By Phil Carradice

Pen & Sword Books. 127 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-52675-700-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

1968. The year when students fought the police on the streets of Paris, hippies in America frolicked in the streets of San Francisco and protested against the war in Vietnam, and pop music seemed to dominate the airwaves. Some people now look back nostalgically and dream of their lost youth. Did it all really change anything? Arguably, the situation in France only got serious when the workers began to bring the country to a halt, and action in America to curtail the Vietnam tragedy only took on a major dimension when discontent spread to the wider public. And the underlying political and economic systems in both countries were largely unaffected. We only need to sit quietly and survey the current malaise in France and America, and in Britain too, for that matter, to realise that “sex, drugs and rock and roll”, along with student rebellion, had few long-term effects.

But what of Czechoslovakia? What happened there in 1968 may have had greater relevance in that it did play a significant part in the eventual collapse of the wider communist set-up. It led to changes which had an impact on how the balance of power in the world was structured, and how that, in turn, affected national economic patterns in Western Europe as well as those of the former Iron Curtain countries. Technological advances have no doubt created problems in terms of the range of jobs available and consequent employment difficulties, but it may also be true that, with the decline of socialist ideas, the state and employers no longer feel that they need to keep people contented in order to stave off communist influences. Union membership in most countries is at an all-time low, so there is no need to negotiate with them in a meaningful manner.  Many people have no choice other than to accept what’s on offer. And the state is increasingly reluctant to support them to any great extent.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that what happened in Prague did have an effect on later developments in the Iron Curtain countries. Changes didn’t immediately take place, but they began to take shape. And when they happened they did so with a remarkable speed that took almost everyone by surprise.

Czechoslovakia was a curious country in some ways and only came into existence after the First World War when the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up into separate states. The fact that it was two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, pulled into one, was always a matter likely to lead to dissension. And that a large portion of the populace spoke German, and thought of themselves as kith and kin to their near-neighbours, created further problems. The 1938 Munich Agreement allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland, and then little or no opposition was encountered by him when he took over the whole of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France effectively bartered Czechoslovakia for a nebulous peace that wasn’t going to last.

When the Second World War ended in 1945 the country had been “liberated” by the Red Army. But if the Czechs expected to have regained their independence they were quickly disabused of that idea. It was true that communism was initially strongly supported, and elections in 1946 saw communists selected by democratic means. Come 1948, however, and a communist coup established a dictatorship that was essentially just a tool of the Soviet Union. There would be no free and fair elections again until 1989 when the communist system throughout Eastern Europe began to splinter and break up.

Communist rule in Czechoslovakia was, on the whole, hardline. Little or no opposition was tolerated, and anyone likely to act as a figurehead for dissidents was quickly eliminated. The death of Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, in highly suspicious circumstances perhaps signalled the determination of the Communist Party to maintain control by any means necessary. There were other signs of communist ruthlessness in 1952 when a wave of trials across several countries, including Czechoslovakia, purged the ranks of those suspected of deviations from the Party line. The fact that many of those accused were Jews was not without relevance.

The hardliners, under Antonin Novotny, the First Secretary of the Czech Communist Party, continued with their policies, usually under directions from Russia until the 1960s. There were then some easing of the restrictions on travel and freedom of expression, but Novotny was always unpopular, and looming expressions of dissatisfaction became apparent when students took to the streets to protest against poor living conditions. The police reacted brutally and many of the students were injured. Novotny then reinstated the restrictions he’d earlier loosened. He was desperate to stay in power.

Novotny was ousted and Alexander Dubcek became First Secretary in his place. It is essential to note that Dubcek was very much a Party man. He had spent three years studying in Moscow and had worked his way up the Party ladder like any other good bureaucrat. But he was a basically decent person, and was not without the imagination to realise that a degree of liberalisation was necessary. His slogan was “Socialism with a human face”. To this end, he again eased travel restrictions, reduced censorship of the press, allowed Western newspapers and magazines to circulate in Prague, and cut down on the blocking of radio broadcasts from outside Czechoslovakia. Clandestine listening had introduced many young Czechs to pop music from America, Britain, and elsewhere, and records flooded in, along with highly-prized jeans and other forms of apparel favoured by the young. It was, for a time, a heady experience for many Czechs.

It was never going to be all plain-sailing. There were always people in the Czech Communist Party who looked askance at what Dubcek and his supporters were doing, while in Moscow misgivings about the seemingly-apparent relaxation of Party control were beginning to bother Leonid Brezhnev, head of the Russian Communist Party, and therefore effectively head of the Warsaw Pact countries. There had been earlier rumblings of discontent in East Germany, Poland, and most of all, Hungary in 1956, and the Russians were determined not to let the situation anywhere behind the Iron Curtain get out of hand. The idea that Dubcek might be moving towards a system of freely elected democratic socialism was never going to be tolerated by Moscow.

In retrospect, Dubcek has sometimes been criticised because he chose to tread carefully as he slowly created what became known as the “Prague Spring”. He was always ready to insist that he was functioning within a Party framework: “Censorship would yield to a new openness, but no one was to articulate an ideology hostile to communism. Market forces would replace rigid central planning but there was to be no large-scale private ownership or de-collectivisation of Agriculture”. He knew that changes could only come about over a period of time, but some of his supporters wanted immediate alterations to the communist status quo. They weren’t prepared to temper their comments about communist drawbacks, nor their hostility towards Russia. Or their dislike of Czech communist politicians who were not in accord with Dubcek’s policies.

Phil Carradice paints a colourful picture of Prague in the summer of 1968 as foreign visitors poured in, pop groups performed, and what seemed like a permanent party took place. There never can be a permanent party, of course, and the signs that it would have to come to an end were already in evidence. There were reports of Russian troops, along with others from Poland, Hungary, East Germany, gathering along the borders of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek had been summoned to meetings with Brezhnev where he was accused of allowing right-wing elements to set the pace of reforms. It would only be a matter of time before a rumour of intervention became a fact.

It happened on the 19th of August, 1968 with, according to Carradice, 165,000 troops and 4,600 tanks crossing the border into Czechoslovakia. The figures would soon increase to 500,000 troops and 6,000 tanks. The suddenness of the invasion took the Czechs by surprise, though it shouldn’t have done had they not been busy celebrating their supposed new-found freedoms. There was no opportunity to mount any form of sustained opposition. It would have been useless, anyway, even if the Czech army had mobilised to take on the Russians and others. They would simply have been outnumbered and outgunned, and needless casualties would have been incurred. There were protests on the streets, with attempts to construct barricades and petrol-bomb tanks occurring in Prague and Bratislava, and more than a hundred civilians died in the fighting. But for the most part the occupying forces quickly assumed control of Prague and the rest of the country.

Dubcek and several of his supporters were arrested and taken to Moscow where attempts were made to force them into signing documents to say that the Russians had not invaded Czechoslovakia, but had only responded to calls from the local Party to help get the country back to “normal”. In Prague, Gustav Husak took over as First Secretary when Dubcek realised that his position was no longer tenable. Husak had the support of the Russians and moved to “normalise” the country by rolling back any reforms Dubcek had instituted. It was to be another twenty years before Czechs enjoyed the kind of freedoms taken for granted in the West. In the meantime, purges were carried out among politicians, teachers, journalists, academics, writers, and others who were not considered reliable in the eyes of the Party. Dubcek himself was soon deliberately kept from obtaining any form of employment until he was eventually offered a job as a mechanic, maintaining machinery for the Forestry Commission near Bratislava. He was a Slovak and not a Czech, so had some relationship to the area.

Carradice has a number of brief quotes by people who, though not from Czechoslovakia, recalled how the suppression of the Prague Spring had made an impression on them. A one-time American diplomat, says that he was in Prague between 1985 and 1989 and took note of the “lack of essentials” and the “feeling of hopelessness that the population seemed to share”. I spent a few days myself in Prague in 1984, mostly to honour the memory of a Czech friend who had been out of the country when the Russians moved in and would never go back while they were there. Sadly, he died long before communism came to an end in 1989. In 1984 the lack of goods in the shops was obvious. The only thing that seemed of quality and was cheap and in plentiful supply was the beer.

I suppose Dubcek was lucky to survive. The examples of the 1950s trials, and the harsh treatment of those involved in the 1956 Hungarian uprising, showed how ruthless the Russians, and their Party minions in countries under Moscow control, could be. But in 1968 condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia came from many quarters, including communist parties in the West. And Brezhnev was more sensitive to criticism from outside than Stalin and his henchmen had ever been.

It would be easy to suggest that Dubcek failed. He was certainly criticised for not moving fast enough with his reforms, and for backing down when Bezhnev demanded that he agree to retract them. But what else could he do? The Russians held all the cards and could simply have disposed of him, in one way or another, any time they wanted to. But, in fact, he ought to be given credit for attempting to provide communism with a human face, and so starting something that finally came to a head in 1989, though he may not have been overjoyed at the almost-total disappearance of communism.  It might have happened anyway, but the Prague Spring surely helped it along. There is, of course, always the question of what might have taken place had Dubcek been allowed to make his reforms and other Warsaw Pact countries had followed the same path? Could communism have survived in a more-liberal form, or was it inevitable that it would collapse because of its internal contradictions? And would the West have allowed it to function, even if it had managed to provide its citizens with a standard of living and the kind of basic freedoms applying in the United States, Britain and elsewhere? We can never know for sure.   

One mistake needs correcting. On page 78 Carradice refers to “Senator Eugene McCarthy, he of ‘witch hunt’ fame”. It was the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy who did so much damage with his often-outrageous suggestions of communist connections. He died in 1957, so wouldn’t have been around to condemn Russian actions in 1968. Eugene McCarthy’s middle name was Joseph, but he was careful not to use it so he wouldn’t be associated with the smears that Joseph McCarthy spread.