The Prague Spring at 50 Years: Lessons for Our Time

John Bryan

16 August 2018

Contrast between modern-day Prague and Prague in 1968.

Contrast between modern-day Prague and Prague in 1968.


Fifty years ago, on August 20th, 1968, hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the USSR and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded the communist state of Czechoslovakia. In less than two days the invading forces were victorious, with the Czechoslovak government offering little physical resistance.

The invasion was a reaction to a growing movement within the Eastern Bloc country toward economic reform, greater intellectual freedom and freedom of the press. The liberalization of the 60s, in contrast to the harsh Stalinism of the 50s, offered the stage for this change. Led by students, eminent thinkers, and civic organizations such as the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, Czechoslovak society saw a cultural return to the liberal-democratic roots of its short-lived inter-war Republic. 

This evolution culminated in the adoption of these values by the government. In April 1968, Party Secretary Alexander Dubček launched a series of liberalizing reforms from his Action Program, which sought to return political pluralism and guarantee the rights of Czechoslovak citizens. The reforms did not seek to escape the socialist experiment, rather Dubček saw Czechoslovakia taking its own path while remaining a part of the bloc. Dubček famously called it “socialism with a human face.” This period came to be known as the ‘Prague Spring.’

Ten years ago, the late, great writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens mused about what the invasion meant for the socialist project. The act: a military assault on a country of peaceful comrades (which, unlike Hungary in 1956, was not trying to leave the Soviet sphere of influence), contravened all the idealistic notions which underpinned the Soviet system. As Hitchens wrote: “In a very short and intense space of time, every slogan ever uttered by the Communist system had been exposed as the sort of scabrous lie in which only a fool could believe.” No longer able to keep up the appearance of a wise and ideologically pure Primus Inter Pares capable of shepherding others toward the communist ideal, it could only resort to a period of static, bureaucratic, and gerontocratic rule.

During the shocking fall of communism across the eastern bloc in the late 80s and early 90s, this image of rigid bureaucracy, homogeneity, and soullessness helped spur the region’s people toward a new order. Nationalism, long spurned by the internationalist dogma of socialist thought, found itself a prevailing force alongside democracy in these new states.

Fifty years on, an ironic reversal of this formula seems to have taken hold. Once again Russia exerts its ideological power across Europe, and once again the states of Central and Eastern Europe gravitate at varying intensities toward this ideology. Yet this time Putin’s Russia positions itself as the de-facto leader of the world’s nationalists, while the EU is seen as a lifeless bureaucratic machine oppressing Europe’s great nation.

Importantly, this is a nationalism which rejects many of the advances liberal democracy has made since communism’s fall. Russian rhetoric routinely warns of the west’s declining moral worth, pointing to policies such as LGBT rights as evidence of the way traditional morality and meaning are being erased in favour of Godless, “infertile and genderless” globalism.

Nationalists, traditionalists, and populists across the continent and beyond have embraced this ideology. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has waged an antisemitic campaign against the financier and Holocaust survivor George Soros, accusing him of organizing a liberal conspiracy to poison Hungarian and Christian culture.

In Poland, EU warnings and worries over the severe erosion of democratic checks and balances are viewed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party as diktats, sent from a bureaucratic body attempting to snuff national self-determination and ‘real,’ illiberal democracy.[8]While the scars of history are unlikely to ever lead the Polish to become pro-Russian, they cannot stop them from adopting a strikingly similar ideology. For example, in a 2016 attempt to defend the party’s record on judicial and media independence, the then foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski stated that they “only [wanted] to cure [their] country of a few illnesses,” such as “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.” These cultural concerns are “what moves poles most,” Waszczykowski argued. PiS  positions itself as the guardian of culture and meaning against liberal nihilists.

So, what happened? How did it come to pass that, as Hitchens put it, “it is now we, sunk in the banalities of democratic discourse, who stammer to find an apt form of words in which to defend and justify ourselves and our once-again menaced friends to the east”? Writing in 2008, he didn’t even know the half of it. In the war of ideas; centrists, liberals, moderate conservatives, liberal nationalists, social democrats, and humanists alike have seemingly ceded the ground of emotive power and fervent articulative zeal. Liberal Democracy is ever on the defensive, constantly attempting to apologize and vindicate itself, languishing in the lack of competent leaders to express its values.

The great playwrights, dissidents, thinkers, and future politicians that emerged out of the Prague Spring and the invasion of Czechoslovakia such as Havel, Kundera, and Vaculík evidently had no issues articulating the humanistic values the movement fought for. To them, Western Europe’s pluralism and openness were something to be admired. It could stir them into action and the assumption of great risk, and in turn they could stir others.

The new illiberal wave has its champions: Putin, Le Pen, Orban, Erdogan, Farage, Bannon, Trump. Liberal Democracy needs its own champions again.  Emmanuel Macron at first seemed to have the international determination and cross-spectrum appeal to fit this mold. Yet, a lethargic and contented EU, paired with a barrage of scandals, has driven his popularity to new lows. While he cannot be counted out, he likewise can no longer be counted on.

The events of August, 1968 and what followed serve as a reminder of how quickly the words can come when our pluralist and humanistic institutions are besieged. Perhaps, as illiberalism’s shadow creeps forward, we ought to not let it get that far again.