Middle Israel: The Prague Spring at 50, a status report

Freedom’s victory was inspiring, but tyranny – cunning, brazen and techy – is back on the attack.

People stand near a Soviet-made military vehicle as they watch a documentary on the Soviet Union-led occupation by the Warsaw Pact armies to halt former Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring political liberalisation reforms in then Czechoslovakia, broadcasted on a disp (photo credit: PETR JOSEK / REUTERS)
People stand near a Soviet-made military vehicle as they watch a documentary on the Soviet Union-led occupation by the Warsaw Pact armies to halt former Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek's Prague Spring political liberalisation reforms in then Czechoslovakia, broadcasted on a disp
(photo credit: PETR JOSEK / REUTERS)
Justice was seldom more poetic. Staring from a balcony overlooking Prague’s Wenceslas Square at 350,000 citizens singing and dancing, as news broke of the Communist government’s resignation – the man who was that regime’s victim No. 1 now brought his lips near the microphone and ended two decades’ silence:
“If there once was light, why should darkness return?” he quoted “an old, wise man,” before urging his suddenly liberated nation: “Let’s bring the light back again!” The crowd roared, and shouts emerged from all its corners: “Long live Dubcek!”
It had been 21 years since the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s newly appointed secretary-general Alexander Dubcek stunned the world by demanding, in a speech delivered alongside an ashen-faced Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, “to make it possible for every Communist to be informed thoroughly, objectively, and in good time about events in his country and abroad.”
Moreover, “we should place the emphasis on developing more and, above all, deep democratic foundations,” said the 47-year-old former partisan.
The speech shook his oppressed nation loose. Newspapers wrote freely; people gathered freely; academics criticized the communist economy; filmmakers, writers and musicians created freely; citizens gathered spontaneously at the grave of Jan Masaryk, to salute the beloved foreign minister widely believed to have been defenestrated by Stalin’s goons; and in April Dubcek published a detailed road map for what he called “communism with a human face,” followed by his colleague, economist Ota Sik’s blueprint for economic reform.
Czechoslovakia, they said, should have a free press; its secret police should be used against foreign subversion only; its economy should be decentralized; the state should invite Western investments, allow the establishment of private businesses, break up industrial behemoths, encourage production of consumer goods, and remove price controls. There is no reason, wrote Sik, that a Czech should work 117 hours to buy the same transistor radio for which a West German works only 12 hours (Robert Harvey, Comrades: The Rise and Fall of World Communism, 2003, p. 266).
On the international front, and much more audaciously, Dubcek demanded during a Warsaw Pact meeting that the military alliance’s members wield equal power, rather than automatically follow Moscow’s lead.
Czechoslovakia, in short – the creative, industrious, and free-spirited land that had been the Hapsburg Empire’s industrial heartbeat, and philosopher Thomas Masaryk’s republic of freedom, tolerance and justice – was on its way to the future when the Soviet Union resolved to pull it back to the past.
The short-lived Prague Spring was crushed when the Warsaw Pact’s helmeted troops, roaring aircraft and rumbling tanks poured into Czechoslovakia through 20 border crossings 50 years ago this week.
The East Bloc was exposed as a morally bankrupt system led by self-appointed governments that the people no longer trusted, and driven by a failed idea in which the people no longer believed. Still, Dubcek’s small nation stood no chance.
Eighty fatalities and 1,000 wounded citizens later, a pall had descended on Prague, which would now be a sleeping beauty for more than two decades, until that day in autumn 1989 when Dubcek, after having been forced to waste his best years in the Forestry Service, came out of the woodwork to witness, announce, and embody tyranny’s defeat.
Having spent his last years as speaker of his liberated country’s parliament, Dubcek was a vindicated victor, but 50 years after he stood up to dictatorship’s hobnailed horsemen – tyranny is back in the saddle.
HAVING KNOCKED out the Soviet Union, its allies and their ideology, along with the censors, spooks and gulags that were the tools of their oppression, freedom’s victory seemed nearly complete. With democracy marching those years from Chile and Argentina to South Africa and Taiwan, it seemed but a matter of time until it would sweep the entire world.
It didn’t.
Freedom’s momentum was first blocked by China in Tiananmen Square; then it was fended off in the Middle East, when the Arab world’s leaders rejected Shimon Peres’s New Middle East vision; and then liberty’s direction was altogether reversed, twice: first, with Russia’s return to autocracy last decade, and then with Turkey’s demolition of its democracy this decade.
Thus regrouped, tyranny then went on the offensive.
Militarily, the successor of the Red Army that fired at Dubcek’s democrats now unleashed fighter jets at Syria’s Sunnis. Renewed fear of the Russian Bear is now making the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians hold joint military exercises, and the Baltic republics spend billions on arms.
Technologically, the KGB’s successors have subverted freedom’s own invention and epitome, the social network, and – like a commando raid from the rear – turned it on freedom itself, as Microsoft this week reported, having discovered Russian-run fake websites designed to defile American elections.
Economically, China’s authoritarian alternative to the West’s democratically driven capitalism is an inspiration to anti-democrats, from North Korea and Vietnam to Turkey and Iran.
Finally and most ominously, alongside its horizontal retreats from country to country, freedom is also embattled vertically, as its outposts’ democratic institutions come under attack from above and below. For what began with elected leaders’ assaults on the judiciaries of Poland and Hungary has since proceeded to the free world’s holy of holies, the White House, from which the successor of Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt now habitually snipes at the courts, the prosecution, the legislature, the media, and also the Federal Reserve.
FOUR MONTHS after he and Dubcek defeated tyranny, playwright Vaclav Havel addressed the US Congress as the newly free Czechoslovakia’s president, less than a year after emerging from the Communists’ jail.
“Democracy,” he observed, “will always be no more than an ideal.” One must approach it “as one would the horizon,” for “it can never be fully attained.”
That goes for the US, too, said Havel, except that, unlike Czechoslovakia, “you have been approaching democracy for more than 200 years, and your journey toward the horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system.”
Now it has.