The Effects of the Prague Spring in Europe
Speech at a seminar at the Aleksanteri-institute 2.6. 2008, arranged by Aleksanteri Institute and the Czech and Slovak Embassies in Helsinki
My remarks will be of a highly subjective nature and are based on my personal memories and experiences in 1968. Unfortunately the Prague Spring flourished for too short a time for a more comprehensive evaluation of its effects, and I will refrain from contra-factual speculation on what the effects would have been, had it been allowed to continue, as interesting as it might be. While the effects of the Prague Spring in this case could have been huge, we have to live with the fact that in actual history the suppression of the Prague Spring had more permanent and far-reaching effects.
In September 1968 I published an article on Czechoslovakia in Teinilehti, then a wide-circulation weekly magazine of Teiniliitto (The Finnish Secondary School Students Union). I quote from this article:
Someone has said, that this autumn will be sensational. And indeed the revisionist renegade clique of the Soviet Union took a headstart by sending together with four other Warsaw Pact countries its tanks to carry out the brazen occupation of the Czechoslovak Sovialist Republic on August 21st [ – only a few hours after the Soviet ambassador Dobrynin gad firts informed President Johnson in Washington. ]
The actual occupation was carried out with surgical efficiency, it did not take long for the tanks to reach the centre of Prague. The difficulties started after the patient refused to abide with this armoured treatment. Discarding the plans of for example the Finnish General Staff for a similar situation ] the Czechs and Slovaks refrained from armed resistance, which would have been collective suicide. Instead they resorted to seemingly effective passive resistance to undermine the occupiers and to make it clear to the whole world, how completely the heroic country opposed the occupation.
The worst shock for the Soviet aggressors was undoubtedly the convening of the secret conference of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in the occupied capital with over a thousand participants. This conference gave its almost unanimous support for the party leader Alexander Dubcek as well as the government of President Svoboda and Prime Minister Cernik. The last remaining conservative novotniks were removed from the Central Committee.
At the latest this conference and probably already the occupation frustrated the Soviet hopes of finding even fifteen notvoniks to form a government which would approve the occupation. Thus the shameless punitive expedition of the soviet clique of bosses and their lackeys was deprived of even this lousy fig leaf of legality.
But using the threat of brute force the Warsaw Pact leadership has been able to pressure the Dubcek-Svoboda government t accept a ”compromise” aiming to invalidate the hope-creating democratic reform policy of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. But the game is not over yet. The people of Czechoslovakia trust Dubcek. The forces aiming at democratisation have met with a temporary setback. But all imperialists and reactionaries are paper tigers, and the leaders of the Soviet Union will not be an exception to this rule.
Fear has been the driving force of the Soviet aggression. There can come a thousand capitalists, kiesingers, johnsons, kekkonens, shahs etc – the Soviet leaders are not at all afraid of these friends and soul-mates of theirs. But already one Dubcek is a big threat to the likes of Ulbricht, Gomulka and Brezhnev uncomfortably perched at the top of authoritarian hierarchies. Freedom is contagious. [Undoubtedly there is some truth in efforts to explain Soviet imperialism with geopolitical security factors. The influence of West Germany could have spread through the Czechoslovak Trojan horse to Eastern Europe. Not a single Czech has shouted ”Viva Kiesinger”, but shouts of ”Viva Dutschke” were to be heard from Czech mouths at i.a. the youth festival. If you were Aleksej Kosygin which would be more afraid of?
Of course events i Czechoslovakia cannot be observed completely independently of the international situation – where imperialist methods are still in use. Like the mutually supportative relationship between Suez and Hungary 12 years ago, so are Vietnam and the occupation of Czechoslovakia linked today. The nature of the far-reaching cooperation between the US and the USSR has now been clearly exposed as being directed against small countries and in particular of the struggle for independence in the third world.
Notwithstanding the shocking nature of recent events in the world they cannot be but harbingers of a new era. The life-denying powers that be – the Pentagon, the Vatican and now the Kremlin – have suffered severe knocks one after another.
Thirty years ago a man called A. Hitler marched his robots into Czechoslovakia. We all now how he and his friends ended their days. Brezhnev and his ilk can have a better end as far as I am concerned: let them spend the evening of their lives tending their gardens on small pensions. Vegetables feel at home with vegetables. The revolutionary storm of world’s youth will sweep them from power into the dustbins of history. This is also a necessary condition for the survival of mankind.
Like most attempt to predict the future my effort did not get it quite right. Still it was sufficiently prescient for me to be able to republish in its original form 21 years later when the Velvet revolution finally sent the Soviets and Communists packing.
Meanwhile a lot of things had changed, including, of course, my own thinking. In 1968 I could easily use the kind of radical phraseology associated with Maoist and/or Trotskyite thinking, without any deeper embracing of the ideology involved. In any case, whatever real Maiost or Trostkyist influence there was in Finland soon evaporated to almost nothing, as the vanguard of the Finnish Generation of 68, in stark contrast to the rest of Europe, began to espouse Stalinism. Among this generation recognition of the Brezhnev doctrine and explicit endorsement of the occupation Czechoslovakia, calling in many cases for a self-critique by those who had been demonstrating outside the Soviet Embassy I n August 1968, became a touching-stone before people were accepted into the true fold.
All Communist Parties in Europe were affected by the Prague Spring. Even in Finland the Stalinists, notwithstanding their prominence and hegemony in youth and student movements and in cultural associations, did not gain control of the Party, where the Euro-Communists consolidated their majority. They were not called Euro-Communists in Finland, but they were in many respects as or even move revisionist than the parties in Western Europe which explicitly adopted the label. The effects of 1968 on the Communist movement in Europe was greater than that of 1956, and it gave a decisive impetus for the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism which in many Communist Parties preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For others on the non-Communist left, including myself, the Prague Spring remained a beacon of hope and a rallying call for those who still wanted to believe in the possibility of Democratic Socialism with a Human Face. As time passed this became increasingly difficult to sustain, contributing to the disillusionment that lead many people of the same generation to lose their faith in non-violence and democracy, and some people to even espousing terrorism.
Another important development in the intervening years was the process to convene the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and which culminated in the signing of the Helsinki declaration in the summer of 1975. Most people regarded the CSSE as a substitute for the Peace Treaty which was never agreed on after the Second World War. More specifically, it was seen as an undertaking which effectively gave the sign of approval for the Cold War status quo and the division of Europe, ruling out future non-peaceful efforts to change frontiers or even alliances. When the US and Nato chose not to intervene in Hungary in 1956 or in Czechoslovakia in 1968 it was also an implicit recognition of the 1945 Yalta agreements. When my generation of the 68’rs reacted to the violent extinguishing of the Prague Spring they condemned not only the Soviet intervention but also the cynical realpolitik response of the West to this.
In the preparations for the Helsinki Final Act no-one placed any great expectations on the so-called third basket issues which dealt with ”cooperation in humanitarian and other fields”. Most in both East and West shared a certain cynicism regarding the basket three provisions on human rights and basic freedoms, the West not expecting and the East not intending them to be respected.
This un-ambitious complacency about the basket three provisions proved to be totally unfounded. New citizens’ movements in Central and Eastern Europe seized on these provisions and established Helsinki Committees to demand their governments to respect and implement them. They made an important contribution to the developments which hastened the end of the Cold War and the fall of the one-party-dictatorships and command economies.
Among these movements it Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia played a particularly important role. The charter signed by Vaclav Havel and 242 other signatories represented a movement which had more in sight than bringing down a dictatorship. It was above all a movement which represented civil society, called for human right and basic freedoms, and it also recalled the ideals of the Prague Spring of a more social democracy. It too had repercussions elsewhere in Europe. The idea of an independent civil society challenging established political structures and calling for new forms of direct democracy and transparency gave, for example, the impetus for the Charter 88 movement in the UK. It also influenced the rise of the new non-aligned peace movement of the 80’s calling for European Nuclear Disarmament.
It is in no way disparaging the velvet revolution carried out in the spirit of Charta 77, if we today have to recognise with a certain sadness, that the fall of the dictatorships did not lead to the kind of ”democracy +” societies on which many of the movements supporters placed great hopes, but rather to ”democracy – ” societies, which still have some way to go before meeting the requirements of cvcil freedoms and human rights for everyone and of building just, equal and corruption-free societies.
The real lesson is that it takes a long time before any society subjected to decades of brute force, denial of human rights and civil freedoms can overcome the legacy of a dictatorship.