Crisis in Czechoslovakia

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“Socialism with a human face” was the slogan advanced by Alexander Dubcek to popularize the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s agenda for sweeping political reforms. Dubcek, a career party functionary who had risen to become head of the Slovak party organization, replaced Antonin Novotny as First Secretary in January 1968. Having presided over the party since 1953, Novotny had proven incapable of either stifling or co-opting creative intellectuals and student youth who had been animated by western New Left currents in this most culturally western of Soviet bloc countries. Dubcek’s “Action Program,” prepared by reformist theoreticians in the party, prefigured Gorbachev’s reforms two decades later. Calling for complete cultural freedom, economic reform based on the “socialist market,” and restrictions on the secret police, it provoked an outpouring of debate throughout the country.

In the forefront of the chaotic but optimistic and peaceful Prague Spring of 1968 were intellectuals and students who pushed beyond the limits set by the party. Workers and farmers were more cautious, but among them many seized the opportunity to press their demands through strikes, the formation of workers’ councils, and other actions. The Politbiuro in Moscow was none too pleased, especially as many Soviet intellectuals were following developments in Czechoslovakia with hopes that they would spread to the Soviet Union itself. In March Dubcek and his top associates were summoned to a meeting in Dresden with other Warsaw Pact leaders who expressed their fears of matters getting out of hand. It was, in a sense, already too late. Dubcek and other reformers within the party could not, even if they had wanted to, rein in an aroused public. On July 20-21 the Politbiuro approved preparations for a full-scale intervention by Warsaw Pact forces if Dubcek did not reverse his course. A last-ditch attempt to persuade him at a meeting in the little town of Cierna just over the border in Soviet Ukraine proved futile. The show of support for the Czechoslovaks by Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia during his state visit to Prague in early August was perhaps the last straw for the Soviet leadership. On August 17 the Politbiuro put the plan in motion to invade on August 20.

The invasion, captured on film and broadcast around the world, was a public relations disaster for the Soviet Union (even if in the United States it was overtaken within days by footage of the wild scenes of police attacking demonstrators at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Chicago). What became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine — the assertion of the right and responsibility of Communist parties of fraternal socialist countries to intervene against “antisocialist degeneration” — was unpersuasive even among western Communists who generally condemned the invasion. Encountering angry crowds but no armed resistance, the several hundred-thousand invading Warsaw Pact forces settled in for the long haul. Although Dubcek was not removed from office until April 1969, the back of the reformist movement had been broken and with it the chances for socialism with a human face.

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