Sunday, August 28, 2011

Freedom and Democracy in Bohemia

Alexander Dubček: “He understood all the principal social and economic problems and the tendencies of his period, and he understood that everything must change.”
by Charlie Leck

One of the most important books I have ever read (important to me, that is, but perhaps it wouldn't be to you) is Mark Kurlansky’s account of the most powerful year in my life: 1968 The Year that Rocked the World. [Ballantine Books, New York, 2004]

“There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again…

“What was unique about 1968 was that people were rebelling over disparate issues and had in common only that desire to rebel, ideas about how to do it, a sense of alienation from the established order, and a profound distaste for authoritarianism in any form. Where there was communism they rebelled against communism, where there was capitalism they turned against that. The rebels rejected most institutions, political leaders, and political parties.”

The turbulent times of the 1960s were reaching their climax in 1968. The 60s, I have always contended, began in the late 1950s with civil rights crises in the American south when the government forced the integration of public schools and universities. Further, I have argued that the 60s came to an inglorious end in 1970, when the nation was shocked by the savage killing of college students by National Guard troops at Kent State University.

In Prague, the homeland of my maternal ancestors, 1968 was as chaotic and insane as it was in America – or France – or Italy – or Germany – or Brazil – or Poland – or Russia – or Israel – or China. That year in Prague changed the Czech nation and rocked Europe and America. Pete Seeger’s extraordinary folk song, We Shall Overcome, was being sung by college students all over the world and in dozens of languages. It had begun as a civil rights song, but it grew to become a song of protest and revolution the world-wide. Students in Prague, in 1968, knew it well.

Students in Bohemia (I shall call it that here, instead of Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic because it was Bohemia to my family and will always be Bohemia in my mind) were rebelling against the dominance that the Soviet communists had in the politics of their homeland. Prague was afire with hope that communism would be banished and freedom and democracy would live.

Alexander Dubček became the leader of the Czech Communist Party on 5 January 1968. Today it is regarded as one of the most important days in Czech history. Then, no one imagined! He took office at the age of 46. Several years before, Dubček had been appointed to head a commission that looked into government abuse during the decade of the 50s. Dubček was to later write that he had been “dumbfounded by the revelations of what had been going on in…” It was the beginning of the end for the head of the Czech government and Antonin Novotnŷ.

No one has ever quite figured out why the Soviets accepted Dubček’s rise to power. Under normal circumstances they would have opposed his pledge to clean up the party. The new leader of the party and head of the government was a strange fit with the rising courage of the youth who pleaded for revolution; however, the young people liked Dubček. Ludovit Stur, one of the radical Czech revolutionaries of the time, would write this of Dubček many years later: “He understood all the principal social and economic problems and the tendencies of his period, and he understood that everything must change.”

On 27 January 1968, a shop appeared in the center of the old, historic center of Prague that became a regular haunt to the Czechs who discovered it. It sold newspapers from all over the world – from both socialist and capitalist countries. There was also a reading room where customers could sit and browse the papers and sip on coffee. Local newspapers also flourished because censorship was halted under Dubček. It is the only place in the entire Soviet bloc where it both happened and was allowed. The corruptions of earlier Czech regimes were exposed.

By the time the Soviets realized the magnitude of what was happening in Prague it was too late to turn things back. Freedom had been tasted and it was like fine wine or perfect beer. The people were not going to give it up.

In America, students were taking to the streets in protest against both the war in Vietnam and the nation’s racial prejudice and injustice. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, candidate for the presidency, would be murdered within months of each other in 1968. The names of famous radicals were well known all across the land – Abbie Hoffman, Stokely Carmichel, Hewey Newton, Bob Moses and Bobby Seal.

In Poland the people were hearing about the movement toward freedom in Czechoslovakia. Young students led the protests that cried out for such freedom for themselves. They held up signs that announced: “Poland awaits its Dubček!”

All the Soviet satellite states were looking to the Czechs with great hope.

“How could it be happening there and not here?” That was the question asked by the youth in Poland.

Poland would move, over the next three decades, toward autonomy and freedom from communism.

German students rushed into the streets and paraded with signs that proclaimed their desire for a reunited Fatherland. They wanted the wall to come down and the influence of Soviet communism removed from the eastern half of their divided nation.

“Why do the Soviets control our eastern lands?”

The Spring of ’68 brought unrest to France as well. Both students (protesting their inability to get high quality educations) and the labor unions (looking for both better working conditions and better wages) took to the streets of Paris. Life would soon become unbearable in Paris during 1968.

However, as Kurlansky writes, Prague was the place to be; for only in Prague was there optimism. While the young of other nations were encountering road blocks, Alexander Dubček was declaring that freedom was within reach.

“Democracy is not only the right and chance to pronounce one’s own views, but also the way in which the people’s views are handled, whether they really feel they are participating in making decisions and solving important problems.”

The Soviet Union was still looking hard and nervously over Dubček’s shoulder. They contemplated moving against him, but the strengths of the people’s demonstrations were causing the Soviets to wonder if it wasn’t already too late.

Amazingly rock n’roll came to Prague along with American blue jeans and the culture of the hippies.

By summer it became obvious that the Soviets might invade and put an end of Dubček’s leniency. In June, thousands of Russian troops marched into Czech lands on what they said were maneuvers. The Czech people demanded they be removed. Dubček worked patiently and slowly and within a few days the troops withdrew. All around the world newspapers were writing about the back-down of the Soviets and Czechoslovakia was prematurely proclaimed to be a free land. Within a short time students from around the world were pouring into Prague to join in the celebration.

“Prague,” a writer in the New York Times wrote, “seems like the place to be!”

However, in August, the Soviets, having had enough, sent troops and tanks into the Czech lands and advanced them toward Prague. They were hoping a show of force would calm the youth movement and cause the Czech government to oust Dubček. However, my brethren had tasted freedom and a slice of democracy. They refused and stared the Soviets down and demanded they remove their military forces. Russian orders arrived for the troops to remain. The soldiers stared at the people and the people gawked at the troops.

Governments and political bodies around the world denounced the actions of the Soviets. Even the communist parties of Italy and France demanded that the Soviets withdraw. The Czech people had come too far and they were not turning back.

Dubček was called to Moscow. He was threatened and sent back to his homeland to normalize things. The Soviets did not understand the strong will of the Czech people. The standoff would continue.

In another era, Dubček and his nation would have been crushed, no matter the cost of human life; however, 1968 was different. The focus around the world was on justice and equality. The young roamed the streets, carrying placards that proclaimed their message and demanded the rights that humans deserved. Worldwide television was reporting it all to every developed nation in the world.

The troops in Prague were recalled and once again pulled back across the borders. It was an immense victory – probably the most significant 1968 political and social victory of all. It wasn’t total victory, however, because the Soviets continued to meddle for a time and the Czech Central Committee was slow in instituting the kinds of reforms for which Dubček called. The reformer was dismissed from the Communist Party in 1970 and his replacement dismissed the reform movement as silliness; and it probably was mad to think a democratic and human face could be put upon communism. It would take another couple of decades before the Czech government could shed communism and really became one that was of the people.

The Soviets blatant invasion of the Czech lands in 1968 spelled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. The economic system and the union of satellite nations was beginning to fall apart from the insides and its future was bleak. “The system inhibited change,” Dubček would say in his later memoirs.

As Kurlansky wrote in 1968: The Year that Rocked the World:

“By the end of 1968 the Soviets were worried, but they had not yet discovered how much they lost when they killed the dream of the Prague Spring… It is often forgotten that in 1968 Alexander Dubček was the one leader who was unshakably antiwar, who would not contemplate a military solution even to save himself – a leader who refused to be bullied or bought by either communism or capitalism, who never played the cold war game, never turned to the capitalists, never broke a treaty or agreement or even his word – he stayed in power, true power, for only 220 exciting days. They were days in which impossible things seemed possible, like the slogan written on a Paris wall in May: ‘Be realistic, ask for the impossible.’ After he [Dubček] was gone, no one felt that he had ever really known him.”

The activist movement didn’t solve all of America’s problems either. After 1968, the United States continued to fight the problems of racial injustice and of a war that was purposeless, meaningless and without any defined mission. It would be six more years before the U.S. military was pulled from Vietnam and freedom at last would come to that Southeast Asian nation.

I was a young activist in 1968. I walked the streets and sang the songs of freedom. I read the papers thoroughly each and every day. I needed to know what was happening in Berlin, in Paris, in Stockholm, and in Prague. How closely we all watched Prague and the young men and women who, during that time, owned the streets.

Today, the Czech Republican is a free and independent and democratic nation. The young, who carried the message and stood up to the tanks, are now old.

For all my adult life I have dreamed of a visit to Prague, to see the places where the young men and women protested against dictatorship and foreign intervention and pleaded for freedom and dignity. Next week I will go there and spend several days. I will walk the streets and listen to the ghosts of days past when the Czech Spring gave such hope to all the world. This is the land of my mother’s family – the Svejdas, Vavras and Doubreavas. They all proudly called themselves Bohemian and Prague was the capital city of their Bohemian nation.

My grandfather, Frank Svejda, and my grandmother, Emma Vavra, are often in my thoughts and I am excited about visiting the land from which their parents and grandparents came. I will visit the Charles Bridge and linger there and listen, to see if I can hear the voices and freedom songs of the ghosts – of those who won freedom in the demonstrations of 1968 – to the shouts and songs of those young people who marched across the bridge time and time again. And I shall also remember that members of generations of my family probably walked that bridge on occasion.

I guess, before I conclude, one should be reminded that it was also in 1968 that the first spaceship approached the moon. Apollo 8 flew around the moon on Christmas Day and sent back pictures of the earth from above and behind the moon. This remarkable mission was the first manned space flight to leave earth’s orbit and free itself of earth’s gravitational pull and enter that of another heavenly body.

1968 was such a remarkable year!

I sincerely hope that I have not taken too many liberties with Mark Kurlansky’s book (cited above). I knew I was walking a fine line and I vigorously attempted not to violate the original and copyrighted work of the author. If I crossed the fine line, I apologize.


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