Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Prague Spring

The 1960s were a time of some uncertainty for the Soviet Union and the WPO nations. The Soviet leadership that replaced Khrushchev in 1964 was still uncertain how best to reply to hostility from both the west and from the PRC. Intellectual and nationalist dissenters were a growing source of irritation. WPO unity was under strain as Romania became increasingly uncooperative. This itself was hardly a major military loss, but if others followed this example it would be serious.

The developing crisis in Czechoslovakia therefore was observed in Moscow with uncertainty and hesitation. Czechoslovakia was the only WPO nation with a strong popular democratic tradition. Economic stagnation and Slovak demands for an answer to their long-standing claims to autonomy, therefore, aroused a widespread demand for political reforms. By 1967 these demands were openly being articulated by intellectuals and students. But there were plenty of members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz) who totally agreed.

Even Moscow agreed that some change was necessary. The CPCz leader, Antonín Novotny´, was an unreformed Stalinist, whose over-centralised regime was widely blamed for economic problems by Czechoslovakians and by Moscow alike. Thus the Soviet Union did not demure when the CPCz ousted Novotny´ in January 1968 and replaced him with Alexander Dubček, who was seen as a loyal Communist. Dubček embarked on a programme of reforms, which soon caused anxiety to Soviet and other WPO regimes.

As the reform movement progressed, under the slogan ‘Socialism with a human face’, these anxieties multiplied. Dubček never intended to threaten Soviet security and never considered leaving the WPO. Nor did he intend to allow the CPCz to lose control of Czechoslovakia. He did, however, want to reinvigorate the economy through improved trade relations with the west. To the horror of East Germany he spoke of normalising relations with West Germany. This would question the legitimacy of East Germany as a state. Also Dubček strongly believed that continued CPCz control was consistent with a degree of political liberalisation. Perhaps turning the National Assembly from a rubber stamp to a genuine legislature, where some opposition was permitted, would make CPCz rule more responsive to popular concerns.

Under Dubček, therefore, censorship was ended. Political reform became the central issue of public debate. Demands for reform, previously suppressed, were now tacitly encouraged. This had an impact beyond Czechoslovakia’s frontiers. Everywhere in the Communist world, intellectual and nationalist dissidents were encouraged. In March 1968 in Poland, public demonstrations, demanding similar reforms, ended in rioting. The Polish Communist Party was deeply divided when a reform movement emerged in its own ranks. In Czechoslovakia, ethnic Ukrainians began to agitate for the recognition of their national rights. Moscow was appalled – if this encouraged nationalists in Ukraine, the USSR might be plunged into a serious internal crisis.

A series of high-level government meetings were held to pressurise Dubček’s government into conforming. The tragedy for Czechoslovakia was that Dubček simply did not understand how serious the warnings he received were. In July he was summoned to a summit of WPO leaders gathered expressly to discipline him. He left mistakenly assuming that the assurances he offered satisfied his audience. Perhaps the hesitation of the Kremlin convinced him they intended to take no action.

He was wrong. The debate in the Kremlin was not whether to intervene or not, it was whether to intervene immediately, or to give him more time, in the hope that he would see reason. The more those hopes were frustrated, the more forceful the argument for immediate action became. Dubček blithely proceeded with reforms. He authorised a special Party Congress to remove his remaining opponents in the Presidium – the CPCz’s executive body. This was very much the last straw. The Kremlin decided Dubček must suppress the reform movement and agree to Soviet troops permanently stationed in Czechoslovakia or be removed. When increasingly threatening signals were ignored, an invasion was prepared.

Soviet concerns were greatly eased when neighbouring WPO governments unanimously agreed with the plans. President Johnson, distracted by Vietnam and hoping to restart détente, showed no interest in Czechoslovakia. Though surprised and angered by the invasion, there was no real danger of US reprisals.

The invasion, when it came on 20 August 1968, was an enormous military success. Paratroopers seized the airports and tanks and troops poured across four frontiers. Cities were occupied and the communications network quickly under control. The Czech army had never contemplated resistance. Politically it was chaotic. The remaining anti-reformers in the Presidium proved too weak to form an alternative government. The National Assembly and President were defiant. Civil resistance, including the self-immolation of a Prague student, Jan Palach, paralysed the state. The USSR was forced to reinstate Dubček, though only temporarily and he was unable to save his reforms. Despite this, Soviet control of east Europe was re-affirmed and the limits of reform clearly spelled out.

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