A Spring Awakening for Human Rights

Forty years ago last week, the five Warsaw Pact countries, led by the Soviet Union, sent armored tanks into Czechoslovakia. It was to be the end of the Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization and cultural blossoming in Czechoslovakia, and the beginning of 21 years of Soviet oppression — a turning point in the histories of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yet the anniversary was marked here with some hesitation.

At the official commemoration at Prague Castle, Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, gave a speech. The prime ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic opened an exhibition in Wenceslas Square — where Soviet troops had clashed with the citizens of Prague in 1968 — featuring a Soviet T-54 tank and homemade posters protesting the invasion. But most leading politicians limited themselves to brief statements.

Many leading thinkers here regarded the anniversary as unremarkable because they believe the Prague Spring was primarily a communist affair — an attempt by reformers to prevail over hard-liners within the party — and as such is of little interest to today’s authentic democrats. Articles in Czech news media argued that leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, including First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, were naïve to think that they could sustain “socialism with a human face.” When they abolished censorship, tolerated artistic freedom, eased travel restrictions and allowed new civic movements to come into existence, they merely created a virus that threatened the communist system.

But as someone who experienced the Prague Spring at the impressionable age of 13, came of age during the repressive period of “normalization” and, from 1981 to 1989, observed my country from exile in the United States and Germany, I recall 1968 with fondness. And I suspect that our lasting reluctance to discuss the period openly is, more than anything else, a sign that the trauma of communism is still very much alive today, despite the last 19 years that democracy has had to take root.

The political thaw that culminated in 1968 had started in the early ’60s when the communist regime eased restrictions on culture. This, in turn, encouraged intellectuals and artists to demand further liberalization. In the fall of 1967, the Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union became a major political event, where writers like Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik, Pavel Kohout, Ivan Klima and Vaclav Havel issued calls for greater freedom. The election of Dubcek to the highest party post was partly a reaction to this pressure.

Equally important was the awakening of civil society. A generation of older people who grew up in a democratic Czechoslovakia before and just after World War II joined forces with younger people who were disappointed by Stalinist communism to create a social movement. This widespread renewal of active citizenship showed that a majority of people wanted to be free and would pursue their dream, even knowing that the Kremlin would do its best to stop the movement.

By the end of 1968, Mr. Kundera and Mr. Havel offered opposing views of the Prague Spring’s importance. Mr. Kundera argued that it was a far-reaching experiment in which the Czechs, falling back on the best traditions of their history, attempted to create a new socio-political model of democratic socialism, which would offer a higher quality of democracy, free of various ills associated with capitalism.

Mr. Havel, who unlike Mr. Kundera had never been a communist, offered a more sober view. In his opinion, the Prague Spring was just an attempt to revive the Western-style democracy that Czechoslovakia once had. Initial developments after 1989 seemed to prove Mr. Havel right. Most Czechs and Slovaks did not want to return to what many saw as a utopian search for a third way, but instead supported a traditional democracy and market economy.

Today, on the other hand, almost two decades after communism, an increasing number of Czechs and Slovaks are critical of their existing democracies, which are marked by corruption, cynicism of political parties, populism and the capitalist pressure to turn citizens into consumers. Now, it is Mr. Havel who speaks critically of such social ills.

The Prague Spring had a real impact outside Czechoslovakia. The Kremlin’s decision to use brutal force to destroy the experiment had a devastating effect on the Euro-communist movement. After 1968, once powerful communist parties in France, Italy and other Western European countries gradually faded.

Ideas generated during the Prague Spring were a source of inspiration for Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the mid-1980s. Like the Czechoslovakian leaders of 1968, Mr. Gorbachev believed that a degree of political and economic democracy could be combined with communist rule.

The current tendency in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to play down the Prague Spring is likely caused, in part, by feelings of shame at how easy it was for the Soviet Union to defeat the experiment, and how quickly many people reverted to collaborating with the communist regime. It is not easy to come to terms with the fact that an event that provoked so much hope could be followed by 20 years of oppression and humiliation.

A good illustration of our conflicting attitudes toward the communist past was a recent discussion in the Czech Parliament of a the new state-run Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which is to hold and study the communist archives. In giving the institute such a complicated name, lawmakers had to define “totalitarianism.” In the end, they decided that totalitarianism in the Czech Republic includes the entire period from the communist takeover in 1948 to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

But including 1968 in the totalitarian period makes it difficult to explain how it’s possible that the Prague Spring produced works of literature, film and drama more significant than anything the country has produced since the fall of communism.

True, the invasion ushered in a humiliating period, which started with the leaders of the Prague Spring being taken to Moscow and forced to sign the Moscow Protocols, under which more than 100,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the country for an indefinite period. It continued, in the spring of 1969, with the installation of a neo-Stalinist regime led by Gustav Husak, under which all the liberal achievements of 1968 were destroyed. The “normalization” regime that lasted until 1989 was one of the most oppressive in Czech and Slovak history.

But the Prague Spring itself was a memorable interlude. The year 1968 saw upheavals elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, with young people rebelling against the establishment and searching for new models of life. The Czechoslovak experiment was part of that global movement. And like revolutions in the West, it generated ideas that survived — especially its emphasis on human rights. A strong effort was made to build a robust civil society. Today, as the Western world seeks to revive popular interest in the democratic process, this is the Prague Spring’s most important legacy.

Jiri Pehe, the political adviser to former President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic from 1997 to 1999 and the director of New York University in Prague.