Prague Spring to Velvet Revolution
In a World Divided by Yalta, Communism Seemed a Realistic Choice for Central Europe
What was the Prague Spring, or the events of 1968 more generally? Their meaning, it seems, has become more, not less, debatable with the passage of time.
My generation was forged by protests and police truncheons, by the hopes generated not only by the Prague Spring, but also by the Polish student movement that March, the Paris events of May, and the first signs of Russian democracy voiced in the early books of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. For those of us imprisoned in Poland, the Prague Spring was a harbinger of hope. Even Poland’s communist newspapers, read behind bars, somehow conveyed news of the great changes taking place in our neighbor to the south.
So I remember my shock when I learned about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, and the trauma that lingered long after. On the tenth anniversary of that invasion, Václav Havel, Jacek Kuron, and I, along with other dissidents, met on the Czech-Polish border. There is a photograph of that occasion: future presidents, ministers, and parliamentarians who were at that time pursued by the police like common criminals.
These encounters were an extension of the climate of the Prague Spring. We all felt that we were creating something new, something that might, one day, turn out to be an important component of democracy in our countries.
And so it was. In August 1989, I proposed in the Polish Diet a draft resolution apologizing to the Czechs and Slovaks for Polish involvement in the 1968 invasion. I felt that a historical circle was being closed: the ideas of the Polish March and the Prague Spring, the ideas of our mountain meetings, were becoming political facts. Three months later, the Velvet Revolution began in Prague.
The main difference between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution was that the former was mostly the work of Communist Party members and others who wanted to bring about "socialism with a human face." As a result, some people nowadays dismiss the Prague Spring as a power struggle between communists. But there were many roads to – and through – communism, and many of them converged with national traditions.
Indeed, communism was attractive for many reasons, including the idea of universal justice and humanized social relations; a response to the great spiritual crisis after World War I and, later, to the Nazis’ genocide; and the conviction that Western dominance of the world was nearing its end. Finally, in a world divided by Yalta, communism was, for some, the only realistic choice for central Europe.
In Czechoslovakia in 1968, communist reformers appealed to democratic ideals that were deeply rooted in the country’s pre-World War II past. Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the Czechoslovak communists and the symbol of the Prague Spring, personified hope for democratic evolution, real pluralism, and a peaceful way to a state governed by law and respectful of human rights.
By contrast, in Poland, which had witnessed its own tentative opening in the March student movement, a nationalist-authoritarian faction exploited all that was intolerant and ignorant in Polish tradition, employing xenophobia and anti-intellectual rhetoric. Polish Interior Minister Mieczyslaw Moczar, the leader of the nationalist faction, combined communist rhetoric with a language proper to fascist movements in order to mobilize the masses against the "cosmopolitan-liberal intelligentsia."
The Polish freedom movement of 1968 lost its confrontation with police violence; the Prague Spring was crushed by the armies of five Warsaw Pact members. But in both countries, 1968 gave birth to a new political consciousness. The Polish and Czech opposition movements that emerged only a few years later had their roots in the events of 1968.
The Prague Spring was provoked by a crisis in the Communist Party, but the claim that it was merely a result of political squabbles among Party members falsifies history and rejects a significant fragment of the national heritage.
Attitudes towards communism were always a controversial subject for the anticommunist opposition. Some rejected communism in all its forms. The majority, though, in one way or another, had some contact with communism, through intellectual fascination, participation in state institutions, or the cold conviction that only by accepting the reality of life under communism could one do something useful for one’s country. These people, "tainted by communism," constituted the majority of the participants in all revolts against the communist dictatorships.
There was, however, another category of people: the "careful and untainted," who absented themselves from the world of politics. They hated communism, but, convinced that the system could not be reformed, they avoided the democratic opposition. While others took risks or sat in jails, they functioned in official and legal structures.
One should not blame anyone today for such behavior. But it is surprising when these people accuse participants in the Prague Spring and the democratic opposition of links with communism.
Communism was obviously an instrument of Soviet domination over conquered societies, but it was also a modus vivendi for large parts of these nations under the conditions in which they were obliged to live. Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, and Dubcek became parts of their national legends, which belies the claim that communism was exclusively a foreign imposition.
The Prague Spring appealed to elementary values: freedom, pluralism, tolerance, sovereignty, and rejection of the dictates of communist orthodoxy. When I recall these events after 40 years, I see not only revolt, but also the great illusion that it might be possible to outfox the Kremlin and painlessly move society from communism to democracy. This belief was naïve, but it also underpinned a national awakening in which the potential for freedom found its voice.
Adam Michnik was one of the leaders of Solidarity and the founding editor of Gazeta Wyborcza.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.
Adam Michnik participated in the Debates at the Burgtheater series in Feb 2009. See a full report here.