A Personal Testimony: What was going on during the 1968 Prague Spring?

20. 8. 2018 / Jan Čulík

čas čtení 36 minut

Photo: Jan Čulík in 1968

This is a personal testimony of what a 15-year old experienced 50 years ago.

I am fully aware of the warnings of historians that personal testimonies cannot be taken as verifiable facts. However, I am very disappointed with statements about the 1960s and the 1968 Prague Spring made by younger people who have not actually experienced these events. When I compare these statements to what I actually experienced, I find them crude, unsophisticated and stereotyped, so much so that it leads me to question whether research by people who have not actually experienced a particular time can be seen as reliable. I am aware that this sceptical approach may be seen by many as extreme, on the other hand I am also aware of the views which warn that accounts of historians about events in the past are on the level of fiction – and that when individuals make statements about past events which they have not personally experienced, what they say normally tells much more about the present time than about the historical event

When listening to presentations given at the Cambridge University conference devoted to the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Prague Spring, I have realised more than ever before how deeply each individual has been defined by the formative years of when he or she was growing up and how this prevents people to understand what was really happening in the past.

Almost everyone in the Czech Republic knows Jan Hřebejk’s popular feature film Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, 1999). This is supposed to be a film about the 1960s, but Jan Hřebejk, who was born in 1967, does not understand this period at all – he made a film about the inanity of the 1980s instead.

I once confided to a Britské listy contributor, who was also born in the late 1960s, that for me, the Czechoslovak flag was almost a sacred object, because I had seen many Czechoslovak flags bespattered with the blood of wounded demonstrators, protesting against the Warsaw-Pact led invasion which took place in August 1968. He said that for him, the Czechoslovak flag was a disgusting communist rag because he had only ever experienced it being used during communist, pro-Soviet rallies during the normalisation era. This difference in perception could not be more eloquent.

Many younger people have succumbed to simplified, post-communist propaganda, according to which events of 1968 and the liberalising developments of the 1960s were basically irrelevant, being little more than a “meaningless struggle between two factions of a criminal organisation, the Czechoslovak Communist Party”. In reality, the situation in the 1960s and during the 1968 Prague Spring was much more complex, as anyone will realise who takes the time to study the films, made in the 1960s or to read the literature, published at that time.

It is also a matter of concern that in the post-communist period in the Czech Republic, very little attention has been paid to what was actually happening during the 1968 Prague Spring. What is normally commemorated is the Warsaw Pact-led invasion from August 1968, but very little attention is paid to what actually preceded the invasion. It is quite understandable – the invasion was a major landmark which is easy for the media to latch on. What preceded it and what followed it seems much more subtle and contemporary public debate seems unable to take notice of it and to understand it.

It is a matter of – inevitable – regret that many aspects of what were major events during the momentous time of the 1968 Prague Spring are now forgotten. Here is an example:

In April 2018, I taught a course about Václav Havel’s plays at the Czech universities in Brno and in České Budějovice. Havel’s play Largo desolato (1984), written after the author was released from a long prison term, features Leopold Kopřiva, a dissident philosopher whose dissidence has been, as it were, “professionalised”. Everyone has strong expectations of him and places demands on him, because he, as a “professional dissident” will surely be able to solve all society’s problems. Two members of the public, employees of a paper mill, bring the dissident a supply of blank paper for his writing and expect him to “do something really major to instigate a political change”. Before they leave the dissident’s apartment, one of the men exclaims, “Jsme s vámi, buďte s námi!” (We are with you, you be with us!”)

I was stunned to find out that even some major Czech literary scholars are not aware now what this slogan refers to and what is its intertextual meaning. Of course, they cannot know this because they have not experienced the events of the 1968 Prague Spring.

Jsme s vámi, buďte s námi!” was the most important slogan of the 1968 Prague Spring from July 1968 onwards, when the representatives of the reformist Czechoslovak Communist Party and government were subjected to pressure from their Warsaw Pact allies to stop the liberalising reforms and were forced to negotiate with the representatives of the allied East European countries, including the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Havel in his plays often makes ironic fun of revered public slogans (including his own 1989 slogan, asserting, somewhat naively, that “Truth and Love must prevail over Lies and Hatred”, see his film Odcházení [Leaving, 2011]) and the fact that a member of the public, sixteen years after the defeat of the Prague Spring, still passionately uses this slogan of the suppressed reform movement, is particularly hilarious. But these subtleties seem to be forgotten now (just as Western audiences cannot now possibly grasp the subtle, ironic, paradoxical complexity contained in Vera’s crititical remark to dissident writer Bedřich, made in the play Vernisáž [Private View ], that he should not be ‘associating with the communists such as Pavel Kohout’, see “Má nyní Havlova hra Vernisáž levicově anarchistický význam?” [“Has Havel’s play Private View now acquired left wing, anarchist meaning?”] ).

But let me talk about my personal experiences of the Prague Spring.

The liberalising 1960s

It is a matter of regret that I was too young the liberalising atmosphere of the 1960s, before the 1968 Prague Spring. What a 10 to 14-year-old was able to register was that popular culture in Czechoslovakia in this period was totally obsessed by an idealised image of life of American cowboys and Red Indians in the 19th century and the romanticised mythology of the Wild West. Popular singers such as Waldemar Matuška stylised themselves into heroes of the American Wild West and the popularity of the West German film adaptations of the Wild West novels by Karl May, with their heroes of Old Shatterhand (played by Lex Barker) and Vinnetou (played by Pierre Brice) bordered on an obsession. There were informal picture exchanges in a couple of places in the Centre of Prague, where avid collectors traded images from these films amongst themselves. As far as indigenous Czech popular culture was concerned, the scene was totally dominated by subversive works such as the film musical Kdyby tisíc klarinetů (A Thousand Clarinets, 1964). Most songs featured in this musical have become classics and are still today part of the Czech music scene, but at the time of the film’s release that was saturation coverage in the media. A 12-year-old like me at the time did not realise that the message of the film was amazingly subversive: in its final scenes, the film calls for an armed rebellion against an authoritarian regime which is very reminiscent of communist Czechoslovakia.

At the start of “Normalisation” from 1970s, the Husák regime felt the need to re-occupy public space in Czechoslovakia with neostalinist political discourse. This is when public spaces were filled in, almost hysterically, with communist banners and slogans, such as “Se Sovětským svazem na věčné časy (Allied with the Soviet Union for eternity!”) This ideological onslaught went hand in hand with a wave of consumerism. From the beginning of the 1970s, people in Czechoslovakia had to suffer ideological slogans in public spaces, but it seemed that almost everyone had a fridge, a car, a second home and a TV set. In the 1960s, there were no political slogans in the public spaces, but people were much poorer. My parents eventually managed to get an old taxi car from the 1930s, which, before the family managed to travel anywhere, my father had to start manually with a starting handle, sometimes for almost half an hour, after he had poured hot water into the car’s radiator. My parents did not have a fridge until the second half of the 1960s and they only acquired a TV set in 1968.

Nevertheless, even a boy in his early teens managed to register, implicitly, a fairly liberal atmosphere in the second half of the 1960s. No one, for instance, wore the red scarfs of the Young Pioneers, unless on special occasions. It was not a problem for a pupil NOT to be a member of the Young Pioneer organisation and I was not, until the final year of elementary school, when I kind of took it over, as a 15-year-old. There was a lot of space in school for individual activity, not that the teachers encouraged it, but they did not prevent it. We organised film screenings and projected films, which were absolutely non-ideological – especially the Wild West ones about Vinnetou and Old Shatterhand…

Gossip percolated even to the level of a fourteen-year-old. So I learnt about how extremely perplexed and worried were the comrades in the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party when they were confronted with extreme popularity of the music programmes broadcast each afternoon by the Munich-based, US funded station Radio Free Europe. Hundreds of letters from Czechoslovak youngsters addressed to Radio Free Europe were apparently being received by Radio Prague – blithely ignorant of the fact that RFE was supposed to be an enemy, imperialist capitalist radio station, Czechoslovak young people were sending there musical requests to Czechoslovak Radio in Prague, requesting the station to forward their letters to Munich. As a result of the extreme popularity of the Radio Free Europe music afternoons, broadcast every weekday from 3 to 6 pm., Czechoslovak Radio launched a youth programme called Mikrofórum, which was scheduled exactly at the same time, attempting to lure the young audiences away from the Munich radio station.

From about 1963, a group of “young evangelical intellectuals emerged”, around Jan Patočka, Jiří Němec and Ladislav Hejdánek, says Jiří Holý in his history of Czech literature since 1945 Writers under Siege (2008, p. 61-62). My father, philosopher, English scholar and translator of especially novels by Graham Greene, was a part of this group, but its meetings, in our family flat in the Old Town of Prague, eventually finished as a result of energetic action by my mother. She told my father: “You shout here during these meetings until three o’clock in the morning, you all smoke like chimneys and stink the place out. There are children here. Why can’t these meetings take place at the Němecs’ flat some times?” They could not and so the meetings ended. My mother disrupted Czech cultural and intellectual history.

I have to admit that as an eleven to twelve year old, I was slightly afraid of Jan Němec, to be more precise of his name, which means “German”. As a result of early school propaganda, I probably imagined that he might be a member of the Gestapo or something. Jiří Němec was a clinical psychologist, a well known Catholic intellectual and later on, in the 1970s, a signatory and activist of Charter 77.

Although as a fourteen-year-old I was relatively conscious of the liberal atmosphere in the country, I of course was not aware of the momentous events which took place from June 1967 onwards and which led to the beginnings of the 1968 Prague Spring. In June 1967, the 4th Congress of Czechoslovak Writers took place in Prague, which turned into a cultural and political rebellion by Czech and Slovak writers, who demanded unconditional freedom for their creative activity (Ludvík Vaculík’s and Milan Kundera’s speeches were particularly important). The rebellion provoked a hysterical reaction from Jiří Hendrych, a top communist party official responsible for the sphere of culture, who exclaimed “Všechno jste prohráli! (You have lost everything”) and left the Congress, slamming the door behind him. The subversive literary weekly Literární noviny was taken away from the rebellious writers and entrusted to the management of pro-establishment collaborator Jan Zelenka (who, in the post-invasion period, became the “normalising” Chief Executive of Czechoslovak Television and stayed in the post for almost the whole period of normalisation, until June 1989).

So the writers’ rebellion from June 1967 seemed to be suppressed, but in the early autumn of 1967, a new scandal hit Prague. The work of students, living in the Strahov Halls of Residence, who were preparing for their autumn exams, was continually disrupted by power cuts – they could not study properly in the darkness. On one of the days in September 1967, they had had enough, took their candles and went down Nerudova Street to the city centre, chanting “We want light!” The students did not know that they had staged their demonstration on the day when the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party was in session, which however the police did know. The police became afraid that the student demonstration would go to the headquarters of the Czechoslovak Communist Party on the banks of the river in the Old Town of Prague. The police also interpreted the students’s slogan “We want light!” rather philosophically, meaning, “We want enlightenment!” and so they beat them up.

But by this time, there were many reformists in the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and these people were scandalised by the fact that “our children are being beaten by the police”. The police action against the students became the subject of protracted debates in the Communist Party Central Committee towards the end of 1967 and a springboard for the demands for general renewal and reform. However, the debates in the Central Committee dragged on and female members of the Central Committee complained that they did not have time to continue with the discussions into December because they had to do their Christmas baking. On the request of the comradesses, the meeting of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party was therefore adjourned until 5th January 1968, when the Central Committee elected Alexander Dubček the First Secretary of the Communist Party and recalled the incumbent First Secretary Antonín Novotný.

When the 1968 Prague Spring started

Nothing seemed to happen for about three months. The acceleration of the arrival of the 1968 Prague Spring seems be have been brought about by the scandal of the corrupt army general Jan Šejna, who was conducting corrupt transactions buying and selling large amount of seed and when his misdeeds were uncovered, he defected into the United States. Šejna was a member of the camp of the communist conservatives and his defection seriously damaged their cause at the outset of the Prague Spring.

A fifteen-year-old like me realised that something unusual was going on on 20th March 1968 in the evening. I remember it as if it were today. It was half past seven in the evening, we had just had our dinner, we were in the kitchen of our Prague flat, my mother was washing up the dishes, I was helping to dry them. The transistor radio was on.

Radio Prague was in the habit of broadcasting a series of information programmes after the main evening news bulleting at 7 pm. The title of the series was “Co chcete vědět o… (What you want to know about…)” - for instance, current social welfare provisions. The name of the debate on that evening was “Co chcete vědět o současné politické situaci (What you want to know about the current political situation)”. This was a discussion programme, based on questions and answers, which was broadcast from the Julis Fučík Entertainment and Rest Park (these days, it is called Výstaviště, the Exhibition Area in Prague 7 – Holešovice). The panel of experts included, amongst other, the reformist communist politician Josef Smrkovský and the writer and playwright Pavel Kohout.

Within a few minutes after the beginning of the programme, we were all stunned. The programme started voicing incredibly open questions about the regime in Czechoslovakia and about the crimes of its recent Stalinist past. Just like most of the nation, I suppose, we were glued to the radio set, listening with bated breath. The programme continued until around 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and we all continued listening, not believing our ears, until, in the small hours, an announcer came on the air with an apology, saying that the radio station must now start preparing for its morning broadcasting, so the live transmission from Holešovice will now be terminated.

And that was the beginning of the 1968 Prague Spring. A complete recording of this remarkable programme is available in the archives of Czech Radio to this day.

The 1968 Prague Spring was a total media orgy, so it was right and proper that it started with this unprecedented radio broadcast. It can be said with reasonable accuracy that no one really did very much during the Prague Spring: people just stood in the streets and passionately debated their past and their possible future. The public debate totally overwhelmed all the media, radio, television and the newspapers. People would spontaneously gather in the park Na příkopech (where now the Myslbek shopping centre stands) or near the statue of St Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square and debate the problems of the day.

In a way, it all had a very infantile, teenage feel – no wonder that a fifteen-year-old like me was totally fascinated, in a trance. Of course the nation was highly traumatised by the Stalinist and post-Stalinist abuse and injustice and people needed to talk about it in public to exorcise their grief. They had to get it out of their system.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 pm until 11 pm, Prague Radio broadcast the programme Písničky s telefonem (Songs and the Telephone). In between playing tracks of popular music, the presenters phoned minsters and party officials at home and asked them hard questions. During one of the “Salons of Critical Thinking”, organised by the playwright Alex Koenigsmark in the 2000s, I talked to Jiří Dienstbier Senior, who was a Radio Prague broadcaster in the 1960s and achieved a status of a media celebrity in 1968, along with his colleagues Sláva Volný and Věra Šťovíčková about how fascinated I was as a fifteen-year old by his Písničky s telefonem in the spring of 1968.

But we had been running that programme for several years before 1968,” said Dienstbier and told me a story about his work as a journalist in Radio Prague in the second half of the 1960s:

He and the great Czech radio journalist of the 1960s Milan Weiner were running a news and current affairs programme “The World Tonight”, which was broadcast every day at 10 pm on the new FM station of Radio Prague. Once, some time in 1966 or 1967, they suddenly had a terrible problem. A government minister phoned them from his ministry. He was shocked and angry. What happened?

He was normally used to listening to the traditional Radio Prague medium wave station on his old valve radio in his living room. But on one particular night there was a power cut, so the hapless minister turned on one of these new small transistor battery operated radio sets which was tuned to the new Radio Prague FM station and was horrified to hear Dienstbier’s programme “The World Tonight”. It featured a 20 minute interview with the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The communist minister was horrified that the “capitalist” politician had been given free air time for 20 minutes, basically “uncorrected”. “Heads will fall,” the minister threatened and demanded a tape of the programme and a transcript.

What to do? In this pre-computerised age, Jiří Dienstbier asked his secretary to type out a transcript of the interview. Then he took a red pencil and crossed out all the bits of the interview which the minister could possibly regard as questionable. Then Mr. Dienstbier asked the radio technicians to cut out the offending bits from the recording of the interview – and once it was cut and re-copied on a new tape, he asked his secretary to do yet another typescript of the interview – now shortened. The shortened interview and the audio tape was sent to the ministry – and there was no reaction. The minister must have concluded that he may have misheard the interview – and no heads rolled.

The story was remarkable,  Jiří Dientsbier told me, in the sense that dozens of Radio Prague employees were willing, selflessly, to cooperate against the conservative representatives of the communist regime in the interest of liberalisation. A level of civic engagement which could hardly be seen in post-communist Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic,  Dienstbier added. And this was the ethos that drove the 1968 Prague Spring – long before it had started.

The name Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk stopped being a taboo subject and if you went to the village of Lány, where Czechoslovak Presidents had their summer residence, you discovered that the local cinema played, round the clock, over and over again, historical footage of Masaryk moving about the place. Some of it was silent home movies, everything was raw and spontaneous, and unprepared. On television, victims of torture confronted their interrogators: “Why did you tried to drown me in that bath?” Some communist criminals committed suicide. Often, the spontaneous debates were of a rather tragicomic nature. Ludvík Vaculík described it eloquently in his piece “Obrodný proces v Semilech”

On 22nd March, 1968, Antonín Novotný resigned also from his post of Czechoslovak President and a campaign started for the election of a new one. Students vociferously supported the then Education Secretary Čestmír Císař as their candidate, but the communist party, which was fully in control , chose former general Ludvík Svoboda for the post. It did help his candidature that he had been unjustly ostracised in the 1950s, but that hid the fact that Svoboda was really an unreconstructed Stalinist himself.

Zdeněk Mlynář

The somewhat infantile media debating orgy continued unabated until approximately the end of June 1968, although some more concrete steps were taken. In February 1968, censorship was practically abolished (the first real impact of this change was not felt until 20th March, with that special radio programme, see above.) In April 1968, the liberalising Action Programme of the Czechoslovak Communist Party was published. It was primarily the work of Zdeněk Mlynář, a reformist member of the Praesidum of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and a fellow-student of Mikhail Gorbachev at the Law Faculty in Moscow in the 1950s. Mlynář, incidentally, wrote a gripping memoir about his experiences during the 1968 Prague Spring, written from the vantage point of a politician, who was right at the top of the decision-making pyramid in Czechoslovakia. This memoir was published in Czech under the title Mráz přichází z Kremlu (Index, Cologne, 1978, Mladá fronta, Prague 1990), in English as Nightfrost in Prague (C Hurst, London, 1980). It was made into a dramatic film called Invasion by the UK commercial TV station Granada Television in the early 1980s.

In Mráz přichází z Kremlu, Mlynář complains that the meetings of the the Communist Party Praesidium were extremely unsatisfactory. There was never any set agenda for any of the meetings, there was no strategy and the time of the meetings was wasted by unstructured ravings of various Praesidium members. Thus a paradoxical situation arose: the public now more or less trusted the leadership of the Communist Party and thought that it was made up of real statesmen who make serious and important decisions about the future of the country. Nothing could be further from the truth: according to Mlynář’s testimony, the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party was basically helpless.

The media, particularly those in the West, built up Alexander Dubček into a larger than life political personality, a true leader of the liberalisation movemenet. But Dubček was passive and hesitant. His main characteristic feature was that he was unable and unwilling to use harsh methods of coercion and suppression, so he basically allowed himself passively to be carried along by what the media and the Czechoslovak intellectuals said. The 1968 Prague Spring was primarily a media event.

Squaring the Circle

There was a real problem with even the most liberal, reformist communists in 1968. They were emotionally profoundly involved with the cause of communism and they sincerely believed that communism was right. Mlynář confesses in his book that after he had fallen from grace and had in effect become a hated dissident in post-invasion Czechoslovakia, it still took him about two years to free himself of the notion that “my Communist Party is always right”. Dubček had spent his younger years in the Soviet Union, spoke Russian fluently and was deeply in love with the Soviet Union and the Communist cause. He saw the Soviet invasion in August 1968 as a personal betrayal by the Soviets who he had totally trusted.

It was decreed during the 1968 Prague Spring that a new, reformist Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party would take place in September 1968. The Congress was supposed to elect new reformist leadership and new reformist regional and district communist officials. This is what the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact allies feared most – the Congress would legitimise the reformist, liberal strategy of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Hence the invasion had to take place before the Congress could start.

In fact, the Czechoslovak reformist communists knew full well why the forthcoming Congress was so important. This is why, after the invasion happened on the night of 20th August 1968, the Congress of the Communist Party was brought forward and it took place during the occupation in one of the large industrial factories in Prague’s Vysočany district. The Congress of course condemned the invasion, gave democratic legitimity to the reformist course of the Communist Party and elected a new CP leadership.

It needed an ingenious move by the rising star of Normalisation, Dr. Gustáv Husák (who incidentally behaved as a Prague Spring reformer during the pre-invasion months) to neutralise this danger. Husák had the 14th extraordinary Vysočany Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party anulled because he argued – rightly – that it was not quorate. There were very few delegates from Slovakia, because, naturally, under the conditions of occupation it was impossible for the Slovak delegates to reach Prague.

Reformist communists during the 1968 Prague Spring had a serious problem of needing to square a circle – but there was no time for the situation to arise when they would have to confront this problem head on. They were wanting to “democratise” Czechoslovak society, but at the same time they insisted that society must be governed by the Communist Party. The so called “leading role of the Communist Party” could not be questioned.

Occasionally, this problem was discussed during the 1968 Prague Spring. The reformist communists did want to introduce democratic elections, but they did not have an answer for what would happen if the voters voted the communists out of power. Because they were totally committed to the communist idea, they sincerely believed that this was impossible. It would never happen. The Communist Party would have to behave in such a way as to never to lose the support of the voting population.

How could they believe that it would never happen that the population would become disaffected with the Communist Party? Well, in the first place, during the 1968 Prague Spring, the Communist Party was extremely popular, so it was quite easy to believe that it would never lose its popularity. The leading communist reformers such as Head of Parliament Smrkovský or Prime Minister Černík relished the fact that they were at the top of popularity polls, and, in fact, as Mlynář records, shaped their public behaviour in such a way that they popularity would grow even more.

Czechoslovak reformist communists sincerely believed in Marxist-Leninist ideology, according to which progress in history through what Marxism calls “economic formations” (primitive society, feudalism, capitalism) all the way to communism was inexorable and inevitable. Since everything was eventually going to end up in communism, this was a historically given fact, it was, in their view, also historically pre-determined that the Communist Party would keep their leading role. Hard to tell what they would do if they found that the Communist Party has been voted out of office.

Pressure from the allies

Signs of official displeasure, warning that reforms were perhaps moving forward too fast, were appearing towards the end of the spring. Under relentless pressure from the allies, especially, East Germans, who were complaining that the Czechoslovaks, due to their “irresponsible behaviour”, will bring about a nuclear war (interestingly, this absurd argument was raised by some East German scholars at a conference in Siena, Italy, as late as 2005!) Dubček did try occasionally, from late May 1968 onwards, to complain in public that the progress of reform was moving forward too quickly. (He was criticised for it in the press, see this cover of the satirical magazine Dikobraz, published at the beginning of May 1968.) A series problem for the leadership of the Communist Party was the manifesto Two Thousand Words, written by writer Ludvík Vaculík, and published in Literární listy and a number of other publications on 27th June 1968. In the manifesto, Vaculík called for grassroots activity: “Let us set up our own civic committees for the solution of problems that no one wants to deal with. It is simple: a few people meet, they elect their Chair, they write proper minutes, they publish their findings, they demand a solution, they will not be silenced.” The manifesto was signed by thousands of committed citizens and is said to have been perhaps the main cause of the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968.

The freewheeling, open, uncensored media debate came increasingly under the pressure of the allies. Dubček was invited to take part in a meeting of the Warsaw Pact allies in early July 1968, but instead of privately responding to the invitation, the leadership of the Communist Party gave the letter from the East European leaders to the media to broadcast, and then broadcast its response – in it, Dubček defended the reform programme and refused to go to Warsaw. The Communist Party said that it had an inalienable right to solve the problems of its country on its own. More pressure from the allies followed, culminating with meetings between the Czechoslovak Communist leadership in Čierna nad Tisou and in Bratislava. July 1968 was full of tension: it did not help that some Soviet troops were actually on Czechoslovak territory already: from May 1968, joint Warsaw Pact military exercises took place in Czechoslovakia. At one point, tension was heightened even more when the dead bodies of two girls were found at Prokopské údolí, a park on the outskirts of Prague. Speculation was rife that the girls may have witnessed an operation of Soviet secret services and needed to be eliminated.

Czechoslovak society reacted by passionate, vociferous support for the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership. Thus, in the final weeks of the 1968 Prague Spring, the public debate degenerated into hugely emotional support for the Czechoslovak leaders from the population. In an unwitting imitation of campaigns from the Stalinist times, when workers’ collectives sent mass letters demanding death to traitors of Stalinism, in the summer of 1968, thousands of workers’ collectives sent resolutions of support to the leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The tension subsided after the meeting of the Czechoslovak leadership in Bratislava on 29th July-1st August 1968. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and went finally on holiday.


On Tuesday 20th August 1968 came a hot summer night. The windows in the Prague flat were open and the family was watching an unending, lyrical classic Czech film Řeka čaruje. Then we went to bed and were woken up occasionally by strange noise – it was the Russian aircraft flying over Prague and landing tanks at Prague airport. At four o’clock in the morning, the telephone rang - “We have been occupied by the Russians.” Many people first learned about the occupation from these early morning phone calls.

The Praesidium of the Czechoslovak Communist Party learned of the invasion before midnight and quickly issued a declaration protesting against the occupation. Prague Radio started broadcasting it just before the close down of its night broadcasting, at 1 am in the morning, but only the first sentence of the proclamation was broadcast. Karel Hoffman, the director of Czechoslovak communications, ordered that the Czechoslovak transmitters be switched off. (In 2004, the 80-year-old Hoffman was sentenced to a four year prison term for this act of “sabotage”.)

Another media orgy

But the broadcasting of the radio and television network was quickly reinstated. All of us listened with horror to the broadcasting of the famous 1968 Radio Presenters Věra Šťovíčková, Jiří Dienstbier, Sláva Volný and others from the Radio Prague building in Vinohradská Street in the morning of Wednesday 21st August 1968. I still have the recordings. We heard the shots in the street and heard the good byes of the presenters.

But they quickly managed to establish a clandestine network of radio studios in many places in Prague and up and down the country. Television also managed to broadcast, even though with difficulties and for only a short period of time.

But the radio journalists became real heroes of the first week of the Warsaw Pact invasion. They managed to broadcast without interruption, calming the public and providing vital, essential information. It was due to the coordinating, unifying, highly professional and factual work of the radio journalists that no major bloodshed took place during the invasion.

In a sense, the occupation quickly assumed the characteristic features of the previous weeks and months of the Prague Spring: it was a media orgy in the best sense of the word. People had not given up their appetite for public debate and they passionately involved the Soviet troops sitting on their tanks in the streets of the Czech cities, telling them that there was no “counterrevolution” in Czechoslovakia. Shop windows and street walls were immediately filled with hundreds of posters, slogans and cartoons, mocking the invasion. Weekly newspapers starting being issued several times a day: Vans filled with the new editions distributed the newspapers for free throughout the cities. The nation entered a strange state of euphoria. The unity of the nation, coordinated by the work of the media, probably saved the lives of the Communist Party leadership after it had been hijacked to Moscow. President Svoboda informed the nation that he was flying to Moscow to get the leaders back.

Before the Czechoslovak communist leaders were allowed back to Prague, they were forced to sign the infamous Moscow Protocols, in which they pledged themselves to dismantle the Prague Spring reforms. (František Kriegel was the only member of the delegation who refused to sign this document.) In signing the protocols, the CP leadership was seriously out of step with the euphoric mood of the nation, which was absolutely refusing to accept any Russian demands. Rebellious voices were heard when it transpired on the return of the Czechoslovak leadership to Prague from Moscow on 27th August – but they were all neutralised by Alexander Dubček’s sobbing radio speech.

The aftermath

What to add? A few days later, I started studying at Gymnasium v Praze 7 Nad štolou, in one of the two, then “experimental” four-year secondary school classes (until that time, secondary school education lasted only for three years). I was admitted to a foreign language class, Alexander Dubček’s son attended the other, mathematical, four year class.

In my first year at this secondary school, I experienced the nationwide university and secondary school strike against the invasion, which took place in November 1968. The post-invasion clampdown did not come straight away. It was of course now forbidden to use the expressions “occupation” or “invasion” in the media or to criticise the Soviet Union, but otherwise the nation remained united. Everybody nodded and winked. Television broadcasting at Christmas 1968 and during the New Year of 1969 was full of these nods and winks: “We are all unified as a nation in our unhappy lot, you all know against whom” was the message. The slow clamp down, had, however started, and it could not be stopped by the immolation of Jan Palach in January 1969, which again, unified the nation both on radio and television – Palach’s funeral was attended by a million people.

The final gasp of the 1968 Prague Spring came in March 1969, when the Czechoslovak ice hockey team twice in a row defeated the Soviet team. This led to anti-Soviet demonstrations in Prague. The Czech secret police misused them and set fire to the Wenceslas Square offices of the Russian airline Aeroflot – the provocative act was intended to serve to justify further clampdown. Demonstrations against the Warsaw Pact invasion on 21st August 1969 were brutally suppressed by the Czechoslovak security forces – the order to do so was signed by Alexander Dubček.

After a short stint as an Ambassador to Turkey, Alexander Dubček was dismissed from government and party service and retired to Bratislava where he worked for many years as a minor forestry clerk.

Gustáv Husák started his normalisation with wholesale purges. Although no one could believe the Soviet propaganda, which was now newly reimposed on the nation, most people started regurgitating it, as was expected of them, in order to keep their jobs and professional positions. Husák did not mind what you did in 1968 if you were willing to denigrate yourself and denounce your previous prodemocratic stance. If you did so, he rewarded you with consumerist benefits.

And this is how a deeply demoralising chapter in modern Czechoslovak history started – which is influencing the mentality of the nation to this very day.

When I later studied Czech literature at Charles University in Prague, I noticed that poet Jan Neruda (born 1834) was deeply influenced by the momentous events of 1848, the year of democratic revolutions in Europe, for the rest of his life (he was then 14). I know what they mean. I of course do not want to compare myself to Jan Neruda, but like him, I am a child of the 1968 democratic revolution – it has deeply influenced me for the whole of my life.



Obsah vydání | 22. 8. 2018