1968: A revolt blooms behind the “Iron Curtain”

May 23, 2018

Phil Gasper tells the story of the Prague Spring uprising in the so-called “socialist” Eastern Bloc, in an article for SW’s yearlong series on the revolutionary year of 1968.

MAY DAY parades in the former USSR and its Eastern European satellites before the fall of the Berlin Wall were typically dull, stage-managed affairs. Though supposedly marking International Workers’ Day, May Day was an occasion to display military might and conformity, without a shred of humanity.

But the celebration on May 1, 1968, in the Czechoslovakian capital of Prague didn’t conform to this pattern. Instead, 140,000 people thronged onto the streets spontaneously. The atmosphere was informal and very different from the past — for Czechoslovakia was in the grips of a popular uprising.

The Prague Spring was one of the key struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — another expression of the spirit of revolt and freedom that crossed what seemed to be the most impenetrable of barriers: the so-called “Iron Curtain” dividing the Western capitalist “democracies” from the supposedly "socialist” countries of the East.

THE CHANGE was all the more striking since, for many years, Czechoslovakia — which today is two separate nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia — had been regarded as the most conservative country in the Eastern Bloc.

Tanks roll through the streets of Prague in 1968
Tanks roll through the streets of Prague in 1968

From the early 1950s, it had been governed by a rigid, centralized bureaucracy, controlled by a small group of Communist Party politicians under Antonín Novotny. Foreign policy followed Moscow’s instructions. The secret police were feared, and there was rigid censorship. Unsurprisingly, most people were apathetic toward public life.

Workers didn’t for a moment take part in the establishment of this so-called “workers’ state,” nor had they in any other Eastern European country. The new regime was built on the model of the bureaucratized state-run system that had arisen in Russia after Joseph Stalin came to power on the ruins of the 1917 revolution.

As in the USSR, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party became head of the state machine and state-run enterprises. And the USSR itself had the power — militarily, politically and economically — to call the shots in its Eastern European satellites.

Until the 1960s, the regime in Czechoslovakia was bolstered by the economic situation. The country had the highest living standard in Eastern Europe, and the economy was growing.

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But after 1961, the economy began to deteriorate as Czechoslovakian industry fell further and further behind the West. A faction within the ruling Communist Party began to agitate for the loosening of central economic controls to restore competitiveness.

These changes, however, conflicted with the interests of thousands of state bureaucrats, who were frightened by the loss of their well-paid positions if the reforms were put into effect. And Novotny feared that the weakening of bureaucratic power in the economy would undermine the Communist Party’s control over the rest of society.

Czechoslovakia’s economic problems allowed other tensions to rise to the surface. Intellectuals and students publicly expressed their discontent. Support for Slovakian autonomy began to reappear.

These pressures led to the emergence of opposition within the Central Committee, even though its members had been personally chosen by Novotny for their loyalty.

ON JANUARY 6, 1968, a palace revolution removed Novotny from the leadership of the party, though he remained president of the country. He was replaced as First Secretary by Alexander Dubček, who for most of his career had been an undeviating member of the Stalinist apparatus.

At first, the party tried to pretend that nothing significant had happened. But when Novotny tried to rally support for himself in a speech at one of the biggest factories in Prague, the new leaders were forced to defend themselves by mobilizing the mass of the population behind them.

They held public meetings of their own in February and early March to attack the conservatives, while stories about scandals involving the old leadership were released to the press. Soon after, Novotny resigned the presidency.

The final straw came with revelations that Gen. Jan Šejna, a Novotny protégé and vice chairman of the National Assembly, had tried to use the military to prevent Novotny’s replacement as party leader. At the same time, details of Šejna’s illegally acquired fortune and extravagant lifestyle became public, and the general defected to the U.S. with Eastern Bloc military secrets.

The Šejna affair had repercussions that frightened the party bureaucrats. As the details were published, there was widespread anger at revelations of corruption at the highest level.

Dubček telephoned the editor of the union daily newspaper in Prague, urging him to return his reports. It was too late: The floodgates were opened, and the Prague Spring had begun.

Officially, every newspaper and radio or TV station had its own sponsoring organization, and editors who set policy. In reality, content was decided by the Communist Party.

But now, the regulating mechanism had ceased to function. Members of the party apparatus, uncertain about their future, simply stopped issuing directives. Censors at the central publications office in Prague published a resolution saying they wanted to resign!

CZECHOSLOVAKIA SUDDENLY experienced freedom of the press to a degree that had never been known. Political, economic and cultural matters were discussed intensively. Government affairs were no longer conducted behind closed doors. Subjects previously considered taboo were publicly examined.

The greatest shock of all came from revelations about political trials in the 1950s. It became known that tens of thousands of people had been sentenced to death or to long prison terms. Televisions arranged confrontations between former political prisoners and their torturers — some of whom had been trained by the Nazis before working for the Stalinists rulers after the war.

A radio program, “Songs by Telephone,” was launched. The announcer called people accused of crimes under the Novotny regime, asked them to justify themselves, and then, when they failed to do so, played a song chosen to ridicule them.

Circulation of newspapers and magazines rose dramatically, limited only by the lack of newsprint and the capacity of the presses. Long lines formed at the newsstands for the better-known weeklies, which often sold out immediately.

The trade union press inaugurated a successful campaign against its own publisher, forcing those implicated to leave public life. Similar initiatives were taken at other newspapers.

Unofficial political and cultural groups began to form around the country, to discuss the issues of the day and the revelations about the country’s past, and to circulate petitions.

The party leadership was extremely worried by these developments. Dubček warned repeatedly of “anarchy.” But he also attempted to regain control of events by issuing an “action program” and talking about building “socialism with a human face.”

At first, the working class stood back, waiting to see how events would develop. But by June, workers were fully involved in the ferment. Factory representatives of the Communist Party began demanding the removal of discredited functionaries and the introduction of workplace democracy. Many factories arrange socials and discussions with students and intellectuals.

A wave of spontaneous strikes broke out. In the past, such strikes had been crushed by state repression. But now, party and union bureaucrats didn’t know how to behave. The strike leaders’ fear of intervention and punishment from above evaporated.

The developments in Czechoslovakia alarmed other Eastern European rulers because of the potential repercussions in their own countries.

In March, there were demonstrations by students and young workers in Poland under the slogan “all Poland awaits its Dubček.” These were brutally suppressed. Demands for reform were also made in Hungary.

Dubček was repeatedly urged to reassert control by his neighbors. Eventually, the USSR regime in Moscow issued an ultimatum, threatening intervention if “counterrevolutionary” forces were not dealt with. But Dubček, caught between pressure from below and Moscow’s demands, was unable to comply.

ON THE night of August 20, troops from the USSR-dominated Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the country’s democratic uprising.

It was a stunning moment internationally. As antiwar protesters at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago were brutalized by the forces of the state, television screens were filled with images of another occupying army — Russian tanks on the streets of Prague in Czechoslovakia.

In that moment, the connection of the struggle — East and West, North and South — for a different world, free from state repression, oppression and exploitation, was felt by millions.

Dubček was completely unprepared and unwilling to call for popular resistance. He and other party leaders were arrested and taken to Russia in handcuffs. Around 100 civilians were killed.

But resistance developed over the following days. A crowd tried to defend the Czechoslovakian radio building with barricades built from trolley cars, and some Russian tanks were gutted by bottles of gasoline.

Radio and television continued broadcasting illegally for a week, becoming the main organs of the resistance. Ironically, they made use of clandestine facilities set up years earlier in case of an invasion by NATO! Newspapers also continued to appear. Two days after the invasion, a secret party Congress was held under the occupiers’ noses in a Prague factory.

Young people drove through the streets with placards and Czechoslovakian flags, painted slogans, distributed illegal newspapers, and argued with the troops. Most of the soldiers had no idea where they were or why.

Residents of cities began to change street names and remove house numbers and road signs. In the country, all signposts were turned around. This made it extremely difficult for the occupying forces to find their way.

The administrative machinery of government had broken down during the first hours of the occupation, and workers assumed management of their industries and transportation in the towns. Wherever possible, they ensured a regular flow of supplies and continued production.

There was a symbolic one-hour general strike. But because the working class was still looking to elements of the state bureaucracy for leadership, these developments didn’t lead any further.

THE RESISTANCE prevented the Russians from simply imposing a collaborationist government and forced them to rely on the existing leadership.

But those leaders proved cooperative. After “free and comradely discussions,” they returned from Moscow, having agreed to reintroduce censorship, dissolve unofficial organizations and remove certain people from public life. Troops were to remain in the country until the situation was “normal.”

Despite these efforts, the popular movement wasn’t immediately destroyed — for a while, it even grew. Workers continued to elect their own councils in the factories. A three-day student strike in November was strongly supported by the working class.

Mass demonstrations took place in January 1969 after a student named Jan Palach burned himself alive to protest the continued occupation, and in March, after Czechoslovakia defeated Russia at ice hockey.

Nevertheless, the country’s rulers moved step by step, gradually wearing down the opposition. Tens of thousands were purged from the party. In April, Dubček was replaced as party leader by Gustav Husak.

On the anniversary of the invasion in August 1969, Czechoslovakian police were able to crush new protests without help from the Russians. “Normalization” was complete.

Nevertheless, the events in Czechoslovakia proved to people around the world that socialism in the “socialist” countries was as phony as democracy was in the “democratic” West. It was another in a successions of rebellions and revolutions that set the stage for the toppling of the whole Stalinist system two decades later in 1989.

And by showing that the struggle for freedom and democracy spanned the Iron Curtain, the Prague Spring wrote a critical chapter in the revolutionary year of 1968.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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