Prague, 20 August 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 revolution.
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.