Prague, 30 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- It has been 30 years since Soviet troops
marched down Wenceslas Square. Thirty years since the Prague Spring was crushed
under the metallic tread of tanks on cobblestones.
What was originally devised as a modest reform program within the Czechoslovak
Communist Party, quickly mushroomed into a grassroots movement far exceeding the
narrow political elites. As historian Pavel Zacek describes it, "The sarcophagus
had opened, and although political battles were still going on inside, within
its confines, society had been liberated and was already out.".
By the summer of 1968, censorship had been officially lifted and the very
foundation of the regime in Czechoslovakia was being openly questioned.
It all made neighboring Communist leaders, and most of all the Politburo in
Moscow, very nervous. Memories of Hungary's attempted revolution in 1956 were
still vivid in the Kremlin. And so, on August 20, the tanks were sent in and the
freewheeling discussions, the avant-garde plays and the uncensored newspapers
were snuffed out. The leadership was soon replaced with a new crop of yes-men.
The genie was forced back into the bottle - or sarcophagus, as some would have
it. Moscow called it "normalization."
Wandering onto Wenceslas Square today, where the American Express and
McDonald's outlets disgorge flocks of tourists and cell-phoned businessmen
cruise in their BMWs, it's hard to conjure that time.
A small wooden cross and a plaque dedicated "in memory of the victims of
Communism" mark the spot where in 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old student,
immolated himself to protest the Soviet invasion. Tourists take photos, and move
on to the T-shirt stands.
Ten years ago, with public opinion muzzled, and Soviet troops still occupying
Czechoslovakia, the 20th anniversary of the 1968 invasion held deep resonance.
Several thousand students used the occasion to march through Prague -- the
largest such demonstration in twenty years. It was a signal of change to come
and a year later the students marched again, this time leading a full-blown
Zacek, a student activist at the time, recalls that the crushing of the Prague
Spring served as an inspiration for the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
"In 1989," he says, "when we put out our student newspaper, we topped it with
the slogan: 'The Prague Spring we lost, but the Prague Autumn of 1989 we won't
give up.' So you could see in that a certain continuity."
Today, even the Velvet Revolution seems an increasingly distant memory. And so
the question arises: does the Prague Spring still have any meaning for the
Czechs today, 30 years after its premature death?
Political scientist Bohumil Pecinka doesn't think so. He says that most people
prefer to look to the period before the Communist takeover in 1948, rather than
at the 1968 interlude.
"After 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, there wasn't a return to 1968, but a
return to 1948, or more accurately, to before 1948. So the significant date for
most people of all generations became the year 1948, when democracy was
destroyed in our country. And the ma
majority of people now look at 1968 as an attempt by the Communist elite to
humanize the then Communist regime - not to change it," he said.
In addition, Pecinka says, the process of remembering hurts in this country.
"The Communist system was so well perfected, that anyone who wanted to live
here and not just exist, had to somehow conform ... to make lots of small
compromises and people don't want to recall that."
Ludvik Vaculik, a leading Czech contemporary writers, published the 2,000 Words
declaration in the summer of 1968. The manifesto called for true democratic
change in Czechoslovakia, from the ground up, directly challenging the regime's
role in leading reform. Moscow branded the document counter-revolutionary and
used its publication, in part, to justify the invasion.
Vaculik says the Prague Spring still has great significance, but many people
prefer to ignore it.
"The legacy of 1968 is that people, at that time, stepped away from their
personal interests and careers and understood that there was a common task. It
was an ability to rise above things and act as a human whole - and this, with
our new freedom, is now being whittled away," Vaculik said.
Vaculik says the lessons of the Prague Spring are more appreciated in the West
than here and he adds that without wanting to, Czechoslovakia became the
sacrificial lamb that helped dispel any myths about Eastern European Communism.
"This whole process and all of 1968 had greater significance for Europe than
for us. The leftist intelligentsia in Europe learned what the USSR was all about
-- what kind of power it was -- and that Socialism in the Soviet mold was
unreformable," he said.
Although he spent the next 20 years shuttling from one interrogation cell to
another, for Vaculik the Prague Spring was worth the cost. "It really can't be
measured by the standard of was it worth it or not," he says. "It was necessary.
Some people stood the test, and some simply did not."
What is important, says Bohumil Pecinka, the political scientist, is that
people should no longer harbor any illusions about Communism. But he notes that
large segments of Czech society are more inclined to seek refuge in nostalgia
than to confront the past.
"Here, until November 17, 1989, there was a hard-line Communist regime and then
it disappeared from one day to the next," he says. "And people today are
incapable of reflecting on it. There is no societal consensus on what exactly
the Communist regime was."
At the Cafe Slavia, former haunt of Prague's persecuted intellectuals,
historian Pavel Zacek explains the Sisyphean struggle he faces. Zacek, the
one-time student activist, is now deputy director of the Office For the
Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes. The office is a part of the
Interior Ministry. Its task is to investigate the activities of the former State
Security apparatus and compile evidence against individuals who committed
specific crimes on behalf of repressive institutions.
On paper, the office enjoys broad powers -- more power in fact, than any other
such body in Eastern Europe. Its staff-members, as Interior Ministry employees,
have broad access to classified files and have prepared indictments against
scores of individuals, including some of the main actors in the post-1968
"normalization" period. But the indictments must then proceed to the courts,
where they are often thrown out.
Unlike in East Germany, where, with the exception of four individuals, all
judges were replaced after the fall of communism, in the Czech Republic, most
Communist-era judges have remained on the bench. Few have any desire to see the
wounds of communism publicly reopened.
But Zacek says he is not after punishment. He just wants Czech society to
honestly assess its past, so that it can move on, to a secure democratic future.
"We have to bear in mind that some of these perpetrators are 70 to 80-year-old
pensioners. The point is not to lock them up, but to decide that what they did
was a crime and for society to acknowledge that among it are criminals. Without
this assignation of blame, society cannot come to terms with its past, accept a
democratic order and move forward," Zacek said.