The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world had come to all out nuclear warfare. Over a period of 12 days, the US and the USSR inched further and further to utter destruction of both nations, through the opposing sides involvement with Cuba, its leadership and its political system. After this, both sides entered into a slightly improved relationship, though both with great trepidation. These improved relations were known as “detente”. However, this was to be tested in the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring.
Since 1948, Czechoslovakia had been the model satellite state; the standard of living was higher than other states, and her government obeyed Moscow to the letter. However, during the 1960s, opposition to Soviet control developed. This was partly due to the brutal murder of Jan Massaryk in 1948. But more pressingly, Czechoslovakia was lead by a man called Antonin Novotny since 1957, a hard line communist and anti reformist, he was unpopular with his people, and refused to adopt Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation (lessening the level of control over satellite states, and encouraging co-operation with the US).
The Czech economy was beginning to fail in the 1960s, which caused the standard of living to fall. The economic problems were started by the USSR’s refusing to allow Czechs to produce consumer goods, and instead forced them to produce raw materials for the benefit of the Soviet economy (and the detriment of their own). Novotny’s “New Economic Model” in 1965 failed, and simply lead to greater demands for democracy. In October 1967, a number of reformers challenged Novotny’s leadership at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In December 1967, one of the reformers, Dubcek invited Brezhnev (the leader of the USSR at the time) to Prague. Surprised at the extent of opposition to Novotny and withdrew his support for the leader. On 5th January 1968, Dubcek replaced Novotny as First Secretary of the Communist Party. In March, Novotny resigned as President and was replaced by Svoboda, one of Dubcek’s fellow reformers.
The Prague Spring refers to a series of reforms introduced by Dubcek in the spring of 1968. These reforms were “communism with a human face”- Dubcek still held communist values, but wanted to improve support for it by removing its worst features. The reforms included;
- Greater political freedoms; freedom of speech & the press. This led to fuller radio and TV reports, with corruption being exposed, and communists politician being grilled on TV.
- A 10 year programme for political change; bringing about democratic elections, a multiparty state and a new form of democratic socialism
- A reduction in the power of the secret police; they could no longer imprison without trial
- Removal of travel restrictions and open contact with the West; including trade with West Germany
- The creation of work councils; this looked to improve working conditions in factories and rights for workers.
These reforms led to increased demands for more radical reforms from opponents of communism. In June 1968, the social democrats began to form a rival party and a leading journalist encouraged Czechs to take the initiative and force even more reforms.
The USSR was suspicious of these changes, and Brezhnev feared they would leave the Warsaw Pact in favour of NATO. Czechoslovakia was one of the most important countries in the pact, and if they left it would have split the Eastern Bloc in two, leaving NATO to border the USSR. Brezhnev was under pressure from Ulbricht (East Germany leader), and Gomulka (Poland) to stop the reform.
In June 1968, Soviet troops were taking part in a military exercise in Czechoslovakia, but remained there even after the exercise was finished. Tensions begin to show, and in the July of of 1968 Warsaw Pact members meet up to discuss Dubcek’s membership. He agrees to stay in the Warsaw Pact if his reforms can go ahead. A short time later, the Bratislava declaration was issued to show Czechoslovakia’s loyalty to communism and declare Czechoslovakia a one party state. This was not enough for the USSR, so the Soviet Politburo told Dubcek he would bring down the Pact and, together with other Warsaw Pact members, his troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite Dubcek’s efforts to encourage a passive response, 100 died and he was made to sign the Moscow Protocol; an agreement that bound him to make no reforms whatsoever.
Dubcek was forced out of power and fled to Turkey, and more hard line communists took over. Student protests continued in Czechoslovakia, and the leadership role was taken by Husac.
Ultimately, the Prague Spring was proof of an attempt at “socialism with a human face”, that failed catastrophically and dissuaded other Pact members from attempting to leave (though Albania managed to sneak away in 1968). It also shook Moscow; they had come close to losing a major state in their Eastern Bloc. Though it may seem appropriate for a sharp Western response, detente was going well and the West feared upsetting this. In the end, Czechoslovakia was firmly back under Soviet control, at Moscow’s beck and call.