The Unbearable Lightness of Prague Spring

prague opening

The year 1968 provided for a considerable amount of cultural and historical material all around the world. In Czechoslovakia, 1968 represents the year of the Prague Spring and the attempted liberalization of the Eastern Bloc country. During the 1960’s, De-Stalinization had begun under the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Antonín Novotný. By late 1967, Novotný was losing support and even Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev began to oppose him. A major source of the opposition came from members of the Czech writers union and other intellectuals. Many citizens supported the opposition because of the struggling economy that the almost-Western country faced under the Soviet model of industrialization. Novotný was eventually ousted, and on January 5, 1968 reformer and career party politician,  Alexander Dubček took over as First Secretary. Soon after, on the anniversary of “Victorious February” (the communist takeover celebration),  Dubček delivered a speech advocating change. He wanted socialism to fit the historical context of Czechoslovakia. The avenue that he used for his reforms was called the Action Program which would allow for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, availability of more consumer goods, limited power to the secret police, and the possibility of an eventual multiparty government. For us these reforms are cornerstones built into American history, but to an Eastern Bloc country, these had the possibility to be viewed as extremely dangerous measures (Perestroika and Glasnost, anyone?). Dubček’s slogan for his new agenda was “Socialism with a Human Face” and sounds a bit hostile to the Marx-Leninists in the motherland.

Dubček in Czechoslovakia

Dubček in Czechoslovakia

After Dubček took over, scholar Eduard Goldstucker became editor in chief of the formally strictly communist controlled paper  Literarni listy (renamed from  Literarni noviny) and head of the writers union. He tested  Dubček’s loyalty to reform by criticizing Novotný’s leadership and the lack of Czechoslovakian economic progress and Dubček passed and earned the writer’s trust. Everything seemed to be optimistic and peaceful in Czechoslovakia during the Dubček reforms, which came to be known as Prague Spring (the predecessor to Beijing Spring, Croatian Spring, and most relevant to us: Arab Spring).. that is until members of the Warsaw Pact, (Brezhnev) began to grow concerned. Negotiations between the “Warsaw Five” and Dubček began to take place almost immediately after the launch of the Action Program. Dubček did his best to defend his reforms despite some opposition in his own party, and attempted to compromise. In the end, even if Dubček had really wanted to, he likely could not have reeled in the fervor that had resulted from the liberalizations attained during the Prague Spring.  The Soviet Union was not happy with this and in The Warsaw Letter it is clear that Czechoslovakia’s communist deviance would soon be met with force as it reads,

…”a bold and decisive offensive should be launched against right-wing and anti-socialist forces; that all the defensive means set up by the socialist state should be mobilized; that a stop should be put to the activity of all political organizations that come out against socialism; that the party should take control of the mass-information media-press, radio, and television-and use them in the interests of the working class, of all working people, and of socialism; that the ranks of the party itself should be closed on the principled basis of Marxism-Leninism; that the principle of democratic centralism should be undeviatingly observed; and that a struggle should be undertaken against those whose activity helps the enemy…

We express the conviction that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, conscious of its responsibility, will take the necessary steps to block the path of reaction. In this struggle, you can count on the solidarity and all-around assistance of the fraternal socialist countries.” (The Warsaw Letter, July 18, 1968)

Throughout the rest of the summer of 1968, negotiations between the Warsaw Pact and Czechoslovakia were not satisfactory to the Soviet Union. By the end of August, it was clear that the only way to put down the Prague Spring, was through force- This would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. This doctrine was to be the means through which the Soviet Union would get socialist governments to subordinate to their national interests and the interests of socialism, and if force was necessary it was to be used.


On August 20, the Warsaw Pact countries sent in their tanks and invaded Czechoslovakia with troops in the hundreds of thousands and with the backing of the Politbiuro . The invasion killed a little over one hundred citizens and barely took a day to take control of the country.


The Soviet Press printed a “Letter to Brezhnev” (which it turned out had not come from the Czechoslovakian leadership) in which the KSČ government had invited the invasion. A line from the “letter” reads (in Russian, not Czech or Slovak, by the way),

“We realize that for both the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet government, this ultimate step to preserve socialism in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic will not be easy. Therefore, we will struggle with all our power and all our means. But if our strength and capabilities are depleted or fail to bring positive results, then our statement should be regarded as an urgent request and plea for your intervention and all-round assistance.” (Letter to Brezhnev, August 1968)

To the credit of Dubček, he asked his citizens not to respond violently. The public relations disaster that followed this was bad enough for the Soviet Union. In addition to much Western criticism, Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, and countries like Romania and Finland saw it as a scandal as many saw this invasion as an act of imperialism. In Red Square, eight demonstrators were arrested for protesting against the invasion and for supporting Czechoslovakia.

Red Square protester banner:  "FOR YOUR FREEDOM AND OURS"

Red Square protester banner:

The Current Digest of the Russian press provides us with the voice to the Soviet about the situation in their satellite country a few months after the invasion. The author writes,

“There is a growing understanding in Czechoslovakia of the need for truly socialist development of the country.

…Many Czechoslovak patriots emphasize in their statements and letters that the allied troops have helped to defend the state’s socialist foundations and to thwart the intrigues of internal reaction and external imperialist forces-particularly the West German revanchists, who have still not renounced their claims to Czechoslovak soil.”

The article continues to denounce the anti-socialist aims of Czechoslovakia, and expresses a genuine need for Czechoslovakia to put their media under communist control (so that articles like this can be mass read in Czechoslovakia). So at first glance you may ask, ‘What is the significance of this?’. After all, we just finished discussing a similar situation in Hungary that had to be put down a little over a decade earlier. In my opinion, this act of rebellion was different. It was not different in that it produced a result that was not a communist victory, but it was different in that it produced a concrete idea that would have lasting effects for the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and the rest of the world two decades later. Future Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, would later admit that he saw the need for Perestroika and Glasnost (Socialism with a Human Face) from the events of the Prague Spring. In fact, Gorbachev and Dubček were both students at the Moscow State University in the 1950s and had mutual associates. Gorbachev told a Slovak newspaper in 1998 that he “found courage and strength to start fundamental changes” in the 1980s because of the events of the Prague Spring. I took the idea for the title of this entry from the Czechoslovakian novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera which was set during the Prague Spring. Kundera took the title from an idea furthered by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that essentially says that the events of the earth have already occurred and will continue to occur forever, and sought to challenge the idea in the novel. In 1989, when a similar situation occurred in East Germany that would have normally been met with the force under the Brezhnev Doctrine, Gorbachev did not repeat history’s precedent; He let change happen- Change that Brezhnev was not ready to allow in 1968.

I used the module 1968: Crisis in Czechoslovakia for the topic of my post this week. The module can be found at:

Some primary sources that I used in this post can be found at the following sites:

Warsaw Letter:

Letter to Brezhnev:

Current Digest of the Russian Press:

I also used the Wikipedia article Prague Spring to frame a lot of my background information:

And finally this article for some interesting points:

The photos are found at theses sites in the order in which they appear:,  and