The Short-lived Prague Spring of Czechoslovakia


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Many educated Czechoslovakians who’d lived through the worst of World War II embraced communism in the days after the Nazi occupation ended. Until 1948, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had even tolerated a situation in which non-communist Czechoslovakians held important posts in the coalition government. But in February 1948, a coup turned the country into a one-party state.

Soviet tank in the street in Czechoslovakia
The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia was short-lived but, for many citizens, a liberating experience. (Image: František Dostál/Public domain)

Tensions Rise

Antonin Novotny became the Czechoslovakian communist party’s general secretary in 1953. And he proved to be a dogmatic follower of Soviet policy for the next 15 years. But in the mid-1960s, Czechoslovakia came to face increasing internal challenges. The Slovak population chafed at continued Czech domination, and the once-strong economy sputtered. 

Tensions also emerged within the Czechoslovakian communist party itself. Some members advocated for political reform to adapt socialism to a changing world, while others dogmatically clung to the Stalinist policies of the past.

Modest Reforms Get Out of Hand

Portrait of Antonin Novotny
To split the difference and ease tension within the Communist party, it was decided that Antonin Novotny would remain head of the government. (Image: Harry Pot/Public domain)

By the start of 1968, the party decided to split the difference. The hardliner Novotny would remain head of the government. But the more liberal head of the regional Slovak communist party, Alexander Dubček, was elevated to the top position in the country as the general secretary of the Czechoslovakian communist party. Dubček then slowly, and carefully, implemented some modest reforms.

For instance, the Czechoslovak communist party curtailed censorship. In Czechoslovakia, in the spring of 1968, articles, books, plays, and poetry that would have seemed impossible just a few months before began to appear. Theaters bustled with energy. And the streets of Prague and Bratislava filled with people singing, talking, and mingling.

Dubček’s reforms began to take on a life of their own. In March, Novotny was forced to resign as president. And the next month, the party’s central committee put out a formal plan for reform. This so-called Action Program reaffirmed Czechoslovakia’s commitment to the Soviet alliance and the Warsaw Pact while at the same time presenting what was called “socialism with a human face”. 

The plan guaranteed freedom of assembly and the right of non-communist bodies to form. It also stipulated that, “Socialism cannot mean only the liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations but must also make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy.”

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The Prague Spring

With this green light for freedom of expression and assembly from the government, Czechoslovakia blossomed in what became known as the Prague Spring. Groups of students gathered around the Jan Hus monument in Prague’s Old Town Square, playing their guitars and singing. Long-haired students in blue jeans recited poetry and gave voice to their uncensored thoughts just as students had in New York, Berkeley and Paris. 

The people of Prague and Czechoslovakia weren’t rejecting communism. They were attempting to reform the system so that socialism might reach its theoretical promise. Still, what felt liberating in Prague was dangerous to other Eastern bloc regimes. Party and state newspapers in other Warsaw Pact countries referred to the developments in Czechoslovakia as “counterrevolution”. And the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev resolved to end it.

Before midnight on August 20, 1968, more than 200,000 soldiers and tanks from five Warsaw Pact countries rolled into Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubček urged the nation to avoid armed confrontations with the invaders who had an unbeatable advantage in numbers and arms. Dubček argued that having the world witness a peaceful Czechoslovakia crushed by a brutish foreign power would serve the country best. 

The Fall of Czech Radio

Czech Radio had broadcast the news of the invasion as Soviet tanks entered the country. In the first hours of August 21, the radio station seemed to be a manifest connection to the liberalization that had gripped the country for months. But this made it a target for the Soviets. To defend the station, people changed street signs to confuse the invading forces. Of course, their mission was doomed. 

Seventeen people died defending the broadcast facility. Just after daybreak, the national anthem began to play, and listeners knew, because of broadcasters’ earlier warnings, that Soviet troops were inside the station building. Minutes later, the only thing heard from Czech Radio was silence.

Dubček’s Resignation

Wenceslas Square, with its statue of the country’s patron saint, became a center of the protests. Thousands of Prague residents streamed into the square, and students sat in defiance at the foot of the statue. Graffiti was also a method of protest. Youths scrawled anti-Soviet slogans across medieval buildings in the heart of the city. The specifics varied, but the message was the same: Ivan go home. 

While Dubček and other Czechoslovakian communist party leaders were detained by the Soviets, the people—through a hastily convened national assembly—declared their loyalty to socialism with a human face and their commitment to the liberalizing experiment.

Dubček next appeared in public after being returned from the Soviet Union with tears in his eyes. He told the nation that it needed to avoid further bloodshed. In the short term, that meant freedom of expression would be limited so as to normalize relations within the Warsaw Pact. But the short term became the long run. 

Dubček was forced to resign in early 1969. He was replaced by the more Kremlin-compliant Gustáv Husák, who would remain in power until the fall of the Iron Curtain nearly 30 years later. All of the Prague Spring reforms disappeared. The so-called normalization which ensued meant a return to censorship and renewed limitations on individual freedom.

Common Questions about Czechoslovakia’s Short-lived Prague Spring

Q: What were some of the modest reforms that Alexander Dubček implemented?

Alexander Dubček curtailed censorship in Czechoslovakia, which led to many books, plays, and articles being published that wouldn’t have been allowed in the past. His reforms took a life of their own as they eventually led to a plan that would allow non-communist bodies to form.

Q: What was the Prague Spring?

After the government allowed for more freedom of expression, Czechoslovakia blossomed in what was known as the Prague Spring. It led to greater freedom for students to sing and get together in the streets and voice their political ideas.

Q: What role did the Czech radio play when Soviet tanks entered the country?

The radio station warned citizens of the invaders in Czechoslovakia. Since the station was a manifest connection to the liberalization that caused the Prague Spring, people tried to defend it, although they weren’t successful. In the end, the station played the national anthem, and then there was silence.

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