1968 in the News

Czechoslovakia in 1968--Section I
Socialism with a Human Face

Russian tanks invade in 1968
Russian tanks invade Czechoslovakia in 1968.

While most Americans remained preoccupied with the social and political changes occurring in their own country in 1968, a poignant drama was unfolding in Czechoslovakia, much closer to the U. S. than Vietnam. This Eastern European nation had been under complete Soviet domination for twenty years, with censorship of the press and economic subjugation to Russia accepted as the inevitable result of the communist takeover in 1948. As America poured men and money into the war in Vietnam, the Czechs were attempting to work within their own system of government toward freedom of the press, improvement of their economy, and "socialism with a human face." By August this liberalization was more than the Soviets could take, and they invaded Czechoslovakia with tanks and troops. Distracted by the Democratic National Convention and involvement in Vietnam, the leadership of the U. S. barely acknowledged this cruel suppression of the fight for basic political rights in Czechoslovakia. In 1967, Antonin Novotny was President of the Republic of Czechoslovakia and Secretary-General of the Communist Party, and had ruled for fourteen years. He followed the Soviet party line, and he allowed his country to be drained economically for the benefit of the Soviet Union. He admired Nikita Khrushchev, and when Khrushchev was ousted in late 1964, Novotny sent a telegram of protest to the Kremlin. Leonid Brezhnev, the new Soviet leader, probably didn't appreciate the sentiment, but Novotny's relationship with the Russians remained firmly within the parameters of "comradeship" until late 1967.

Czechoslovakian society was still heavily repressed politically, but in 1967 some cracks were beginning to show in the veneer of Stalinist communism. Western culture, including jazz music, literature, and dress, were influencing the country, and the progressive writers were calling for reform. The country was discouraged and economically depressed, and was starting to feel the effects of its own "generation gap." Novotny was 63 in 1967, and many of the people who were beginning to openly question the direction of his leadership were only in their forties. Some of these well-educated, lifelong communists were suggesting that the country must be socially and economically revitalized. One of the men quietly supporting this direction was Alexander Dubcek, the forty-six year old leader of the Slovak Communist Party in Bratislava. He had been educated in Russia, spoke fluent Russian, and was a dedicated communist. However, he was sympathetic to the suggestions for reform that were being floated by the intellectuals and had allowed a great deal of freedom of the press in his region. As a member of the Czechoslovakian Presidium and the parliament, he participated in the turgid political process that was the Communist Party in Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. He was one of the first to actually criticize Novotny, in October of 1967, and was supported by some of the other party leaders, especially those from other regions of Slovakia. A whiff of change was in the air, some of it probably imported from the U.S. and other countries with restless students.

On October 31, approximately 1500 Technical College students in Prague began a spontaneous march on Hradcany Castle, where Novotny was entertaining Soviet diplomats. The students were protesting the conditions in their dorms, which included frequent power outages and a lack of heat, and the march was basically good-natured and apolitical. Unfortunately, they encountered police who chased them back to their dorms and beat them with nightsticks. Members of the press had been invited to see the poor conditions in the dorms, and they reported the police brutality. By November 20 the incident had grown to include a sit-in by both students and professors--the first sit-in in Communist Czechoslovakia. On December 4 the government actually admitted that the police had used unnecessary violence, but those calling for political reform were gaining support and Novotny's regime was truly in trouble.

These political rumblings were being carried out in the context of Communist Party workings. Although factions were forming, they operated within the existing structure of government. In December, Novotny, actively looking for support, invited Brezhnev to Prague. Members of the Presidium besieged Brezhnev with complaints and opinions from all sides, and he abruptly left Czechoslovakia with the announcement that all of these conflicts were merely the internal squabblings between the Czech and Slovak contingents, and that the Soviet Union was not going to become involved. This was a tremendous blow to the Novotnyans, as they had counted on Soviet support in battling the progressives. It was too late for Novotny to build a good relationship with Brezhnev. The fate of Novotny's successors, in late 1968, must have been scant consolation for his abandonment by Brezhnev in his hour of political need. No votny feared he was on the verge of being voted out of power by the Central Committee when that body voted to adjourn for Christmas. Both sides of this power struggle used the Christmas break to lobby their constituents. Novotny had tried organizing a military coup to keep himself in power and stop the progressives, but the plot was discovered and scrapped. Major General Jan Sejna then gathered signatures of generals on a petition supporting Novotny, but the petition was delivered too late (it was actually delivered to Dubcek, the new Secretary, after the Presidium voted to oust Novotny in January).

When the party plenum opened in January, 1968, Dubcek and his fellow reformers represented the growing desire for change being expressed by the majority of Czechs. They were a proud people, tired of the economic and moral decay that accompanied their subjugation to the Soviet Union. The old timers in the factories were aging and tired, and the young were disenchanted with their lot. The writers and scholars who were suggesting economic and social reform within the Party offered the only hope for improvement.

Alexander Dubcek, modest and sincere and committed to the principles of reform and improvement, ultimately emerged as the standard-bearer for the progressives. In January 1968 the Presidium, meeting in Prague, elected Dubcek to the post of Secretary-General, ousting Novotny. Although Novotny remained as President of the Republic, this was the start of the bloodless revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the citizens cautiously began to hope for a better tomorrow. There was still no guarantee that this would happen. The political maneuvering that resulted in Novotny's resignation was still a tense, ongoing power struggle.

Next Page--Section II


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