A Spring Awakening for Human Rights
By JIRI PEHE
Published: August 24, 2008
FORTY years ago last week, the five Warsaw Pact countries, led by the Soviet Union, sent armored tanks into Czechoslovakia. It was to be the end of the Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization and cultural blossoming in Czechoslovakia, and the beginning of 21 years of Soviet oppression — a turning point in the histories of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yet the anniversary was marked here with some hesitation.
At the official commemoration at Prague Castle, Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, gave a speech. The prime ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic opened an exhibition in Wenceslas Square — where Soviet troops had clashed with the citizens of Prague in 1968 — featuring a Soviet T-54 tank and homemade posters protesting the invasion. But most leading politicians limited themselves to brief statements.
Many leading thinkers here regarded the anniversary as unremarkable because they believe the Prague Spring was primarily a communist affair — an attempt by reformers to prevail over hard-liners within the party — and as such is of little interest to today’s authentic democrats. Articles in Czech news media argued that leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, including First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, were naïve to think that they could sustain “socialism with a human face.” When they abolished censorship, tolerated artistic freedom, eased travel restrictions and allowed new civic movements to come into existence, they merely created a virus that threatened the communist system.
But as someone who experienced the Prague Spring at the impressionable age of 13, came of age during the repressive period of “normalization” and, from 1981 to 1989, observed my country from exile in the United States and Germany, I recall 1968 with fondness. And I suspect that our lasting reluctance to discuss the period openly is, more than anything else, a sign that the trauma of communism is still very much alive today, despite the last 19 years that democracy has had to take root