The central European country of Czechoslovakia had fallen under the Soviet sphere of influence after World War II; from 1948 it was ruled by the Communists as a one-party state. In the mid 1960s poor living conditions and the weak economy gave rise to increasing rumblings of dissent in the populace, not least in Slovakia (then still part of one Czech nation), where Alexander Dubcek was party leader. In January 1968, responding to the popular mood, Dubcek replaced the discredited Novotny as leader of Czechoslovakia. The progressive Dubcek bided his time but in April he announced a wide-ranging reform program, designed, as he famously put it, to present ‘socialism with a human face’. While insisting that the Communist Party preserved its ‘leading role’ in the state, Dubcek attempted to liberalize the regime through a series of key measures including freedom of speech and assembly, an end to censorship, a strengthening of trades unions and relaxations on travel abroad.
Although Dubcek had been careful all along to pledge the country’s continuing allegiance to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance, the bosses in Moscow took a rather different view of the new freedoms being enjoyed by the Czech people during what became known as the ‘Prague Spring’. The whole world was stunned when on August 21 1968 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and tanks rolled through the streets of Prague. Officially this was a Warsaw Pact operation, Moscow cannily justifying its naked aggression as the legitimate provision by fellow Pact states of fraternal assistance against ‘counter-revolutionary forces’.
Despite valiant popular resistance on the streets, the brave experiment of the Prague Spring was summarily snuffed out and a defeated Dubcek duly dismissed from his post the following April. The Czech people would have to wait another generation before enjoying such freedoms again.
Death toll: Unknown, but at least 100 people died in street skirmishes in Prague. In January 1969 student Jan Palach burned himself to death in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in protest against the invasion.
You should know: After his dismissal Alexander Dubcek spent 18 years in a humble clerical post in his native Slovakia but returned in triumph after the velvet Revolution of 1989 to become the first Speaker of the new Federal Assembly.