Tanks in the streets of Prague
ou are studying in Prague in 1968. In the
spring there is much excitement because
the leader of the Communist Party (CP)
argues that Czech socialism is crying out for
reform. Although you feel that the changes
proposed are rather modest, you see them as
steps in the right direction. Novotny had been
replaced in January 1968 by Dubcˇek as the party
leader, who pledges to remove everything that
‘strangles scientific and artistic creativeness’.
Censorship is abolished and citizens given the
right to criticise the government. With the Action
Programme, passed in 1968, a much freer elec-
toral system is proposed. There is no question,
however, of opposition parties being permitted.
The economy is to be more responsive to the
market and the consumer, and workers’ councils
are to be established to assist in decentralisation.
However, you are understandably alarmed by
the claims by the USSR that in September West
Germany is planning to invade Czechoslovakia,
and you are concerned that some communists
regard the new proposals as dangerously
‘revisionist’. In August of the same year, tanks
roll into Prague from other countries in the
Warsaw Pact (of which Czechoslovakia is a
member) led by the USSR. Following the
invasion, Dubcˇek and the new president Svoboda
are taken to Moscow and after ‘free comradely
discussion’, they announce that Czechoslovakia
will be abandoning its reform programme. In
April 1969 Dubcˇek is replaced as party secretary
by a hardliner, Husak; the following year he is
expelled from the party, and for the next 18
years works as a clerk in a lumber-yard in
The claim is made that Dubcˇek intended to
take his country out of the Warsaw Pact and
reintroduce a capitalist society. Half a million
members of the Czech Communist Party are
expelled, and large numbers of writers, scientists
and artists lose their jobs. About 120,000
leave the country. The secret police become
particularly active. It is estimated that only 2 per
cent of the population support the invasion.
Confronted with a collision of this kind:
- Would you see one side as socialist and the
other side as not?
- Or would you feel that two different kinds of
socialism had come into opposition?
Are the members of the Warsaw Pact who invade
- Betraying their commitment to socialism?
- Or is this the kind of action that flows from
their commitment to Marxist principles?
- Is Dubcˇek being naive to consider himself as
a communist at all? Would the notion of
change that he is proposing undermine not
only Soviet control over Eastern Europe but
lead to the development of market forces that
would necessarily destroy socialism itself and
lead to the introduction of capitalism?
Soviet troops in Prague, 1968
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis