The Freeze Came from Within

Yesterday, 21 August, was the 35th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that put an end to the “Prague Spring,” and here in Prague that story is getting big play in the media. This is even though it’s all about the past, specifically a quite unpleasant incident from the past which presumably nearly every Czech knows about (whether s/he experienced it directly or not) and which perhaps s/he would just rather forget. Respekt is probably the leading Czech journal of commentary, with a quite impressive battle-record of offending (and being threatened by) post-1989 governments, and in its current issue it approaches the event from a different angle. It was not the case that the Red Army invaded the country (accompanied by symbolic contingents from Warsaw Pact “allies”) and that was that: end of the “Prague Spring.” Rather, the Communist tightening-down of the country back to the pre-1968 level of repression (or, in some respects, an even worse state) actually proceeded over the course of a year-and-a-half, into 1970. In other words, not that much changed in Czech society right after the invasion; the oppressive changes came later, gradually, in the face of a Czechoslovak populace which could see what was happening but did little about it. It was this same populace which had been enthusiastic for its new freedoms in the first part of 1968, prior to the invasion, introduced by the then-government led by Aleksander Dubcek. So how could the re-introduction of a Communist dictatorship happen? What are the lessons for today? These sorts of questions are intelligently explored by Tomas Nemecek in his article entitled Mráz prišel zevnitr, or “The Freeze Came from Within.”

August 1968 saw another Soviet invasion of one of the USSR’s recalcitrant “allies,” just as happened in Hungary in October/November 1956, but the later event was rather different than the earlier. For one thing, in 1968 there was less bloodshed – the Czechs did not resist the invading armed forces to any degree the same as the Hungarians had done. There was also less bloodshed in the aftermath; in 1956 the Soviets packed up the rebel leaders and flew them to Moscow, and they did the same with the Czechoslovak leaders in late August, 1968, but the crucial difference was that many of the Hungarian leaders (Imre Nagy and his cohorts) were ultimately executed, whereas none of the Czech leaders were. They merely visited Moscow to be harangued and intimidated into signing the so-called “Moscow protocols” justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has having been “invited.” (And one of the 24 Czech and Slovak leaders carted to Moscow – namely Frantisek Kriegel – even had the balls to refuse to sign.)

Even more crucially, these same leaders, from Dubcek on down, returned to their posts when they returned from Moscow. Soviet authorities would have preferred not to have resorted to this expedient, but there was simply no one else available to take over running the country. These leaders (except of course for Kriegel) knew that they had done something humiliating, but believed that it had been a tactical necessity, as now they would be allowed to return and be left alone in their Czechoslovak leadership positions, and even to continue reforms – more carefully to be sure, but to continue them nonetheless.

This seems wildly delusional – Soviet troops, after all, were occupying the country – but it’s also true that there was still a high degree of freedom in Czechoslovakia even after the invasion. Students could still strike and demonstrate, even in favor of the occupying Soviet armies leaving; and there was still “freedom” of a sort in politics, as politicians identified with the “Prague Spring” were still allowed to sit in Parliament and government posts alongside their more hard-line colleagues. The Moscow Protocols weren’t even made public at first, so that the Czechs and Slovaks had no idea of the sort of after-the-fact approval of the invasion that had been given in their name – until those protocols were published in January, 1969, by the Czech magazine Svet prace (or “World of Work” – a great proletarian magazine title!), and that only as a reprint from the British magazine The Economist, which uncovered and published them first.

But gradually the political tightening set in, and the remarkable thing was that it was largely done at the beginning by these same politicians who had previously been at the “Prague Spring” forefront, above all by Dubcek himself. Prominent “Prague Spring” political organizations were forbidden; and in October, 1969, the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament approved the open-ended presence in the country of occupying Soviet troops by an overwhelming vote of 228 for, 10 abstaining, and 4 against (including our old friend Frantisek Kriegel). This was a much “better” vote – and at a much faster pace – than even Soviet officials had expected, Nemecek reveals. Why were these politicians so obedient, he asks? Among his answers: the parliamentary delegates simply wanted to avoid the bloody repression that demonstrations and any further defiance would inspire, and, after all, most of them had ultimately lived their political lives in an atmosphere of obedience to (and even admiration of) the Soviet Union.

The tightening went on: censorship started to take a firm hold again on the Czech and Slovak media towards the end of 1968, as journalists were instructed to take loyalty oaths, to watch over the ideological correctness of articles their colleagues wrote, and the like. The agreement to this by the national authorities basically amounted to a desperate (and hopeless) rear-guard operation; Dubcek and his “progressive” colleagues gave away concession after concession to Soviet demands, hoping that each would be the last. But to the public at large the way things were going was clear, and this was brought into sharp relief in January, 1969, with a serious of suicides by self-immolation, in Prague and in Plzen, started on the 16th by the Charles University student Jan Palach. Things reached the point where Czechoslovak president Ludvik Svoboda (another “Prague Spring” politician allowed to stay on) went on national TV to try to stop people from setting themselves on fire in public, promising that, as president, he would protect “all democratic freedoms.” Naturally, this was a lie; Svoboda himself was not to last in his presidential post for long.

March, 1969, came, and a victory by the Czechoslovak national ice-hockey team over the Soviets inspired wild jubilation in the cities of Czechoslovakia that in Prague turned into rioting, with the trashing of the local Aeroflot office. Maybe you thought this sort of thing started with the American “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid in 1980? In fact, this article is illustrated with a photograph of a demonstrator running out onto the ice (sans skates) during that international hockey tournament with a big sign posted around his body reading “We’re not afraid of the Russians in hockey, we’ll beat them and pay them back for August.” Respekt captions that picture “pucks against tanks,” and it does provide an eloquent depiction of how some consolation can be gained from the realm of the insignificant for losses suffered in the realm of the significant.

Then came April, and the return to repression really started to set in. Headlining this was the replacement of Aleksander Dubcek as head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (the excuse was his inability to contain the demonstrations set off by the hockey victory) by the Slovak lawyer Gustav Husák. Husák would turn out to be quite obedient to his masters in Moscow, would complete in short order the “normalization” process of returning Czechoslovakia to the repressive days of pre-1968, and would last in his post as head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party until giving up power to Vaclav Havel after the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. But none of this was clear at the time, and Nemecek notes the hope that Husák instead would turn out to be someone like János Kádár in Hungary or (briefly) Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland – that is, a local leader, moved into power after troubles in his country requiring some sort of Soviet intervention, who nonetheless demonstrates in short order the spunk required to stand up to the Russians (in a relative way, of course) to have them let him run the country with a bit of a softer touch. This hope was held by a number of prominent intellectuals. But it was not held by the man in the street, or by university students, who changed their slogan at demonstrations to “We are not for socialism with goose-bumps.” (Husák in Czech/Slovak means “he who takes care of the geese,” you see.)

And it was these latter who were right, of course. With the installation of Husák, right around the corner were incidents such as the massive armed suppression of demonstrations in August, 1969, which tried to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Soviet invasion. (Nemecek’s articles speaks of the the extensive use of tanks to intimidate the demonstrators, the only “combat” employment of tanks to occur in Czechoslovakia since the Second World War. From another accompanying illustration, I wouldn’t exactly call them “tanks” – they’re more like armored cars, or armored personnel carriers, and please remember that I’m a former US Army tanker myself – but I don’t think that this detracts from his point.) What’s more, extensive purges were set in place, as people in all walks of life had their actions and attitudes during the “Prague Spring” exhaustively examined. The Czechoslovak Communist Party itself removed more than 20% of its members from its ranks, and of course these purges influenced whose children could attend university and even who was to be permitted to continue to hold what job. It is mainly from here that the tales of highly-talented intellectuals working as window-washers, because of their actions and attitudes in 1968, start to arise. (Václav Havel, one of the most notorious of the “anti-government agitators,” was lucky to be assigned to haul raw materials at a Prague brewery.)

The whole import of Nemecek’s article comes together, I think, in the contrast between what happened in Hungary and Poland (Kádár and Gomulka) and what didn’t happen in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion. It got to the point that, when the next multinational crisis came around in 1989, Czechoslovakia was notoriously even more of a strict Marxist-Leninist state than the USSR itself, and certainly than most of its Central European neighbors. (Well, maybe not Albania.) But, as Nemecek relates, all of this was ultimately carried out by Czechs. His implied question: Just how secure is the love of the Czechs and Slovaks for “freedom,” even in adverse conditions? How little will it take for them to forsake it yet again for safety and comfort in the next crisis?

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