Prague Spring

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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Event overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1160L

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Page 2078


In January 1968 the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz), Antonín Novotný, was replaced by a little-known Slovak member of the party's ruling presidium, Alexander Dubček. In the ensuing months, a vigorous program of liberal-democratic reform emerged from within the party itself. It quickly found resonance among the rank and file of the party and throughout society, and touched off a rebirth of democratic politics.

The party's new course quickly won a level and quality of popular support unprecedented in the Soviet bloc. Yet as the popular movement developed, the leaderships of Czechoslovakia's allies grew increasingly alarmed. During the ensuing months of intensifying crisis the Czechoslovak leadership walked a tightrope, striving to appease its allies without alienating popular support. The "Prague Spring" was interrupted by the Sovietled invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968.


The sudden blossoming of democratic reform in Czechoslovakia surprised many observers. Until 1963 Czechoslovakia had presented an image of internal stability and unquestioning imitation of the Soviet practices. However, the Prague Spring had been long incubating. The CPCz was a mass-based party with strong national and democratic traditions. Paradoxically, it is precisely these strong democratic and national roots that help to explain the harshness of the regime that developed after 1948. Suppressing the democratic traditions of the CPCz and transforming it into a tightly disciplined Soviet satellite was a formidable task, the success of which was not deeply rooted.

In 1963 the tide began to turn. Tendencies long articulating beneath the surface began to have greater and more visible effect. The main impulses for change came from crisis in the national economy, desire for greater national autonomy in Slovakia, and developments in the international communist arena. The leadership, facing a wide range of acute problems, finally began to experiment with reforms. Forces of opposition and pluralization began to crystallize, which the regime was never after able to bring under control. Although implementation of reforms was inconsistent and incomplete, the trend toward liberal reform was never reversed.

By 1967 the leadership's policy of partial and vacillating reform had reached a dead end. The regime's authority had eroded severely because of increasing frustration with its failure to solve the accumulation of pressing problems facing the country. The atmosphere of fear that had provided the regime with stability had dissipated and turned to contempt. During this period elements in the party and society were able to articulate their ideas and gain increasing influence within the power structure. By midyear, the leadership had realized that they would either have to undertake widespread repressive measures or tolerate developments that were rapidly undermining its power Page 2079  |  Top of Article
Czech students confront soldiers who have entered Prague to restore Soviet control, August 1968. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

Czech students confront soldiers who have entered Prague to restore Soviet control, August 1968. © BETTMANN/CORBIS
base. Halfhearted attempts at repression only aggravated the situation. The Congress of the Czechoslovak Writers' Union in June, which saw the most bitter criticism to date of party policies, was followed by a series of repressive measures against the writers and their organization. By fall, discontent in Slovakia with the party's centralistic policies became acute. This discontent was reflected by Slovak members in the party leadership. Novotný alienated them by attacking them as bourgeois nationalists. Finally, overall morale throughout the country had reached an alarming low point, and the economy was again on the brink of disaster.

The leadership was seriously split. The conviction was gaining ground within the higher party echelons that the crisis could not be resolved as long as so much power remained concentrated in Novotný's hands. As Novotný's weakness became increasingly apparent, even many of his former supporters deserted him. Novotný appealed to the Soviet party general secretary Leonid Brezhnev to intervene. Brezhnev flew to Prague and met with members of the Czechoslovak leadership. In leaving, Brezhnev told his hosts that the leadership question was their own business. In the end, Novotný voluntarily resigned the party leadership and himself proposed Dubček as his successor, while remaining for the time being as president of the republic.

Dubček did not come to power as a dedicated reformist with a clear program. His initial moves, though suggestive of reform, were cautious. Yet it had become clear that attempts to contain reform within neo-Stalinist institutional and ideological strictures were not viable. The new leadership faced a staggering challenge. Having inherited a party and society in crisis, it had to struggle on at least two fronts: to win the confidence of the population and of progressives within the party, by Page 2080  |  Top of Article demonstrating commitment to change, and to overcome the influence of entrenched conservatives within the country's power structure.

In February, steps were taken to separate the jurisdictional domains of the government and the party aparat (bureaucracy) , and to ensure that policy was made by elected bodies rather than by the aparat. The Czechoslovak writers were again allowed to publish a weekly newspaper. In February and March, the first personnel changes were made. The party presidium took steps to curtail censorship. And it promised to improve the system by which lower party bodies were informed about party affairs. Members of the presidium also attended a total of sixty-seven district and regional party conferences, explaining the leadership's new policies. Among other things, the revival of party life was emphasized, and elections by secret ballot promised.


Involvement in the political process was at first hesitant. Not everyone believed that the change in party leadership meant real change. By March, however, a nationwide discussion had begun to gain momentum. It concerned domestic and foreign politics, the nature of socialism, and the country's precommunist past. The reform process acquired its own momentum, never being entirely under the control of the party. The leadership sought to reassert its influence by demonstrating that the party was the force most capable of leading the reform process.

On 5 April a draft program of liberal reform, The Action Program of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, was approved by a plenary session of the central committee. The rapidity with which this document emerged indicates that its contents had been prepared before the change of leadership. What was particularly new and significant about it was its unqualified endorsement of a consistently reformist program. For the first time, the party explicitly accepted a connection between economic and political reform. It addressed the demands of Slovaks for greater autonomy by proposing a new federal constitution. The constitution would also provide for a strict division of powers: The National Assembly, not the Communist Party, would be in control of the government. Courts would be independent and would act as arbiters between the legislative and executive branches. Civil rights and liberties would be guaranteed, and those whose rights had been violated in the past would be fully rehabilitated. A radically new concept of the Communist Party and its "leading role" in society was outlined. Internal party democracy was to be maximized to the point where even minorities would be guaranteed the right to their own opinions. The party's "leading role" was to be based on the voluntary support of the people, earned by the party, rather than imposed by force. Dubček characterized the party's new course as "socialism with a human face."


The emergence of such a thoroughgoing, openly publicized program of liberal-democratic reform in a context of spontaneous, unmanaged political activity further alarmed the leaderships of Czechoslovakia's Warsaw Pact allies. Problems, tendencies, and pressures similar to those in Czechoslovakia existed in all these countries, including the Soviet Union itself. All had long been cautiously striving to repair the dysfunctional aspects of the political and economic system that had developed under Joseph Stalin. Yet all were also concerned about the subversive effects of reform on the monopoly of power that under-girded their authority. All were following the various efforts of their allies to address this dilemma. Czechoslovakia's emergent example of comprehensive reform based on genuine popular support, not fully managed by the party, increasingly frightened the allies. Dubček's epithet of "socialism with a human face" implicitly raised questions about the character of their own regimes.

The East German and Polish leaders, Walter Ulbricht and Wladyslaw Gomulka, were particularly alarmed. Both faced imminent crises of authority and were already hard-pressed in containing intense pressures for change. Neighboring on Czechoslovakia, they were directly exposed to developments there. Ulbricht and Gomulka strove to impress on the Soviet leadership the danger represented by the Prague Spring. They were the most militant advocates of force to quash it. The Hungarian leadership under János Kádár tended to be supportive of the Czechoslovak reform Page 2081  |  Top of Article movement. In contrast to Ulbricht and Gomulka, Kádár had long been cautiously pushing reform to the limits of Soviet tolerance. From Kádár's perspective, success of the Czechoslovak reformists would strengthen his position, while Soviet rejection of the Prague Spring would be detrimental to reform in Hungary. Although similar tendencies and ideas were also developing in Bulgaria and in the Soviet Union itself, both regimes were still firmly entrenched, so that they were not directly threatened with infection by the Prague Spring. It was mainly East Germany (GDR) and Poland that were threatened with a collapse of regime authority.

Throughout the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovak leadership stressed its loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and friendship with the Soviet Union and its other allies. This theme was articulated in the leaders' public speeches and embodied in all programmatic statements of the Czechoslovak party. It was affirmed at all meetings with Soviet and allied representatives. Nevertheless, by July it had become clear to the allies that developments in Czechoslovakia were unacceptable. Relations between Czechoslovakia and its allies had reached a point of acute crisis.

In early July, the Communist parties of the USSR, Poland, the GDR, Hungary, and Bulgaria invited the presidium of the CPCz to a conference to be held in Warsaw to discuss the situation. The Czechoslovak leadership, unwilling to be forced into the role of the accused, rejected the invitation. It proposed instead to discuss the situation in bilateral negotiations on Czechoslovak territory. The Warsaw conclave was held on 15–16 July without Czechoslovak participation. It resulted in the dispatch of an ultimatum-like letter to the Czechoslovak leadership. The response of the CPCz presidium, though moderate in tone, was firm in substance. It rejected the accusations, stressing that the CPCz relied on the voluntary support of the people. It would not reinforce its authority with repressive measures. It declared that Czechoslovakia had loyally fulfilled its obligations under the Warsaw Pact, and would continue to do so. It stressed that Czechoslovak socialism should accord with the country's conditions and traditions.

During the period of crisis touched off by the Warsaw Letter, a national unity almost without precedent anywhere was forged in Czechoslovakia. The CPCz spontaneously became the carrier of that unity. The Warsaw Letter marked a radical turning point in the internal political situation in Czechoslovakia. Up to this point, there had been considerable differentiation of political views in Czechoslovakia. Many believed that the leadership was not going far enough or fast enough with reform. Thousands of resolutions of support poured into party headquarters and more than a million people lined up in the streets to sign an appeal to the party presidium to maintain its position.

After protracted, tortuous private and public exchanges, the Czechoslovak and Soviet leaderships reached agreement on a bilateral meeting of their leaderships. The Soviets proposed that the meeting be held in the Soviet Union. But the Czech leadership held out for a meeting on Czechoslovak territory. The meeting finally took place from 29 July to 1 August in the Slovak border town, Čierna nad Tisou. The Soviets arrived in an intransigent mood, hoping to split the Czechoslovak delegation. When this failed, they adopted a conciliatory attitude. The negotiations ended with a communiquéthat said virtually nothing except that a multilateral meeting would be held on 4 August in the Slovak capital of Bratislava between representatives of Czechoslovakia and the signatories of the Warsaw Letter. An agreement was signed at the Bratislava meeting. The communiqué released after the meeting was couched in orthodox communist phraseology. Nevertheless, it was seen as putting the seal on a Czechoslovak victory and an end to the period of crisis.

During the night of 20–21 August 1968, without warning, Czechoslovakia was occupied. Despite claims of the occupying powers that "leading Czechoslovak Party and state officials" had requested their assistance, no such officials ever came forward. A movement of peaceful, coordinated resistance emerged spontaneously. It protested the invasion, demanding the return to power of the arrested reformist leaders and proclaiming determination to continue the post-January course of the CPCz. The occupying forces were unprepared for such a response. After the failure of Page 2082  |  Top of Article ad hoc attempts to establish a new authority, the Soviet leadership returned to power the very same leaders arrested on 21 August. The denouement was complex. Many important aspects of the reform movement that had disturbed the Soviet leadership continued to thrive and even evolve further, almost as if there had been no military intervention. Only after Dubček was forced to resign in April 1969, did the ice age return. The warmth of the Prague Spring, its cultural and political dynamism and effervescence, was over.


Eidlin, Fred. "January, August, and After: Czechoslovakia's Triumph and Tragedy." Radio Free Europe Research Czechoslovakia 21 (1969), 34pp.

——. The Logic of "Normalization": The Warsaw Pact Intervention in Czechoslovakia of 21 August 1968 and the Czechoslovak Response. Boulder, Colo., and New York, 1980.

Golan, Galia. The Czechoslovak Reform Movement: Communism in Crisis, 1962–1968. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

——. Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia: The Dubček Era, 1968–1969. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.

Hamsik, Dusan. Writers against Rulers. Translated by D. Orpington. London, 1971.

Hejzlar, Zdenek, and Vladimir V. Kusin. Czechoslovakia, 1968–1969: Chronology, Bibliography, Annotation. New York, 1975.

Journalist "M." A Year Is Eight Months. Garden City, N.Y., 1970.

Kusin, Vladimir V. The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: The Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia, 1956–1967. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Littell, Robert, ed. The Czech Black Book. New York, 1969.

Mlynar, Zdenek. Night Frost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism. London, 1986.

Skilling, H. Gordon. Czechoslovakia's Interrupted Revolution. Princeton, N.J., 1976.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447000713

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