2018 marks the 50th anniversary of a brief period of liberalism, economic and social reform and democratization of Czechoslovakia, known as the Prague Spring. In January 1968, a moderate, Alexander Dubček replaced his hard-line communist predecessor to become the Secretary of the Community Party in Czechoslovakia. His leadership marked the beginning of a new era in Czechoslovakia, even if for just a short time.
In response to economic depression and complaints that the Soviet Union was exploiting its people, Dubček launched an “Action Programme” of liberalizations. This resulted in increased freedom of press, religion, association, and travel, the rehabilitation of victims of political purges during the Joseph Stalin era, a revised constitution to guarantee civil rights and liberties, a switch of emphasis from industrial to consumer goods, possibility for a more democratic government, and a decrease in Soviet control over the country. During this new era, reporters and editors in the state-run media began to criticize socialism and enforce reform. For the first time anywhere in the Eastern Bloc, censorship was officially abolished during June 1968. Citizens of Czechoslovakia embraced the reforms, which immediately affected the activation of social and cultural life. Fears of these reforms spread to neighboring communist countries, leading to a meeting of top Communist Party representatives from the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Bulgaria. Collectively they issued a stern warning to Dubček, that “the situation in Czechoslovakia jeopardizes the common vital interests of other socialist countries.”
On the evening of August 20, the world saw one of the ugliest and most treacherous acts in Cold War history. Tanks rolled into the streets of Prague as military forces from the Warsaw Pact countries of the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria invaded Czechoslovakia. A half million troops sought out any “antisocialist” elements, leading to the death of 72 Czech and Slovak citizens, with hundreds more wounded. Almost all of the reforms made under Dubček were eliminated. Czechoslovakia sunk back into a repressive, somnolent state, entering a period that ironically came to become known as “normalization.” Czechoslovak citizens turned inwards, and away from public life.
The scars of the Prague Spring would only begin to be healed years later, as the Soviet Union melted away in 1989, and the Czechs returned to the streets—this time with a more successful Velvet Revolution.
The Prague Spring continues to serve as an important lesson for the need to resist oppression in the modern day. The current rise of right-wing populism throughout central and eastern Europe finds ways of challenging democratic principles and threatens civil liberties. Movements in opposition of immigration and liberal social values and the push to delegitimize the press challenge democratic principles pushed for during the Prague Spring. As part of the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, we should reflect on this historic event’s meaning, the perseverance of the Czech people, and the continued need to resist tyranny everywhere.