The Prague Spring

“Once again we have the chance to take into our own hands our shared fate,” wrote Ludvík Vaculík in June 1968. His words were part of a manifesto describing what was at stake in the Prague Spring, which was in full blossom: People in then, Czechoslovakia were breathing the intoxicating air of freedom they hadn’t known for a generation.

The leaders of the country had changed, too. In January 1968, a little-known Slovak politician by the name of Alexander Dubček was elected head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. He was a reformer who came to advocate “socialism with a human face.” That meant a taste of democracy, freedom of the press, and increased decentralization of the economy. Normally routine political meetings became more raucous, as workers and farmers and students questioned and debated the direction of the nation. A new president, Ludvík Svoboda, was elected, and a new government formed in April.

The lid began to come off on long-kept secrets about the worst Communist crimes of the past two decades. Human rights mattered again. Meanwhile, young people sported long hair and turtlenecks and miniskirts and lived with a new sense of what was possible. For the first time in their lives, some Czechs and Slovaks took summer vacations outside the Communist bloc.

But Dubček and other reformers struggled to keep things from shifting too quickly, fearing a backlash from Moscow. Indeed, in June, Soviet troops held maneuvers in Czechoslovakia; they were supposed to leave in July but stayed. A meeting with the Soviet leadership near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border to discuss the course of events seemed to calm Soviet fears, though. The last of the troops soon left Czechoslovakia.

But that turned out to be the prelude: At 11:00 on the night of August 20, more than 4,000 tanks and 165,000 troops from the Warsaw Pact began crossing into Czechoslovakia. The official line was that they had been invited, and that they were being welcomed by people in the streets. Instead, the troops’ arrival was greeted with shock and anger and fear—and with protests and barricades. A Soviet tank fired on the building for Radio Prague; over the next week, dozens of unarmed Czechs and Slovaks were killed, and hundreds more wounded.

This is the historic moment that Paul Goldsmith so ably captures in these photos: the end of the Prague Spring. Some have said that the invasion crushed the hopes of a generation. To many, it demonstrated the impossibility of reforming Communism from within. But as the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the years since have shown, that was far from being the end of the story.

Richard Pivnicka
– Honorary Consul General of the Czech Republic