The Prague Spring

Background

Czechoslovakia had been a communist country, controlled by Moscow, since the end of World War Two. In 1968 the Czech people attempted to exert some control over their own lives and reform the Communist system to create 'Socialism with a human face'. That meant keeping the socialist model of government but guaranteeing a better delivery of goods, services and freedoms to the Czech people. This attempt, known as the Prague Spring, lasted for four months until it was crushed by the Soviet Red Army.

What caused the Prague Spring?

A weak economy, lack of personal freedom and a belief the USA would help are three factors that led to the Prague Spring
  1. The hard-line communist leader, Antonin Novotny, was unpopular. His rule was characterised by censorship of the press and a lack of personal freedom for ordinary citizens.
  2. The Czech economy was weak and many Czechs were bitter that the USSR controlled their economy for its own benefit. Czech farmers had to follow Communist Party guidance on what to produce and efforts to modernise farming were discouraged.
  3. Some Czechs thought the USA would come to their assistance if they stood up to Moscow.

Events of the Prague Spring

In 1967 Czech students began peacefully demonstrating against Novotny’s rule. Novotny asked the Soviet leader, Brezhnev, for help to crackdown on the protests, but Brezhnev refused, and in early 1968 Novotny was replaced as Communist Party Secretary by Alexander Dubcek.

In April 1968, Dubcek announced an Action Plan to deliver 'Socialism with a Human Face’ which, in a nutshell, meant removing state control of the economy and allowing freedom of speech.

Dubcek’s reforms began to worry the Soviets because although he claimed to be a committed communist, Dubcek proposed allowing non-communist political parties to be set up and to put up candidates for election. Also Dubcek said that Czechoslovakia would remain in the Warsaw Pact, but then welcomed Marshal Tito, President of Yugoslavia, to Prague. Yugoslavia had been communist since World War Two but was not a member of the Warsaw Pact and Moscow was wary of Tito.

The Soviet crackdown

A map which shows how Soviet and other Eastern European troops invaded Czechoslovakia to crackdown on the Prague Spring.
  • Worried that Czechoslovakia was slipping from his grasp, the Soviet leader, Brezhnev, declared that the USSR would not allow the countries of Eastern Europe to reject communism ‘even if it meant a third World War’. This became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.
  • To prove he meant business, on 20 August 1968, Brezhnev sent an invasion force of 500,000 troops from Warsaw Pact countries into Czechoslovakia.
  • Possibly terrified at the prospect of facing 500,000 soldiers, the Czechs did not fight back. Instead they employed peaceful protest tactics - standing in front of tanks and offering flowers to soldiers. The student activist, Jan Palach, burned himself to death in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
  • Dubcek was arrested and taken to Moscow. The pro-Soviet, Gustav Husak, was installed as the Czech leader to be Brezhnev’s lapdog. Husak reversed Dubcek’s reforms and Czechoslovakia remained a communist country inside the Warsaw Pact.

As in Hungary in 1956, the Western powers did nothing to actively support the Czechs in their ‘Prague Spring’. The US accepted that the Soviets were taking this action in their own sphere of influence, and the US was not going to consider any intervention that would constitute roll back of communism in Eastern Europe.