As a kid, we heard the stories of Cuban political prisoners. Our family dinner table was a classroom with my parents telling us about communism or reading the latest letter from Cuba.
I grew up admiring the men and women who risked their lives to fight for freedom. Some of these men were Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary, those who tried to cross the Berlin Wall, the guerrillas who fought Castro in The Escambray Mountains and those who tried reforms inside the Soviet bloc.
On August 21, 1968, the Rascals were riding high with a song called “People got to be free”.
It was a pop hit in the US. It was reality in the streets of Prague:
“On August 21, 1968, more than 200,000 troops of the Warsaw Pact crossed into Czechoslovakia in response to democratic and free market reforms being instituted by Czech Communist Party General Secretary Alexander Dubcek. Negotiations between Dubcek and Soviet bloc leaders failed to convince the Czech leader to back away from his reformist platform. The military intervention on August 21 indicated that the Soviets believed that Dubcek was going too far and needed to be restrained. On August 22, thousands of Czechs gathered in central Prague to protest the Soviet action and demand the withdrawal of foreign troops. Although it was designed to be a peaceful protest, violence often flared and several protesters were killed on August 22 and in the days to come.”
Alexander Dubcek’s mistake is that he called for reforms:
“On January 5th 1968, the party’s central committee nominated Dub?ek to succeed Novotný after the Czechoslovak Party Central Committee passed a vote of no confidence in Novotný.
What happened next must have come as a great surprise to the communist leaders in Moscow. Dub?ek announced that he wanted the Czech Communist Party to remain the predominant party in Czechoslovakia, but that he wanted the totalitarian aspects of the party to be reduced. Communist Party members in Czechoslovakia were given the right to challenge party policy as opposed to the traditional acceptance of all government policy. Party members were given the right to act “according to their conscience”. In what became known as the ‘Prague Spring’, he also announced the end of censorship and the right of Czech citizens to criticise the government. Newspapers took the opportunity to produce scathing reports about government incompetence and corruption.
Dub?ek also announced that farmers would have the right to form independent co-operatives and that trade unions would have increased rights to bargain for their members. Crucially, however, Dub?ek stated that Czechoslovakia had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact. Between July and August 1968, he met senior Moscow politicians on the Slovakian-Ukraine border to reassure them that they had nothing to worry about and that what he was trying to achieve would have no bearing on the Warsaw Pact and its ability to compete with NATO. He repeated the same message to all members of the Warsaw Pact on August 3rd 1968.
However, Dub?ek was informed by Moscow that they had discovered evidence that West Germany was planning to invade the Sudetenland and that the Soviet Union would provide Czechoslovakia with the troops needed to protect her from invasion. Dub?ek refused the offer but he must have known that this would count for nothing.
His reassurances about not leaving the Warsaw Pact were ignored and on August 20th/21st Soviet troops (with token forces from other members of the Warsaw Pact) invaded Czechoslovakia. Dub?ek was arrested by released after talks in Moscow. Dub?ek claimed that the talks had been “comradely” and that he was abandoning his reform programme. As a result, Dub?ek remained as First Secretary until April 1969 when he was appointed Speaker of the Federal Assembly until he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1970. Following his expulsion, he was banished to Bratislava where he worked in a timber yard.”
Prague ’68 followed Hungary ’56. It was another signal by the Kremlin that it would not tolerate dissent in any of its satellites.
The Soviet control over Eastern Europe began to crumble in the 1980s.
First, the USSR economy fell apart and no doses of Perestroika did anything to fix it. You can’t be an economic superpower if your tractors don’t work.
Second, the West stood strong led by every US president from Truman to the first Bush. It was a good example of bipartisanship and serious leadership.
Third, the Poles in the 1980s completed what the Hungarians and Czechs started. They revolted and succeeded in bringing down the Soviet empire.
Ironically, it was workers who brought down the “workers’ paradise.
It was many years ago and there are other issues on the table.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember today Alexander Dubcek and all of the men and women who stood up to Soviet tanks.