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19 July 2018

Contemporary Assessment of the 1968 Prague Spring in the Eastern Bloc – Part I

"Emphasising the differences between Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a way for Dubček and others to both refute the allegations of counter-revolution..."


Part I*


The Prague Spring is widely considered to have begun in the deep of winter, 5 January 1968, when the Central Committee of the Komunistická strana Československá (KSČ – Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) removed Antonín Novotný from the First Secretary post he had held on to for fifteen years and replaced him with Alexander Dubček. A fortnight later Dubček was meeting with Hungarian First Secretary, János Kádár, in Slovakia; his first meeting with a foreign leader in his new role. At that meeting, according to Kádár, Dubček dealt at length and in detail” with the causes of the recent momentous changes at the helm of the KSČ. But events much more familiar to Kádár would play a crucial interpretative role in how the proceeding developments in Czechoslovakia would be understood and addressed.

From March to June, in particular, the frequent use of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as a historical analogy and comparison with contemporary events in Czechoslovakia reflected the nearly unanimous desire among the relevant parties to avoid its repetition. Of course, there was not the same unanimity about what a repetition of 1956 would most saliently entail. But across the differences, we can observe a tendency to employ 1956 as a sort of case-study pointing to what must be avoided and negatively indicating how it could be avoided.

Understandably, the most salient feature of 1956 for Czechoslovak leaders was often the Soviet military intervention that brought the uprising to an end. This was a worst-case scenario (and, as we shall see, frequently an inconceivable one) that was ultimately out of their hands. Therefore, Czechoslovak leaders tended to employ references to Hungary in 1956 as a way of demonstrating its stark difference with the contemporary Czechoslovak situation, in order to prove to the Soviets and others that outside hostility and intervention was unnecessary.




It seems obvious to say it, but during the Prague Spring, the leaders of Czechoslovakia were mostly thinking about Czechoslovakia. Their plans and policies were emerging out of an assessment, right or wrong, of the historical, political, social, moral and economic needs and demands of both the Czech and Slovak nations and the Czechoslovak state. And naturally, therefore, guiding parallels and analogies were gleaned from the domestic past. Perhaps just as obviously and understandably, no other nation looked at the Prague Spring in this way. Therefore, when Czechoslovak leaders addressed Hungary’s 1956 in reference to the contemporary situation, it was almost always in response to the suggestions, accusations and warnings of outsiders. When confronted with the comparison, they made a defensive contrast that emphasised the major differences between the two situations. Emphasising the differences between Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a way for Dubček and others to both refute the allegations of counter-revolution, and make the case that Soviet disapproval and, especially, intervention was inappropriate.

This defensive task was made more arduous by the fact that the Soviets were not the only ones within the Warsaw Pact drawing accusatory parallels with Hungary’s 1956. In fact, the leaders of Poland, the GDR and Bulgaria were more insistent and extreme than the Soviets in their denunciations of the Prague Spring. The Soviet sphere in Eastern and Central Europe was, inside its “borders”, more like a chain of vulnerable links than a united empire. Nothing demonstrated this more than the nervousness that often gripped satellite leaders at signs of reform or dissent in a neighbouring Communist state. This was a fear based on experience, not paranoia. Demands for reform spread, and bloc leaders, already caught between the competing demands of domestic legitimacy and external security, knew it. Therefore, as early as 18 March, the GDR cut off virtually all contact between Czechoslovakia and its citizens, whether journalistic or private. By the end of March, Bulgaria was likewise preventing its people from travelling to Czechoslovakia.1 Meanwhile Gomułka’s concern was heightened when student protests in Poland during the same month featured chants of: All Poland is waiting for its Dubček.”2 The leaders of these Communist states quickly came to view developments in Czechoslovakia with wariness bordering on hostility.

It was in this context that the leaders of six Warsaw Pact states (Romania was not invited) gathered in Dresden on 23 March. Dubček and his delegation (which included Prime Minister Jozef Lenárt) had been informed by Brezhnev that they were attending a conference regarding economic cooperation, but instead it was a Soviet-orchestrated intervention aimed at them.3 One after another of the assembled “allies” launched into critiques of the nascent Prague Spring. At the Dresden ambush, Polish leader Gomułka went further than Brezhnev, explicitly linking the Prague Spring with pre-October 1956 events in Hungary, as well as Poland’s upheavals of the same year (Gomułka did not mention that in the latter events he had been the champion of reform). “Why shouldn’t we draw conclusions from the experience that we acquired in Poland in 1956?” he stressed, addressing the Czechoslovak delegation. “Why not draw conclusions from what happened in Hungary?” The point, for Gomułka, was continuity and similarity and, as Brezhnev would do with Dubček in May, he referenced the Petőfi Circle to make his point. “In our country and in Hungary everything began with the writers. It started with the Petőfi Circle in Hungary … and in your country it also started with the intellectuals.” Likewise connecting the events in Czechoslovakia with contemporary student dissent in Poland, Gomułka cautioned that “under this mask” of “the defence of culture and the defence of freedom … the counter- revolution works, foreign intelligence services work”.4 While Gomułka was employing the history of Hungary’s 1956 as a warning to the Czechoslovak leaders to “block the path to counter-revolution”, he was also emphasising the essential continuity between the nature and tactics of “enemy” forces that were present and active then and now. This, as will become increasingly clear, was a line of reasoning suited to those who were more aggressive in their response to the Prague Spring. In a 19 April conversation with Warsaw Pact commander-in-chief Yakubovskii, Gomułka argued, in the light of the situation in Czechoslovakia, that “there is a reason to keep Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia, within the framework of the Warsaw Pact”.5 No Soviet forces were stationed in Czechoslovakia at this time, so the only way to realise what Gomułka urged for was, firstly, to keep Soviet troops there following the military exercises in the summer, and, secondly, to do so over the express objections of the Czechoslovak government. Even in the spring, Gomułka was quicker than Brezhnev to write off the KSČ leadership, condemn their intentions, and support Soviet intervention.

But how exactly could and did the Czechoslovak leaders beat back the ominous and loaded parallels with Hungary’s 1956 that were being used as a way to force them into a reversal of their nascent reform process? Czechoslovak rejection of these parallels was sincere, wide-ranging, categorical and largely consistent throughout the Prague Spring. As Dubček recalled his perspective, “any parallel with the Hungary of 1956 looked positively absurd to me”.6 However, since Soviet and other Warsaw Pact indictments of the domestic situation in Czechoslovakia were focused between March and June on the loss of KSČ controlevidenced” by open dissent and criticism, specifically parrying parallels on these grounds was important. It was in this context that the KSČ First Secretary of the eastern Slovak region centred around Košice, Jan Koscelanský, insisted to his counterpart in the Soviet oblast of Transcarpathia on 18 March thatthe current events are not a repetition of 1956 in Hungary”. The difference was that, according to Koscelanský, “in Hungary the popular masses rose up against the party and Central Committee, whereas in the ČSSR they are speaking out against the conservatives and the Novotný group and are supporting their party, the Central Committee, and friendship with the Soviet Union”.7 Dubček himself made a similar defence in March when, in response to a 1956 analogy to the Prague Spring made at Dresden, he maintained that the KSČ retained control of the political situation in Czechoslovakia.8

On the face of it, this defence looks like merely an extension of the Soviet– Czechoslovak difference of perspective about the Prague Spring itself. Dubček and his allies saw a restoration of KSČ’s popular legitimacy where the Soviets saw a dangerous denuding of the Party’s authority. A loss of Party authority, which was also understood and recognised by the Czechoslovak leaders as a negative development to be avoided, did indeed happen in Hungary – goes the argument above – but was crucially not happening in Czechoslovakia. In the view of reformers such as Dubček and Smrkovský, the transition was between a situation in which the Party’s authority leant almost exclusively and counter-productively on coercion and a new one where it relied on moral and social persuasion and pre-eminence. However, it is also important to note that the precise characterisation of Hungary’s 1956 employed in this argument, in order to highlight the contrast with the Prague Spring, was not one that was common among Czechoslovakia’s Warsaw Pact interlocutors in 1968.

Today, for most historians looking back to 1956, it is hard not to concur, at least to some degree, with the historical assessment delivered by Koscelanský: the popular masses rose up against the Party. And in the midst of those events, Kádár certainly considered that this was part of what was occurring, as he disbanded and reformed the Party and declared to the nation that the achievements of “our people’s glorious uprising” needed to be defended by the democratic parties. But such a characterisation was impolitic after the Soviet intervention because it implied that the Party and the Soviets were counter-revolutionaries opposing the will of the people. It was, in the orthodox Communist post-intervention evaluation of 1956, the forces of counter-revolution, aided by foreign plotters, who had risen up against Party rule in Hungary. Particularly in the Hungarian post-intervention interpretation, the role of mass demonstrations and participation during the uprising was explained by legitimate anger against the Stalinist “Rákosi–Gerő clique” – an anger which had been manipulated by the enemies of the Party, who were, ipso facto, also enemies of the people.

Therefore, this particular Czechoslovak way of rejecting parallels between 1956 and 1968 was subtly subversive. While retaining an essentially negative view of 1956, the Czechoslovak contrast suggestedin a way that was implicitly unfavourable toward Soviet intervention in the past – that the Party and the people had been on opposite sides in Hungary. It also contradicted an essential part of Kádár’s domestic political balancing act. Koscelanský insisted, representing the KSČ line, that, unlike Hungary in 1956, the people were only criticising the old hard-liners represented by Novotný. Yet this is precisely analogous to what Hungarian Communists claimed had mobilised the people in 1956 (Mátyás Rákosi and Ernő Gerő in the role of Novotný) and given unintended fuel to the nefarious plots of the counter-revolutionaries.

This Czechoslovak contrast between 1956 and 1968, as has been established, was part of a wider rebuttal of charges related to counter-revolution. To distance the Prague Spring from Hungary’s 1956 was to distance it from the odour and accusation of counter-revolution. In the records of the Dresden meeting of 23 March, we can see different Czechoslovak leaders in their own way specifically contradict the conclusions that Brezhnev and Gomułka (and others) had made concerning the reforms in Czechoslovakia.

Oldřich Černík, who in a fortnight would form a new Czechoslovak government as Prime Minister, sharply told the supposed allies around him that “one gets the impression that we should feel guilty that we started to improve party work”. Answering his own question – “Is it a counter-revolutionary situation or is it of a mostly pro-socialist nature?” – Černík declared that the events in Czechoslovakia were “overwhelmingly progressive and pro-socialist in character”. Far from being embattled, Černík explained, the KSČ had never been so in tune with the people, demonstrated by “waves of political interest within our party”, the “millions of people” attending Party meetings, and KSČ members “implementing and defending the policy of the party”.9 How could a counter-revolution be either occurring or brewing in a situation where the intelligentsia and workers alike were united in unprecedented enthusiasm for the direction established by the Party leadership? This was the rhetorical challenge posed by Černík’s characteristically pro-reform argument. How could counter-revolution be imminent when anti-Socialist elements were overwhelmed by those whose political concern was Socialism’s perfection and implementation? In other words, through popular acclaim rather than repression, it was indeed the Party that was in control of the situation, Dubček’s allies reiterated, and, therefore, this could not be regarded as a repetition of 1956.

This argument had no impact on the Soviet position. Holding to the more conventional Communist ideas of democratic centralism and the leading role of the Party, Brezhnev consistently contended that the lessening of direct and literal Party control during the Prague Spring was incompatible with Communist rule, Soviet friendship, and the ongoing construction of Socialism. The reformers of Czechoslovakia, in making their case for the Socialist character of the Prague Spring, insisting that Communist rule could flourish without repressive measures, and distancing their reforms from talk of counter-revolution and Hungary’s 1956, were claiming that something unique in the post-War era was occurring in their country. “The challenge was to manoeuvre around them [the Soviets] long enough to make them accept us on civilised terms”, remembers Dubček.10

The genuine conviction among Czechoslovak leaders that, despite its cold reception in the spring, their new direction could eventually gain at least grudging acceptance from the Soviets clearly rested not merely on arguments that distinguished 1968 from 1956, but on a settled and almost subconscious assumption that the two situations belonged in incompatible categories. This in turn seemed to be based, firstly, on an overly optimistic idea about Soviet parameters of action in 1968, compared to 1956, despite the Soviet sabre-rattling that began in May. “Their bullying would not exceed certain limits”, Dubček reasoned, “[t]he 1956 crushing of Hungary was way behind us: this was a different era.” A Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in this thinking, would be politically incompatible with the Soviet Union’s current positions and policies in a way that made it nearly inconceivable. In retrospect, this seems a shocking miscalculation, but it was one that was also widely shared outside Czechoslovakia. The American historian Ronald Steel, writing from Prague in the days immediately following the eventual Soviet invasion on the night of 20 August, testified that “it was hard to believe that there could be another Budapest. Too much had happened in the world during the past twelve years.”11 Back in the spring, the ineffectiveness of the Soviet “cold shower” in Dresden at reversing or even slowing Czechoslovak reform demonstrated to the Italian ambassador in Moscow that the Soviet Union was “no longer in a position to order an excommunication as in the case of Belgrade in 1948 and is unable to impose its will on Czechoslovakia by armed force as in Budapest in 1956”. In fact, “the only weapon Moscow possesses and is able to use against the rebels in Prague is economic ransom”.12 There were many intelligent observers in 1968 whose mind, like Dubček’s, rested only briefly and dismissively on the prospect of an armed Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia.

Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that to judge in 1968 that a repeat of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary was incomprehensible, suggests a somewhat shallow understanding of Hungary’s 1956. Between 1956 and 1968, Dubček argues, “the Soviets had made great efforts to present themselves as consistent opponents of aggression, and they had vehemently promoted international peaceful co-existence”. But was not Khrushchev, according to these criteria, even more “unlikely” to militarily subdue Hungary in 1956? In the years preceding the Soviet intervention in Hungary, Khrushchev had staked his international reputation on the promotion of de-Stalinising reform across the bloc, and had been specifically instrumental in Imre Nagy’s rise to power. And it was at the landmark 20th Congress of February 1956 that Khrushchev himself had re-asserted the principle of “peaceful co-existence” with the West. Why would 1968 be a less likely context for Soviet intervention than 1956 when, since then, Khrushchev had been replaced by Brezhnev, a doctrinaire and conservative leader with far less patience for reform than the man who had ordered the crushing of Hungary? If the Soviet leaders themselves, many of whom were in positions of power in 1956, viewed the intervention in Hungary as an example of benevolent fraternal assistance in defeating Western imperialism and counter-revolution, why would a rhetorical opposition to imperialistic aggression be a restraint on Soviet military interventionism in 1968? After all, even at the very moment that Red Army tanks were seizing the highways and byways of Hungary on 4 November 1956, Khrushchev could say, without a hint of cognitive dissonance: “We need more modesty”, toward other parties in the Soviet bloc. “We need to show more sensitivity, listen more to the opinion of comrades, and influence them more rather than order them.”13

Nevertheless, pressured by the Soviets in 1968, the leaders of the KSČ clearly considered how the lessons of 1956 could guide them in negating even the discussion of Soviet intervention. Unfortunately, Czechoslovak confidence that reforms would not provoke Soviet intervention, unlike 1956, was also partly based on a very specific misunderstanding of those historical Hungarian events.14 This confidence and misunderstanding in turn influenced the repeated use of another key counter-argument that Dubček and others regarded as a significant contrast, intended to allay Soviet concerns, between the Prague Spring and the Hungarian uprising. The historical misunderstanding was that it was the Nagy government’s decision during the uprising to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact which had definitively precipitated the Soviet decision to militarily seize control of Hungary. But, the Soviet Politburo made the decision to launch this decisive military operation in Hungary on 31 October 1956. And it was a day later on 1 November – after Soviet troops had seized key positions including Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport in consequence of the Politburo’s decision – that the Hungarian government determined to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.15 While workers’ councils and other agents of the Hungarian uprising had strongly advocated Hungarian neutrality already, the Hungarian government did not do so until after the Soviets had both chosen to militarily occupy Hungary and given clear evidence of that decision. Hungary’s brief and woebegone withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact was, therefore, a consequence, not a cause of Soviet military intervention. But, as a result of misunderstanding this sequence of events, writes Mark Kramer, “the ‘lesson’ that Czechoslovak officials drew from the 1956 crisis – that internal reform would be tolerated so long as membership in the Warsaw Pact was not questioned induced them to make frequent references to Czechoslovakia’s ‘unbreakable friendship and alliance’ with the USSR”.16

Throughout the Prague Spring”, in Donald Steury’s assessment, “Dubček went out of his way to demonstrate his personal loyalty to Moscow and Prague’s intention to remain firmly within the Warsaw Pact military alliance.”17 The reforming Action Programme issued by the KSČ leadership at the beginning of April stressed that “alliance and cooperation with the Soviet Union and the other socialist states” was “the basic orientation of Czechoslovak foreign policy”.18

While such statements as these, repeated in speeches and declarations, were rarely placing the Prague Spring in explicit comparison with Hungary’s 1956, they often implicitly were. And, more fundamentally still, as they did this, they could place Czechoslovakia itself in historical comparison with Hungary. Czechoslovakia in 1968 was not Hungary in either 1956 or 1918”, Dubček posits. “Unlike Hungary, Czechoslovakia had not been allied with Hitler but was an early victim of Nazi aggression and a founding member of the United Nations.”19 Slovakia had of course been an early and eager ally of Nazi Germany, but it is the conceptual connections we must follow, not their subjective flaws. For Dubček, to placate the Soviets with expressions of fealty was to remind them of the continuity of Soviet–Czechoslovak friendship. He and many others simply assumed this would count for something when the chips were down. Any loyalty to the Warsaw Pact was, for the Party and government in Czechoslovakia, merely a supplementary feature of a genuine alliance with the Soviet Union that politically went back to 1935,20 but culturally reached back further into literary and cultural pan-Slavism. It was further sealed both pragmatically and popularly in the Second World War; negatively through the 1938 Munich betrayal at the hands of the Western powers and positively by Soviet liberators in most of the country. There was a logic and history to post-War Czechoslovak–Soviet ties that was foreign to many others in the bloc. Hungary’s main historical connection with Russia was resentment at the intervention of Russian troops, on the side of the Habsburgs, to put down the Hungarian Revolution in 1849. And Hungary had joined the Soviet sphere in 1945 by virtue of a shattering and destructive Soviet invasion. It was not, in other words, unreasonable or surprising for Dubček to regard it as an entirely different matter for the Soviet Union to militarily intervene in Hungary than it would be for them to do so in Czechoslovakia, whatever the circumstances and immediate context.

In all these arguments that formed the Czechoslovak response to accusatory parallels between the Prague Spring and Hungary’s 1956, there is a noticeable sense of conviction. In the same way that Brezhnev was flabbergasted by (what he saw to be) negligently sunny assessments from KSČ leaders that were contradicted by his press dossiers and intelligence reports, Czechoslovak leaders were equally surprised by, as they perceived it, the complete lack of understanding for their situation exhibited by their ally. KSČ and Czechoslovak government leaders asserted that the Party retained both control and primacy and enjoyed unprecedented popular support for its policies, that opposition and criticism was mainly Socialist in spirit and aimed at previous Stalinist policies, and that loyalty to the Soviet Union was unbreakable. All of these aspects, they claimed, were in marked contrast to what took place prior to the Soviet military intervention in Hungary in 1956. Moreover, these alleged contrasts were further rooted, for Dubček and others, in the decisive differences they assumed between both the international contexts of 1956 and 1968 and the historical contexts of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

To be continued


* The present chapter edited by Hungarian Review is from David A. J. Reynolds, Revising History, Constructing Counter-Revolution: The Meaning of Hungary’s 1956 and the Definition of the Prague Spring, March 2016, unpublished manuscript.



1 Jaromír Navrátil, ed., The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998), xxviii.

2 Barbara J. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe: Citizen Intellectuals and Philosopher Kings (Budapest: CEU Press, 2003), 24–25.

3 Alexander Dubček, Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubček, trans. Jiří Hochman (New York: Kodansha, 1993), 140–142.

4Stenographic Account of the Dresden Meeting, March 23, 1968 (Excerpts)”, Navrátil, 67.

5Document No. 48: Record of Gomułka–Iakubovskii Conversation in Warsaw, April 19, 1968”, Vojtech Mastny and Malcolm Byrne, eds., A Cardboard Castle?: An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 19551991 (Budapest: CEU Press, 2005), 262.

6 Dubček, 179.

7March 21, 1968: Memorandum from the Secretary of the Transcarpathian Oblast”.

8Document No. 18: Dispatch from Budapest Outlining Hungarian Concerns about Events in Czechoslovakia after the Dresden Meeting, April 6, 1968”, Navrátil, 81.

9Stenographic Account of the Dresden Meeting, March 23, 1968 (Excerpts)”, Navrátil, 72.

10 Dubček, 165.

11 Ronald Steel,Up Against the Wall in Prague”, The New York Review of Books (26 September 1968).

12Document No. 17: Soviet Reactions to Events in Czechoslovakia and the Dresden Meeting, as Assessed by the Italian Embassy in Moscow, April 1968”, Navrátil, 80.

13Stenographic Record of a 4 November 1956 Meeting of Party Activists”.

14 Mark Kramer, “The Prague Spring and the Soviet Invasion in Historical Perspective”, in Günter Bischof, Stefan Karner and Peter Ruggenthaler, eds., The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (Plymouth: Lexington, 2010), 44.

15Document No. 64: Minutes of the Nagy Government’s Fourth Cabinet Meeting, November 1, 1956”, Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne, János M. Rainer, eds., The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents (Budapest: CEU Press, 2002), 328–329;Document No. 65: Report from Yurii Andropov in Budapest to the CPSU CC Presidium, November 1, 1956”, Békés, Byrne, and Rainer, 330–331.

16 Kramer, “The Prague Spring and the Soviet Invasion in Historical Perspective”, 44.

17 Donald P. Steury, “Strategic Warning: The CIA and the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia”, in Bischof, Karner, and Ruggenthaler, 237–238.

18Document No. 16: The Action Program of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia”, in Robin Alison Remington, ed., Winter in Prague: Document on Czechoslovak Communism in Crisis (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1969), 133–134.

19 Dubček, 179.

20 Ibid., 177.

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