1968 and Its Aftermath in Eastern Europe

1968 was a momentous year. In the West, it is primarily remembered as a moment of global youth revolt.[1] Events in Eastern Europe took place within the context of this global wave of protest, but they had their own particular dynamic. The center of Eastern Europe’s 1968 was the reform movement in Czechoslovakia. This movement, which originated within the Czechoslovak Communist party, promised to create a newly democratic and humane form of socialism. The Czechoslovak reform program generated enormous excitement at home, but growing consternation abroad. Czechoslovakia’s socialist allies became increasingly worried that pressure to enact similar reforms would spread to their own countries. On the night of August 20–21, 1968, a coalition of Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country and ended the Czechoslovak reform experiment.

Due to the country’s relatively robust economy, Czechoslovakia’s leaders had managed to come through the period of de-Stalinization without instituting major reforms. An abrupt economic downturn in 1963 made this stance less tenable. Reform elements within the Czechoslovak Communist Party (Komunistická Strana Československá or KSČ) began to call for the decentralization of the planned economy and greater freedoms for writers, artists, and academics. Antonín Novotný, Czechoslovakia’s conservative leader, did his best to contain the pressure for reform. Things came to a head at the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union in June 1967. A number of prominent writers, including Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout, Václav Havel, Ivan Klíma, and Ludvík Vaculík, gave speeches sharply condemning the regime.

Novotný and his allies pushed back; the Ministry of Culture moved to exert more control over the Writers’ Union and three writers who had made particularly provocative comments were expelled from the KSČ. Reflecting on this incident, Sir William Barker, the British ambassador to Czechoslovakia, wrote in a despatch that “the future is still anything but clear.” Barker noted that while Novotný and his hardline allies hoped to tamp down the impulse for liberalization, “others [in the KSČ] realise there is no sense in trying to put the clock back, and that they must work towards a higher form of ‘Socialism,’ yet to be defined, in which (hopefully) the intellectual community will cooperate freely and positively with the Communist regime.” Successful economic reforms, Barker presciently realized, would rely on a strong coalition between intellectuals, managers, and state officials.[2] 

In January of 1968, reformers inside the KSČ were able to oust Novotný from power. He was replaced by Alexander Dubček, a compromise candidate who was little known before he assumed leadership. Although he was actually quite moderate in his views, Dubček would become the face of the reform movement. During the first few months of Dubček’s tenure, officials began to draft a plan for creating a new, democratic model of socialism, sometimes referred to as “socialism with a human face.” At first, discussions of reform remained largely within closed KSČ circles. This changed in early March when censorship was effectively abolished, much as the Writers’ Union had demanded the previous June. The result was an extraordinary flowering of public debate that gave the reform era its name: the “Prague Spring.”

Almost overnight, newspapers and magazines began to publish articles on controversial topics, while radio and television stations broadcast uncensored critical interviews with government officials and took live calls from the public on the air. People began to actively take part in public life, going to political meetings and forming new civil associations and clubs. Once people began to speak freely, their demands quickly became more and more radical. Many called for increased democratization, more openness, and more reform; some even discussed the possibility of allowing truly opposition political parties to contest elections.[3] The incredible outspokenness in the Czechoslovak press attracted the notice of Soviet and other Eastern European leaders, who were concerned that the KSČ had unleashed a force it could not control. At a meeting in Dresden on March 23, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned Alexander Dubček that members of the intelligentsia were engaged in what amounted to a counter-revolutionary conspiracy and, invoking the case of Hungary in 1956, cautioned that the acts of seemingly insignificant writers could be anything but benign.[4] 

The KSČ released its reform plan, known as the Action Program, on April 10. While insisting that the Communist party would maintain its hold on power, the Action Program emphasized the need for the freedom of expression and proposed allowing for the possibility of political debate and dissent. It also affirmed the right to freedom of association, assembly, and travel, called for the decentralization of the economy, and promised the rehabilitation of those unjustly imprisoned during the 1950s. According to the Action Program, democratization was not a threat to socialism, but the only way it could evolve and grow.[5] The Action Program was received favorably in Czechoslovakia, although, as historian Kieran Williams points out, most people admitted they had not actually read it. Brezhnev, however, was not convinced. At a Politburo meeting on May 6 he called it “a bad programme, opening up possibilities for the restoration of capitalism in Czechoslovakia.”[6] 

The worries of Warsaw Pact leaders were undoubtedly exacerbated by events in Poland. In March, Polish students erupted in protest. The impetus was the Polish government’s decision to cancel a Warsaw production of a nineteenth-century play, Dziady (Forefather’s Eve), by Adam Mickiewicz. Some audience members had taken to wildly applauding the play’s anti-Russian lines, causing a sensation.[7]  In the fallout from the protests against the play’s cancellation, two students, Adam Michnik and Henryk Szlajfer, were expelled from Warsaw University. In the wake of their expulsion, their fellow students planned a large public demonstration on March 8, 1968. Ivor Rawlinson, an employee of the British embassy in Warsaw, saw a notice about the demonstration and decided to attend.

Arriving around noon, Rawlinson reported that some 5,000 people, including students, staff, and observers like himself, had gathered for the demonstration.[8] The pro-rector, wielding a loudspeaker, tried to get them to disperse, but few if any people left. Various students then took turns addressing the crowd, protesting the cancellation of the play and the expulsion of Michnik and Szlajfer. Rawlinson had trouble hearing most of the speeches, but he did observe students chanting slogans, including “We are waiting for the Polish Dubczek [sic],” indicating that at least some were inspired by events in Czechoslovakia. As the event progressed, busloads of Party activists (described by Rawlinson as “300 tough men”) and special police units moved onto the university and began to attack the students. Rawlinson described being “rushed by a group of these swearing men who were violently clubbing over the head all those around me."[9] Rawlinson escaped unharmed, but hundreds of students were beaten.

Protests quickly spread around the country. Although most demonstrations and rallies were located around universities, some young workers also protested.[10]  The British embassy in Warsaw collected and translated resolutions from student groups in Warsaw, Wrocław, and Łodz. Like many of those in Czechoslovakia, the students emphasized their support for socialism, but demanded reforms, including freedom of speech, adherence to the rule of law, and the introduction of market mechanisms into the economy.[11]  The Polish government swiftly cracked down on the protesters. By March 27, over 2,500 people had been arrested, including almost 600 students. Hundreds more were expelled from universities and/or conscripted into the military or simply interrogated and beaten by the police. Professors and other people alleged to be connected with the demonstrators (such as their parents) were fired from their jobs. This repression continued for months.[12] Ivor Rawlinson was told that on June 19, police had entered a student dormitory and removed nine residents; over a week later, none had returned.[13] 

One prominent element of the Polish government’s attack on the protestors was its brutal anti-Zionist campaign. Within a few days after the March 8 demonstrations, newspaper articles alleged that the protests were orchestrated by “Zionists” (understood to be Jews) who cared more for Israel than for Poland. This message was quickly repeated throughout the print media and on the radio and television.[14] Across the country there were tens of thousands of meetings by local Communist Party organizations that urged Poles to resist this Zionist scourge. While they claimed to be against antisemitism, Communist leaders consistently used antisemitic tropes to describe Zionists, referring to them as foreign elements working together in conspiratorial fashion to undermine the Polish state.[15] The nastiness of this campaign convinced over 15,000 people of Jewish ancestry to emigrate, comprising over half of the total number of Jews resident in Poland.[16] 

By caricaturing the demonstrators as elite and Jewish, the Polish government was able to successfully marginalize them. While the students had hoped their demands would resonate with the wider population, few workers were drawn to their cause. Embassy employee Derek Tonkin reported speaking with a Polish graduate student, Ewa B., who said, “There is not much hope now. The workers don't understand what the trouble is about, and they would much rather keep their jobs, their flats, their television sets and their vodka than go out on to the streets in support of intellectual notions. You can't blame them; they simply aren’t dissatisfied enough to come out in support.”[17]  Unable to garner wider support, the Polish demonstrations quickly fizzled out. Their ultimate impact would come later, when some participants played key roles in the Worker’s Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników or KOR, founded in 1976) and in the Solidarity trade union of 1980. 

While protests in Poland were quickly contained, the radical voices in the Czechoslovak media continued unabated. Writers, journalists, and other members of the intelligentsia were intent on pressuring the KSČ to stay on its reform course. The writer Ludvík Vaculík published a particularly provocative manifesto on June 27 simply entitled “2,000 Words.” In this piece, Vaculík urged sustained grassroots political engagement. Czechoslovaks, he wrote, should hold their leaders to account, pushing those who were corrupt or incompetent out of office by holding demonstrations, organizing strikes, and utilizing other forms of public protest.[18]  Vaculík’s essay provoked concern, among both Warsaw Pact leaders and more conservative Czechoslovak Communist officials, who also worried that the reforms had gone too far, weakening the KSČ’s monopoly on power.

Near the close of “2,000 Words,” Vaculík noted that Czechoslovaks had become afraid their socialist allies might militarily intervene to halt the reforms. He did not think this possibility should deter Czechoslovakia from its reform path. The publication of “2,000 Words,” however, only increased Soviet alarm. For months, Soviet leaders had demanded that the Czechoslovaks muzzle the press, allow more conservatives to retain the positions in the KSČ, and neutralize “counter-revolutionary” tendencies. Yet, they felt, the Czechoslovaks consistently failed to adequately address their concerns. In a sign of their displeasure, the leaders of all the other Warsaw Pact nations sent a strongly worded letter to the Central Committee of the KSČ on July 16, 1968, expressing their “profound anxiety.” The KSČ, they declared, was losing control of events. Under the banner of democratization, anti-socialist reactionaries were moving to undermine Communist power in Czechoslovakia. This, they said, was unacceptable. “We cannot assent to hostile forces pushing your country off the path of socialism,” they warned, adding, “this is no longer your affair alone.”[19] 

At subsequent meetings with the Soviets in the Slovak village of Čierná nad Tisou on July 29 and with Warsaw Pact members in Bratislava on August 3, Dubček promised to take steps to alleviate his allies’ concerns. Unbeknownst to him, however, conservative elements in his own party wrote to Brezhnev to say they did not believe the KSČ was capable of mastering the situation and to request Soviet assistance. On August 17, the Soviet Politburo voted to invade Czechoslovakia. A few days later, on the night of August 20–21, Warsaw Pact forces moved to occupy the country (only Romania refused to participate).[20] While the intervention may have seemed obvious in retrospect, Sir Geoffrey Harrison, the British ambassador to Moscow, sent a despatch to London on August 20 concluding that the outcome of the situation was impossible to predict (although he did speculate that Soviet prevarication could cost Brezhnev his post). By the time his report was received at Whitehall two days later, the invasion had already occurred, rendering its interest “entirely historical.”[21] 

Aside from a skirmish outside the headquarters of Radio Prague, there was little armed resistance to the invasion, although there were many non-violent acts of protest, such as crowds debating with soldiers about their ostensible mission or the mass removal of street signs. Alexander Dubček and other Czechoslovak leaders were hauled off to Moscow for a few days, where they were forced to agree to the dismantling of their reforms, a process that was referred to as “normalization.” Ultimately, reformers would be expelled from the KSČ, censorship would be reinstated, and anyone who refused to acknowledge the necessity of the Soviet invasion would face consequences. Prominent intellectuals were forced to become construction workers or boiler stokers and writers lost their ability to publish.[22] 

Normalization actually proceeded quite slowly, allowing many Czechoslovaks to hope that some portion of the reforms could be saved. Dubček remained in power until April 1969, when he was finally replaced by Gustav Husák. Husák had been known as a moderate and many wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, including the British Foreign Office. A guidance sent to several European embassies said, “We do not know Husák very well, but if in these very difficult circumstances he is going to do his best for his country, we do not wish to make his task more difficult by adverse comment.”[23] According to the UK’s new ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Howard Smith, “Czechoslovak opinion accepted Husák mainly because he seemed to be the best of a not very attractive bunch.” Yet, Smith said, while Husák’s first three months in power saw mostly “discontent and pessimism,” many nonetheless believed that “any other leader would be even less acceptable.”[24] 

Gustav Husák would remain in power until 1987. Although he vowed not to return to the “pre-January” system, Husák reversed most of the 1968 reforms. In contrast to the excitement of the Prague Spring, Husák’s regime was characterized by apathy. After a few years, many of those who had been removed from their jobs in the name of normalization were allowed to return, but only as long as they repudiated their former beliefs and agreed to support the government’s line. Most people did their best to ignore politics and retreat into the quiet life. The government tacitly encouraged this, allowing its citizens to devote their time to building weekend cottages or other forms of leisure.[25] Rather than trying to harness their energy and initiative, as the reformers of 1968 had tried to do, the agents of normalization just left them alone. Few were willing to risk the consequences of openly challenging the regime when the personal benefits of acquiescence were so clear.

After the Soviet invasion, Edward Goldstücker, the head of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union during the Prague Spring, decided, like a number of his countrymen, to emigrate. At a lunch in Britain on February 13, 1969, he told J.R. Rich that a future congress of the Soviet Communist party would see the invasion of Czechoslovakia as its biggest mistake.[26] While Goldstücker’s assertion may go too far, the events of 1968 certainly had a lasting impact on the entire socialist world. Internationally, the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia produced what became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. First formally articulated in Pravda in September 1968, this policy affirmed the right of the Soviet Union to intervene to preserve socialism anywhere it was threatened.[27] This quite open threat squashed hopes all over Eastern Europe for a less authoritarian form of government. Ironically, the Prague Spring, which began as a sincere attempt to create a democratic form of socialism, convinced many around the world that socialist governments could never be successfully reformed and that democracy was incompatible with socialism.


[1] Philipp Gassert and Martin Klimke, eds., 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2009)..

[2] The Intellectuals and the Party” (William Barker to George Brown) November 20, 1967, FCO 028/000135.

[3] H. Gordon Skilling, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 183–224.

[4] Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 71–72.

[5] The text of the Action Programme is available online in English at https://archive.org/details/actionprogrammeo08komu. See also Skilling, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution, 217–221.

[6] Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath, 73.

[7] “Student Demonstrations in Poland and Their Consequences,” Report by New Zealand Embassy Bonn, April 8, 1968, FCO 028/000294. 

[8] A recent historian’s account puts the initial crowd at 500 people, growing to several thousand over the course of the afternoon. See Juliane Fürst, Piotr Osȩka, and Chris Reynolds, “Breaking the Walls of Privacy: How Rebellion Came to the Street,” Cultural and Social History 8, no. 4 (2016): 499.

[9] “Student Demonstration in Warsaw, Friday 8 March” (Ivor Rawlinson to J.D.I. Boyd), March 9, 1968, FCO 028/000294.

[10] Marcin Zaremba, “1968 in Poland: The Rebellion on the Other Side of the Looking Glass,” American Historical Review 123, no. 3 (2018): 771.

[11] “Political and Civil Unrest” (and attached student resolutions) (Derek Tonkin to R.O. Miles), March 25, 1968, FCO 028/000294.

[12] Dariusz Stola, “The Hate Campaign of March 1968: How Did It Become Anti-Jewish?” Polin 21 (2009): 17.

[13] “Students and Teachers” (Ivor Rawlinson to R.O. Miles), June 28 1968, FCO 028/000294.

[14] “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism during the Recent Disturbances in Poland,” March 25, 1968 (includes several translated newspaper articles), FCO 028/000304.

[15] Stola, “The Hate Campaign of March 1968”: 20–32.

[16] Jerzy Eisner, “1968: Jews, Antisemitism, Emigration,” Polin 21 (2009): 56; “Antisemitism in Poland” (Ivor Rawlinson to R.O. Miles), June 28, 1968, FCO 028/000304.

[17] “Political and Civil Unrest: Three Student Views” (Derek Tonkin to R.O. Miles), March 28, 1968, FCO 028/000294.

[18] “2,000 Words” was also signed by dozens of prominent intellectuals. The text is available in Jaromír Navrátil, Antonín Benčík, Václav Kural, Marie Michálková, and Jitka Vondrová, eds., The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archives Document Reader (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998), 177–181.

[19] “Letter from Warsaw Meeting of Communist Parties Criticizing Czechoslovak Reforms,” International Legal Materials 7, no. 6 (November 1968): 1265–1267.

[20] Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath, 121–125; Kevin McDermott, Communist Czechoslovakia, 1945–1989 (London: Palgrave, 2015), 143–145

[21] “The Czechoslovak Story” (Geoffrey Harrison to Michael Stewart), August 20, 1968, FCO 028/000049.

[22] Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010), 35–60.

[23] Telno. 86 Guidance, April 18, 1969, FCO 028/000616.

[24] “Husák’s First Three Months: A Crisis Unresolved” (Howard Smith to Michael Stewart), August 5, 1969, FCO 028/000617.

[25] On the quiet life, see Bren, The Greengrocer and His TV. Also Bren, “Weekend Getaways: The Chata, the Tramp and the Politics of Private Life in post-1968 Czechoslovakia,” in David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, eds., Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (New York: Berg, 2002), 123–140.

[26] “Dr. Edward Goldstücker” (J.R. Rich to Mr. Barker), February 19, 1969, FCO 028/000616.

[27] The text is available online through the Internet Modern History Sourcebook at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1968brezhnev.asp.

 

 

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