Czech Republic Magazine Slovakia

On this Day, in 1968: the Prague Spring began with the election of Alexander Dubček

On January 5, 1968, Slovak reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), and de facto leader of the Soviet satellite state, ushering in a period of political liberalization, known as the Prague Spring.

After the war, Slovak-born Alexander Dubček steadily rose through the ranks in Communist Czechoslovakia as a member of the National Assembly, before becoming First Secretary of the Slovak branch of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), unseating the hard-line allies of Antonín Novotný, the Stalinist President of Czechoslovakia and First Secretary of the KSČ.

Under Dubček’s leadership, Slovakia began to evolve toward political liberalization. And with the political climate in Slovakia starting to become increasingly freer than in the neighbouring Czech lands, the Slovak branch of the Communist Party worked to promote Slovak identity, which had long been denigrated by Novotný and his predecessors. This mainly took the form of celebrations and commemorations, such as the centenary of the Matica slovenská, and the twentieth anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising.

Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak economy began experiencing a serious downturn. The process of de-Stalinization had progressed much slower in Czechoslovakia than in other states of the Eastern Bloc, and the Soviet model of industrialization, which mainly took into account less developed economies, applied poorly to the country. Novotný’s last-ditch attempt at restructuring the economy in 1965 spurred increased demands for political reform.

Novotný soon faced a mutiny in the Central Committee, led by Dubček and the economist Ota Šik, and was forced to resign. With his background and training in Russia, Alexander Dubček was seen by the USSR as a safe pair of hands and “our Sasha”, as the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called him, became the new First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and de facto leader of the Soviet satellite state, ushering in a period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring.

At the Presidium of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in April, Dubček announced a political programme of “socialism with a human face”, which sought to liberalize the Communist government, eliminating its worst and most repressive features, and allowing greater freedom of expression and tolerating political and social organizations not under Communist control. Dubček’s relaxation of censorship ushered in a brief period of freedom of speech and the press, and political commentary was allowed for the first time in mainstream media.

But Dubček soon found himself in an increasingly untenable position. On the one hand, the program of reform gained momentum, leading to pressures for further liberalization and democratization, but at the same time, hard-line Communists in Czechoslovakia pressured Dubček to rein in the Prague Spring. In addition, Leonid Brezhnev and the hard-line leaders of other Warsaw Pact countries grew concerned about the reforms, which they feared might weaken the position of the Bloc in the Cold War.

The Soviet leadership tried to slow down the changes in Czechoslovakia through a series of negotiations, during which Dubček attempted to reassure the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact leaders that he was still friendly to Moscow, arguing that the reforms were an internal matter.

Drawing from the experience of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, during which the leaders had gone as far as withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, Dubček hoped that the Kremlin would allow him a free hand in pursuing domestic reform as long as Czechoslovakia remained a faithful member of the Soviet bloc.

But in August 1968, seven months after the election of Dubček, military forces from every Warsaw Pact member state, except for Albania and Romania, invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring.

Despite the fact that Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist, 137 Czechs and Slovaks were killed, and hundreds more were wounded during the invasion. Dubček was promptly arrested by the KGB and taken to Moscow along with several of his colleagues.

Dubček was replaced as First Secretary by Gustáv Husák, and a period of “normalization” began, during which Husák reversed Dubček’s reforms, purged the party of its liberal members, and dismissed from public office professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political transformation.

He also sought to re-centralize the economy, as a considerable amount of freedom had been granted to industries during the Prague Spring. The only significant change that survived was the federalization of the country, which created the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic in 1969.

In 1987, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that his liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika owed a great deal to Dubček’s “socialism with a human face”. When asked to explain the difference between the Dubcek and Gorbachev reforms, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman at the time, Gennadi I. Gerasimov, said, ”Nineteen years.”

Dubček lent his support to the Velvet Revolution of December 1989 and became chairman of the federal assembly under the Havel administration after the collapse of the Communist regime. He later led the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia, and spoke against the dissolution of Czechoslovakia before his death in November 1992.

Long hidden and rejected from the collective memory, the Prague Spring of 1968 is rarely commemorated in Prague and is often considered a painful defeat, a symbol of disappointed hope and surrender that heralds twenty years of “normalisation”.

It was not until the 2000s that the debate on the Prague Spring resumed and in 2019, the Czech Senate approved an amendment to the law on public holidays establishing August 21 as a national day in memory of the invasion of Czechoslovakia from Warsaw Pact troops.

The posterity of the Prague Spring remains indeed first and foremost the memory of the military intervention of the Warsaw Pact as well as the failure of reform within a communist regime. But the Prague Spring should also be remembered for the cultural momentum that accompanied and illustrated the movement, which also influenced a renewal of the Prague artistic and cultural scene, as well as a liberalization of society which deeply marked the following years and acted as the prelude to the upheavals of 1968.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.