>The Prague Spring: Many happy returns?

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Yesterday I took myself off to Notting Hill yesterday to hear Dr Oldřich Tůma, head of the Czech Republic‘s excellent Institute for Contemporary History, talk on ‘The Prague Spring After 40 Years: Anti-Communist Revolution Or Campaign To Reform Communism?’. One of my colleagues, used to events at the Polish embassy, was surprised I wasn’t wearing a tie, but the Czech Embassy is a fairly down-to-earth kind of place, which rather nicely sums up the country it represents. I wandered out onto a terrace before the lecture to look a plaque expecting to read about some profound historical event only to be confronted with a Monty Pythonesque inscription about how Jára Cimrman – a Zelig like non-existent national hero made up by two humorists, who enjoys cult like status in the CR – had invented the light bulb. Let’s hope he also makes a contribution to the Czech Presidency of the EU

Dr Tůma hadn’t been feeling too well earlier in the day, apparently, but he quickly got into his stride and his presentation wasclear, well thought out and – as you would expect of a leading Czech historian – sprinkled with interesting and subtle interpretations. It was, I thought, however, a slightly safe view of the reform process, the answer to the question posed in the lecture title was that the Prague Spring was both a top-down communist attempt to revitalize one party rule with little (or limited) democratic content and a slow but gathering emancipation of Czech society trying to ease itself out from under the communist system – a ‘refolution’ with pressure from below and cautiously (mis-)engineered change from above, to borrow the phrase Timothy Garton Ash coined for 1989.

The 1968-89 parallel, Tůma suggested, was to be found in type of strategies employed by reform communist elites. He also noted that political change was – as seems typical for the Czech lands – framed in terms of ‘return’: reform communist wanted a return to 1948; socialists and radical communist reformers to the semi-pluralist managed People’s Democracy of 1945-8; and non-communist Czechs to an idealized chocolate box version of interwar Czechoslovak democracy. And on 1 January 1990 Václav Havel famously proclaimed ‘People, your government has returned to you’ and post-communist change was framed as a Return to Europe, or – if you like consuming the propaganda of the Czech right to the rich man’s club of the OECD. Like bored kids on a long car journey, Czechs are perhaps now entitled to ask ‘Have we got there yet?’ (I think the answer is yes).

The Q and A brought one important and well made criticism: a key omission in Tůma’s talk, the questioner noted, was the ubiquity of socialism. It had dominated the experience and perception of events at the time. There was little evidence that Czech society was consciously or distinctly looking back to a different point of reference, than reforming the regime. Socialism then still had significant support and legitimacy in the Czech working class. I lack the historical expertise to judge this one, but I suspect this point – basically a critique of views, which view 1968 in the hindsight of 1989 – is well observed. Czech thinking about 1968 seems to have a real blind spot here, perhaps because, at bottom, Czechs are still thinking through and coming to terms with their society’s relationship with communism and socialism. Much easier then to juxtapose an essentially non-communist society – expressing underlying national democratic tradition – with the reforming, but basically separate, communist regime and Communist Party.

When Czechs talk about 1968 they are always really thinking and talking about themselves and their society as it is and where it is going now. This rather contrasts with the profusion of flatulent retrospectives about the Western 1968‘. It occurred to me as my mind wandered a bit that if some people needed reminding that in 1968, socialism was (on) the agenda – at least in Czechoslovakia – others need reminding the left-libertarian agenda that burst forth then are either on the historical scrapheap or firmly entrenched in the mainstream. Why does there have to be endless series backward-looking intellectual nostalgiafests? I suppose because of the cultural power of a baby boomer generation of soon-to-retire academics and journalists, for whom 1968 was a never-to-be-forgotten golden moment Maybe in ten or fifteen years time, when the participants have finally moved on, 1968 will simply be studied as history. You know you’re getting middle aged when you start to agree with Timothy Garton Ash, but I can’t help thinking he was right to point out that 1968 and the May events was a merely historical hiccup compared with 1989 and that it was all, basically, a staging post to our current mainstream mix of social and economic liberalism.

Meanwhile back at the Czech Embassy, the Q and A at also revealed that Russian archives concerns the August 1968 invasion – bar a few carefully selected morsels – are largely still classified and inaccessible (a mixture of grinding post-Soviet bureaucracy and lack of political will) and that, while Czech and Slovak experiences of reform communism (and the communist regime generally) were rather different, Czech and Slovak historiography approaches 1968 in broadly similar ways. Vive la refolution!

One Response to “>The Prague Spring: Many happy returns?”

  1. Kris McCracken 4 July 2008 at 12:13 am #

    >I don’t have much to add, but I want to thank you for sharing the story, I enjoyed reading it very much. I don’t know if it is due to getting old, but I also am starting to see things in Garton Ash’s work from the early 1990s that I never appreciated ten or so years ago!

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