pretend that they regard such ceremonies as genuine is fear that carries them through humiliating acts of self-criticism and...fear that someone might inform against them prevents them from giving public, and often private expression to their true opinions." 

The following year, the regime provided an example of how it would use this 'fear' to enforce conformity when members of a rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, were put on trial accused of deviancy, hooliganism and disturbing the peace. This was widely perceived as more than the harassment of a few hippy prog-rockers, but as an attack on art, youth, and freedom, "an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself".  The incident led to a petition in support of the musicians and exposed the narrow limits of officially acceptable cultural activity. For the very reasons described by Havel in his letter, mass opposition was not possible, but he had achieved notoriety as a consistently moral and brave critic of the regime and was himself an example of 'living in truth'. 

A more sustained challenge developed in 1977 when Havel and other dissidents formed Charter '77, an opposition group based around a petition calling on the government to respect its own commitment to the 1975 Helsinki Agreement on human rights. The Soviet Union, the US and most of Europe had agreed to respect the fundamental freedoms of thought, conscience, religion and belief. Czechoslovakia clearly did not respect these freedoms but, as the agreement had been signed, Helsinki gave the dissidents a legalistic avenue of opposition. They accepted the futility of open revolt against a well armed regime, which itself was backed by an interventionist Soviet Empire, but believed that the system could be undermined by spreading the truth and defending human rights. The resulting persecution suffered by those brave enough to sign the Charter, (arrest, interrogation, imprisonment), highlighted the reality of totalitarian rule and attracted publicity abroad. In Hungary, groups within the Communist Party were again taking tentative steps towards reform. In Poland, the trade union Solidarity attracted mass support, but in Czechoslovakia, the Charter '77 remained a narrow group of intellectuals with only 241 signatures in January 1977 and even by 1988 no more than 2,000  However, the movements encouraged each other. Lech Walesa acknowledges the significance of Havel's writings to Solidarity, "it (Havel's work) gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits...when I look at the victories of Solidarity and Charter 77; I see in them an astonishing fulfilment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel's essay."  Even when imprisoned Havel maintained his opposition to normalisation. The consistency of Havel's moral campaign would leave him well placed when external events began to undermine Soviet control of the region. 

Manifesto of Charter 77 (abridged) 

In the Czechoslovak Register of Laws of October, 1976, texts were published of the International Covenant on Human Rights, which were signed on behalf of our republic at Helsinki in 1975. From that date our citizens have enjoyed the rights, and our state the duties, ensuing from them. The human rights underwritten by these covenants constitute features of civilized life for which many progressive movements have striven throughout history and whose codification could greatly assist humane developments in our society. We accordingly welcome the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic's accession to those agreements. 

Their publication, however, serves as a powerful reminder of the extent to which basic human rights in our country exist, regrettably, on paper alone. The right to freedom of expression is in our case purely illusory. Tens of thousands of our citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from official ones. Deprived as they are of any means to defend themselves, they become victims of a virtual apartheid. Hundreds of thousands of other citizens are denied that "freedom from fear" mentioned in the covenant, being condemned to the constant risk of unemployment or other penalties if they voice their own opinions. In violation of Article 13, guaranteeing the right to education, countless young people are prevented from studying because of their own views or even their parents Innumerable citizens live in fear of their own or their children's right to education being withdrawn if they should ever speak up in accordance with their convictions.

Any exercise of the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print" or "in the form of art" specified in Article 19 is followed by sanctions, often in the form of criminal charges, as in the recent trial of young musicians. Freedom of expression is inhibited by the centralized control of all the communication media and of publishing and cultural institutions. No philosophical, political or scientific view or artistic activity that departs ever so slightly from the narrow bounds of official ideology or aesthetics is allowed to be published; no open criticism can be made of abnormal social phenomena; no public defence is possible against false and insulting charges made in official propaganda. 

  No open debate is allowed in the domain of thought and art. Freedom of religious confession, guaranteed by Article 18, is continually curtailed by arbitrary official action; by interference with the activity of churchmen, who are constantly threatened by the refusal of the state to permit them the exercise of their functions, or by the withdrawal of such permission; by financial or other transactions against those who express their religious faith in word or action; by constraints on religious training and so forth. Workers and others are prevented from exercising the unrestricted right to establish trade unions, and from freely enjoying the right to strike provided for in Article 8. Further civic rights, including the prohibition of "arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence" are seriously vitiated by the various forms of interference in the private life of citizens exercised by the Ministry of the Interior, for example by bugging telephones and houses, opening mail, following personal movements, searching homes, and setting up networks of neighbourhood informers. 

Article 12 of the covenant, guaranteeing every citizen the right to leave the country, is consistently violated. The granting of entry visas to foreigners is also treated arbitrarily, and many are unable to visit Czechoslovakia. Responsibility for the maintenance of rights in our country naturally devolves in the first place on the political and state authorities. Yet not only on them: everyone bears his share of responsibility for the conditions that prevail and accordingly also for the observance of legally enshrined agreements, binding upon all individuals as well as upon governments. It is this sense of co-responsibility, our belief in the importance of its conscious public acceptance and the general need to give it new and more effective expression that led us to the idea of creating Charter 77, whose inception we today publicly announce. Charter 77 is a loose, informal and open association of people of various shades of opinion, faiths and professions united by the will to strive individually and collectively for the respecting of human rights in our country and throughout the world -- rights accorded to all men by the Final Act of the Helsinki conference laid down in the U.N. Universal Charter of Human Rights. Charter 77 is not an organisation; it has no rules, permanent bodies or formal membership. It embraces everyone who agrees with its ideas and participates in its work. It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity. Like many similar citizen initiatives in various countries, West and East, it seeks to promote the general public interest.

It does not aim, then, to set out its own platform of political or social reform or change, but within its own field of impact to conduct a constructive dialogue with the state authorities, particularly by drawing attention to individual cases where human and civic rights are violated, to document such grievances and suggest remedies, to make proposals of a more general character calculated to reinforce such rights and machinery for protecting them, to act as an intermediary in situations of conflict which may lead to violations of rights. 

As signatories, we hereby authorise Professor Dr. Jan Patocka, Dr. Vaclav Havel and Professor Dr. Jiri Hajek to act as spokesmen for the Charter. We believe that Charter 77 will help to enable all citizens of Czechoslovakia to work and live as free human beings. Prague, 1 January 1977 

Vaclav Havel's signature on Charter 77

wordpress stats

Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic