An uneasy relationship: Soviet control over Central and Eastern Europe – The Prague Spring of 1968

The shifting sands of Soviet internal power in the 1960s – Khrushchev being replaced by Brezhnev – heralded a change in the dynamics of the foreign policy and international relations of the USSR and its sphere of influence. The mantra of ‘peaceful co-existence’ – in principle if not always in practice – from the Khrushchev era was cast aside in favour of a more ‘hard-line’ traditionalist form of control and expectations of Soviet allies accordingly. Thus, perhaps not the most opportune time to go about looking to reform the Communist system from within one of the satellite states! Yet in 1968 the Czechoslovak capital of Prague was buzzing with an atmosphere of change and genuine hope and expectation that life was about to get better…

Again its firstly important to understand the background context to the situation in terms of the social and cultural threads underpinning Czechoslovakia. What had once been an integral multi-ethnic region of the quintessentially multi-ethnic empire of Austria-Hungary, the peoples of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and the Carpathians emerged from the embers of WW1 to find themselves facing the post-war future as the newly forged state of Czechoslovakia. Encompassing a majority of ‘Czechoslovaks’ (the two most numerous ethnic groups lending their names to the new nation-state) with sizeable minorities of Germans and Hungarians within its borders, the new nation was a relative success in the inter-war period, enacting effective and stable working systems of democracy and representation and respect for the various ethnic groups within.

The Czechoslovak state also had a modern industrial economy and was seen as a secure and reliable member of the international community of nations. However, perhaps as a consequence of this success, others cast furtive glances at the new nation and applied old irredentist arguments to stake their claim to various regions of Czechoslovakia. Obviously we have covered in depth the most (in)famous example – Hitler and his designs on the Sudetenland – in other units but both Slovak and Hungarian nationalists also had their eyes on dismembering the Czechoslovak nation to fit their own nationalistic ideals. Thus despite taking considerable damage as a consequence of Nazi occupation and all its trappings during WW2, Czechoslovakia was a much coveted ‘prize’ for those who sought to re-design post-war Europe in their own image – not least the USSR who envied its industrial and agricultural infrastructure. As the Red Army had their boots on the ground there first .. naturally they felt they had the right to enforce their system and their policies upon the Czechoslovaks.

The similarities with Hungary are immediately apparent; both nations had an advanced (in comparison to the rest of the USSR’s new ‘possessions’) industrial economy and a thriving agricultural sector – which as in Hungary as they did in Czechoslovakia – the Soviets asset-stripped and milked to the maximum. Naturally this served to alienate from the brave new Communist world and leave a sour taste in the mouths of both the Czechoslovak and Hungarian people, both of whom saw themselves as more constituent peoples of Mitteleuropa than part of anything more couched towards being ‘Eastern’ and facing Moscow.

The means and methods of acquiring ‘allies’ post-WW2!

Again drawing parallels with the Hungarian experience of 1956 the ‘revolt’ against Soviet control and repression was grounded in calls for economic reforms and increased freedoms both economically as well as politically and socially. Where the two events diverge somewhat is in the overarching ambition of the reformists; whilst in Hungary events reached such a crescendo that Nagy called for an immediate withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and ergo a disavowal of the Soviet system, the popular Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek’s clearly stated intention was to reform the Communist system and enact a popular form of Communism know as ‘socialism with a human face.’ The system wasn’t necessarily ‘broke’ per se, but it could be better managed and more humane and efficient for the people living under it.

“Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy.”

Dubcek on his motivations underpinning the ‘Socialism with a human face’ reform program
Czechoslovak reformist Alexander Dubcek warmly greeted by supporters

“Czechs started to feel a national identity again, After many years the people again thought of themselves as part of Western civilization. For the first time in many years, people could travel abroad again. People enjoyed choices because suddenly much more things were possible, be it the field in studies or working opportunities”

Czech historian Milada Políšenská reflecting on the summer of 1968

Dubeck’s reforms were widely popular and met with near universal approval by the Czechoslovak people. However, Moscow and Brezhnev did not look as fondly on the notion of a free media, less centralised economic control and political and social freedoms (such as the right to travel abroad and less powers to the secret police) and the Kremlin feared a ‘domino effect’ of these dangerously democratic ideas spreading across the rest of the Eastern Bloc nations. On the trumped-up pretext of having been asked step in by other members of the Warsaw Pact (again fearful their own fiefdoms might collapse under the weight of freedom and human rights) Brezhnev did as his predecessors had in 1956 and sent in the Red Army to the streets of a Central European capital city.

Oratorio for Prague – an accidental yet definitive documentary-styled first hand account of the realities of both the Prague Spring and subsequent Warsaw Pact repression, 1968

Again we see definite divergence in one outcome at least compared to Hungary; the bloodshed and destruction seen in Budapest in 1956 was by and large avoided with Dubcek pleading for protests to amount to no more than passive resistance – peaceful protests and strikes as opposed to the armed violence in Hungary which contributed to thousands of deaths. The ultimate outcome of both Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968 remained the same; nascent popular reform movements in both were ruthlessly crushed and subsequently repressed by the Soviet Union with a change in leadership in favour of a man Moscow ‘could trust’ to their bidding with minimum fuss or without delusions of reform! As with Hungary ‘the West’ stood somewhat blithely by and looked on; the USA was in the mire in Vietnam and Western Europe were understandably not too enamoured with the prospect of taking on the Soviet military alone.

“Already in January and February, I warned everybody I knew that this experiment will not have a happy ending, the communists are not able to reform themselves… I told them, the Soviet Union will not be able to let our country go. If [they] would have let us reform then all the other countries of the region would have taken the decision as well.”

Czech dissident Jiri Stránský reflecting on the futility of the Spring, 2008 interview

The results of the Prague Spring may have initially shown as amounting to a victory for the USSR; once again they had shown who’s boss in the light of upstart reformists in their sphere of influence and post-Prague 1968 they had the resoundingly shiny and conclusive ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ (giving the USSR the right to invade any Warsaw Pact nation showing signs of divergence from the righteous path!) to deter further disturbances to Soviet hegemony. Again, the question must be asked of how secure Soviet control really was given the complete lack of flexibility and co-operation they exercised in dealing with what were their supposed allies in the Czechoslovak Communist Party. This lack of trust, respect and tact/nous in diplomacy would ultimately be one of the key catalysts in the eventual downfall of the Soviet system

“They may crush the flowers, but they cant stop the Spring.”

Dubcek prior to his removal from Czech Communist Party and transfer to the Forestry Service

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

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