January 5, 1968: the Prague Spring begins
What would later become the Prague Spring began with the accession, that day in 1968, of reformist Alexander Dubček to the post of first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
Dubček tried to decentralize the economy and ease restrictions on media, freedom of expression and travel for Czech citizens.
To reverse these reforms, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Jiří Mucha, who wrote “This spring in Prague“(April 1, 1968) for The nation, was a Czech journalist and author who had been arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the government in the early 1950s.
“It seems to me that never since the fall of Stalin there has been so much frank public criticism. The difference is that after Stalin’s comment felt bitter disillusionment, while now there is goodwill and people are ready to lend a hand. After years of banal phrases and resigned weariness, we hear words worth thinking about. “
“It all sounds surprisingly cheerful given the ingrained skepticism of the Czechs, but that’s the sentiment that prevails here today. A tooth that stops hurting produces euphoria, even though you know the hole is still there and eventually needs to be filled. And in any case, I don’t think a return to the old ways is possible. The people now at the top know that they can only be successful if they gain broad popular support. If the public failed to do so, the country would relapse into gloomy indifference and it would be nearly impossible to wake it up. Each new society must recover all the freedoms that were acquired in the past, but which were then lost in the process of gaining more…. If we are successful, we will prove that it has been worth living for the past twenty years.
The changes begin
In February 1968 Dubček gave a speech stressing the need for reform. True to his word, in April he instituted greater freedom of speech, press and movement. He believed that Czechoslovakia should be divided into two countries; he also spoke of the need to limit the power of the secret police. He provided for a ten-year period to bridge the gap between things as they were and the ultimate goal of democratic socialism. It was a surprising announcement.
Unsurprisingly, Brezhnev did not approve Dubček’s reform plan. After all, in 1956 Hungary had experienced an uprising against the regulations implemented by the Soviets. At first, the Soviet Union tried to negotiate Dubček out of its decisions. Meetings were held in Slovakia in July and August, during which Dubček declared his support for the Warsaw Pact.
Concessions were made on both sides and the Bratislava Declaration was signed on August 3. Worryingly, the Soviet Union has expressed its intention to invade any member state of the Warsaw Pact that shows signs of returning to a capitalist system.
From August 20 to 21, Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia. Additional troops have been provided by Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary (although the Hungarian leader initially expressed support for Dubček’s election).
Word spread that an invasion was taking place, and the country took action. The signs indicating the names of the towns were quickly removed and replaced by signs indicating “Dubček”. Others simply indicated the way back to Moscow. Eventually, the troops headed for Prague and took control of the airport.
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