This article refers to a period of history of Czechoslovakia in 1968. For the music festival of the same name, see Prague Spring International Music Festival.
The Prague Spring (Czech, Pražské jaro) was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia starting January 5 1968, and running until August 20 of that year when the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies (except for Romania) invaded the country.
The Czechs and Slovaks showed increasing signs of independence under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. Dubček's reforms of the political process inside Czechoslovakia, which he referred to as "Socialism with a human face", did not represent a complete overthrow of the old regime, as was the case in Hungary in 1956. However, it was still seen by the Soviet leadership as a threat to their hegemony over other Eastern European states.
Unlike the other countries of Eastern Europe the communist take-over in Czechoslovakia in 1948 - while as brutal as elsewhere - was a genuine popular movement and reform in the country did not lead to the convulsions seen in Hungary. However, a sizable minority in the ruling party - especially at higher leadership levels - were opposed to any lessening of the party's grip on society and they actively plotted with the leadership of the Soviet Union to overthrow the reformers.
The policy of the USSR to enforce Soviet-style governments among its satellite states, through military force if needed, became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, named after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was first to publicly declare it, although it was in use since Stalin's times. This doctrine remained in force until it was replaced by the Sinatra Doctrine under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s.
The period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia came to an end on August 20, when 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks invaded the country. The invasion came on the eve of the congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which was expected to entrench the reformers and decisively defeat the neo-Stalinist rump. In fact the Czechoslovak communists did meet, in a factory, and endorsed the reform programme, but by then the facts-on-the-ground rendered the congress pointless.
Criticism from the democratic countries was quite muted. Leftist writers such as Tariq Ali argue that this was because the western states saw the humane and democratic socialism espoused by the Czechoslovaks as being an even greater threat to capitalism than Soviet communism, which had largely been discredited by 1968. Another explanation is that the West had already problems enough to keep it busy, in part because of the disruptive leftist agitation of May 1968, and the Vietnam War.
Perhaps a more convincing argument than either of the above is that the reality of nuclear standoff in the Cold War meant the western countries were in no position to challenge Soviet military force in Eastern Europe.
The events of the Prague Spring deepened the disillusion of many Western leftists with Leninist theory and contributed to the growth of Eurocommunist ideas in the western communist parties - eventually leading to the eventual dissolution or break-up of many of these parties.
A decade later, the Prague Spring lent its name to an analogous period of Chinese political liberalization known as the Beijing Spring.
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12