The Prague Spring and 1968
Updated: Dec 18, 2021
We briefly look behind the student movements of East/West Germany, the Prague Spring and historical reflections of the Cold War.
Today I want to briefly touch on the overlaying themes and views of the Prague Spring with social developments of 1968. First we'll highlight the differences between the 1968 experiences in the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East). Second we will then tie in the Eater and Western views of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the complexities brought by the lack of cooperation. Thirdly this we shall touch on the attitude taken by historians and the public sphere to acknowledge realpolitik from the Second World War to the end of the Cold War. All topics raised should be used as talking points: the conclusion shall highlight issues of importance.
The social revolution of 1968 was largely brought about by the beginning of globalisation (specifically capital and emigration) with wider access to media. In West Germany students took on a more militant approach when tackling foreign policy presented by Western states. Objections to the Vietnam War and the replacing of democratic socialist leaders in the Congo with dictators brought outrage amongst young people. West German authorities believed the attention to these issues were often brought by international/foreign students sharing Marxist messages. This Marxist message eventually evolved into the “extra-parliamentary opposition” (APO), a group largely run by the Socialist German Student League (SDS) that advocated an anti-nuclear and anti-war message for all students to get behind. West German authorities reacted with “emergency laws” which were argued to control civil unrest. However public opinion viewed these laws as authoritarian and resulted in the APO growing in size and support. The academic sphere also grew in support of the APO, including Karl Jaspers who went as far as accusing the state establishing “oligarchical rule” (Speier and Vidich, 1990). Further issues were created with the unofficial coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This coalition proposed liberal budget proposals whilst also being led by former Nazi Kurt Georg Kiesinger in 1966. Kurt was infamous for working within the Nazi propaganda Ministry 1943 to 1945 (Herf, 2013). This did not simply reach out to students but also regular citizens. Many saw this as a failure to properly prosecute Nazi activists whilst the liberal agenda was the state being used by Western influence to promote Americanisation. Outside of the political sphere media also played a part. Revolutionary films such as Viva Maria set in the Mexican revolution carried themes of Marxism and anarchism, which influenced student thinking. This form of media allowed the struggles of the third world to be shown to Western states directly.
East German’s faced different circumstances due to the reaction of the state. Young East Germans shared the anti-imperialist message but realised they had to humanise communism at home. However East German 68ers were small on numbers, estimated to be 200 to 300 members who were all young workers rather than students (Brown, 2009). The small group were met with further issues as the forcing of Socialist Unity Party (SUP) with Communist Party pushed back democratic socialist reforms. Young workers found inspiration through music such as The Beatles, with songs that brought anti-authoritarian messages whilst promoting individual identity. This resulted in bands being forced to change their names into German, only to then being banned entirely in East Germany. This resulted in intense protests in Leipzig spread out in 13 sectors. Protestors were met with water cannons by officers and later labelled “dirty” in Communist propaganda (Lohmann, 1994), forcing groups to hide in local churches (Crutchley, 2015). Major difference between 68ers in East Germany to West was that change could not be shown through public sphere without challenge of the state through extreme violence. However state legitimacy slowly degraded with the Prague Spring, creating cognitive dissonance to many in the population.
As Eastern actors in Prague attempted to give more individual freedoms, whilst facing opposition from external factors, Western actors attempted to centralise more power but faced greater and more successful resistance.
The Prague Spring
The liberalisation reforms proposed by Alexander Dubček were met with fierce opposition, resulting in Soviets sending in 650,000 men into Czechoslovakia. This fascinated Western political commentators as many thought democracy and justice could be introduced to Communism and end the totalitarian Stalinism. Many hoped the Prague Spring would be the social equivalent of the creation of the welfare state in the Golden Age of Capitalism. Many democratic socialists hoped the Prague Spring could unite their cause with communism by creating a more diverse economy. Others within the middle class, such as Thatcher and Bush, also hoped this would conclude the Cold War without violent means. This moment attracted millions watching through televised media, with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calling the Soviet’s action “Moscow’s Vietnam” (Pauler, 2018).
However the Eastern view of the Prague Spring is met with uncertainty and doubt. Many within the Eastern bloc viewed the struggle as internal fighting amongst different communist groups. Many conservative commentators simply viewed Dubček as a communist with other Stalinists, however a more centrist view considers Dubček as humanising communism, but proposed what was deemed feeble legislative reforms. It was clear to many, regardless of political views, Stalinist Communism could not be reformed within inside.
The Prague Spring became a dominant political issue with establishment communists attacking the generation of 68ers as well as specific liberal party members in authority. Many dissidents responded by supporting the civil rights movement “Charta 77”, which gained little support or signatories (Hitchcock, 2004). Many blame the reformers for unable to make compromise with establishment figures. The reformers were unable to give up certain principles, instead opting to remain in power for as long as possible or resign/emigrate in protest. The lack of cooperation is the result of disenfranchisement, with the Husák administration seeing political actors retreating into their private lives in the Normalization period. Whilst reformers did not compromise, for reasons of moral principlem the reaction of the state only created sympathy in the long term, resulting in the return of reformers in 1989.
I encourage readers to note the change in academic/historical literature and attitudes post-World War Two.
The acceptance of history has been a struggle for both East and West Germany. As Victor Klemperer points out the existence of the Third Reich was “as good as forgotten, everyone had been opposed it, it hadn’t always been supported.” For many on both sides of the border they simply denied or forgot about history pre-1945. The fall of the Nazi regime saw anti-Semitism vanish from the public sphere, with historic academics facing a new realm of psychological reconstruction in the face of newly formed societies at each side of the state. However economic elements of the Nazi regime remained, including Volkswagen and Hermann Abbs. For German citizens and writers they wished to retreat into their private lives and live on as regular citizens, without the weight of the war. But this did not simply apply to specifically Germany. Many other states in the West were not keen to hold the Soviets in high manner in regards to their role in the war. If the West investigated their bombing and killing of civilians they too would find themselves guilty, thus deciding to forget about such actions in the past (Overly, 2013). Yet whilst many attempted to forget about the atrocities of the war other academics and authors were not so willing to forget the threat of fascism. George Orwell continued to promote the dangers of fascism in his literature, most famously 1984 and Animal Farm. Other academics such as Arthur Koestler believed that a third World War was not far off in the far horizon, sharing similar fears to Jaspers about state centralisation in the West.
However Germany rebuilt itself, specifically 2/3 of its infrastructure came from post-1945 budget programmes. The 1960s saw a new generation of German willing to face up to the past and mistakes made by previous governments in power. Many parents of the 1940s were scared of facing the reality of the Nazi regime: that their parents were largely its creators giving tacit consent. For many 50s parents their lives were focused on the shifting social and economic paradigms of the 50s during the Keynesian years of Golden Age Capitalism. However the 90s academic world challenged the paradigms created around WW2. Instead of accepting 1945 as a Zero Hour for a change in German history new historians accept the date of 1918, as the politics of post-World War One formed the basis of geopolitics in decades to come. Many also accepted the long-term anti-Semitic views carried by many throughout German history, rather than a random episode of state genocide. The fear of the past and hope for the future is the two key themes that unite East and West Germans.
The main take away from this brief post is the difference in state actions for the 1968 generation. State reactions defined what groups in the East and West could achieve, with greater social development occurring in the West due to less resistance and better freedom of expression. Also consider the heterodox view of the Prague Spring in which reformers themselves were unreasonable, as this presents the complexities between different communist factions and democratic socialists. Finally, note the change in academic literature between Golden Age Germans and the new Washington Consensus Germans of the new generation.
 Overy, R. (2013). Interwar, War, Postwar: Was there a Zero Hour in 1945?. The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History, p.ch.2 (ebook).
Brown, T. (2009). AHR Forum“1968” East and West: Divided Germany as a Case Study in Transnational History. The American Historical Review, 114(1), pp.69-96.
Crutchley, P. (2015). How prayers helped end the Cold War. [online] BBC Religion & Ethics. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24661333 [Accessed 1 Dec. 2018].
Herf, J. and Cüppers, M. (2013). Naziverbrechen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (WBG), pp.45-61.
Hitchcock, W. (2004). The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent,
1945 to the Present.. New York: Anchor Books - a division of Random House, p.302.
Lohmann, S. (1994). The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989–91. World Politics, 47(01), pp.42-101.
Overy, R. (2013). Interwar, War, Postwar: Was there a Zero Hour in 1945?. The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History, p.ch.2 (ebook).
Pauler, J. (2018). The Dispute about the Legacy of the "Prague Spring." European Network Remembrance and Solidarity, pp.1-3.
Speier, H. and Vidich, A. (1990). The Truth in Hell and Other Essays on Politics and Culture, 1935-1987. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.295 - 345.
Recommended Academic Literature
On further discussion of militant student activity and historic academic opinion of 1968 see Gerd-Rainer Horn (2007), Stuart J. Hilwig (2001) and Detlef Siegfried (2004).
For further reading on the Prague Spring see Kevin McDermott (2018), Jeremi Suri (2016) and Anna J. Stoneman (2016). For more historic academic literature on the Prague Spring see Karen Dawisha (1984) and Robin Alison Remlington (1969).
On changing historical academic analysis post Second World War to the end of the Cold War see Geoff Eley (1996), Ian Buruma (2013) and Mark Mazower (2011).