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New conclusions from 1968

A review of Europäische Zeitenwende: Prager Frühling (European turning point: Prague Spring). Edited by Iris Kempe and Wim van Meurs. Publisher: ibidem-Verlag, 2021.

February 15, 2022 - Gerd Tebbe - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2022Magazine

This slim but substantial volume edited by Iris Kempe and Wim van Meurs recalls the Prague Spring of 1968,  rightly reflected in the title European turning point, through reports from eyewitnesses and other contributions from both East and West. The book covers a wide range of topics from historical perspectives to current challenges in the relationship between East and West in Europe. This includes the development of a new Ostpolitik, the continent’s relationship with democracy and debates on bridge building and peace. The authors thus directly or indirectly take a position on various current political debates.

The book opens with eyewitness accounts from Tamara and Michal Reiman, who are just as familiar with Moscow during the Stalin era as they are with Prague before and after August 1968. Indeed, they were personally involved in different capacities in the Prague Spring. Through their descriptions, they share here for the first time previously unpublished memories of the course of the Prague Spring, its protagonists and its heirs.

Atmosphere of upheaval

The memoirs of Tamara Reiman deserve a special mention. She at the time became a translator at the meeting of the Soviet and the Czechoslovak reformist political leaders, led by Alexander Dubček and Leonid Brezhnev in early August 1968 in a remote town on the Soviet-Czechoslovak border. Her impressions which she shares here for the first time illustrate the foreseeable failure of the country’s “socialism with a human face” era that culminated on August 21st 1968.

At the beginning of his memoirs, Michal Reiman (now the husband of Tamara) places the Prague Spring in the context of political developments in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. In particular, he discusses the process of de-Stalinisation, the effects and after-effects of which also influenced the Czechoslovak communist party under its General Secretary Antonin Novotny. Novotny was replaced by Alexander Dubček who, according to Reiman, was initially mistaken for a “Soviet cadre” because he had spent his childhood and youth in the USSR until 1938. The group of reformers from 1968 – to which he himself belonged – is described by Reiman as a “large and motley conglomeration of people of different political persuasions”, the core of which was made up of intellectuals in Prague and the country’s other major cities. In an atmosphere of upheaval, these figures were involved in editorial offices, associations and unions. They drafted texts and documents, including an action plan for the Prague Spring that Reiman “brazenly” presented at a well-attended conference in Moscow. The reformers were always aware that they were treading a fine line politically if they wanted to avoid a hopeless and open conflict with the Soviet Union.

In her contribution, Anna Kaminsky takes a look at the year 1968 in East Germany from the perspective of the country’s leadership and their “agencies”. They understood that the developments in Czechoslovakia were perceived by the population in a way that did not correspond to the official “line”. The regime tried to counter widespread popular interest in the Czechoslovak reform process, which saw a sharp increase in East Germans travelling to the neighbouring country. Many East Germans expressed sympathy and solidarity and – after the invasion – even engaged in individual acts of open or hidden protest. According to Kaminsky, the hope of those in power at the end of the year that “calm” would return was not fulfilled. The Prague Spring was followed by the uprising in Poland in 1970, the protests against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation in 1976, the founding of the Solidarity trade union in 1980 and finally the 1989 revolutions.

Cautious examination

The historian Peter Brandt points out that the political system created throughout 1968 by the post-Stalinist Czechoslovak communist party, which came as a surprise to many outside observers, can only be understood through a close examination of past events. “As early as 1963”, writes Brandt, “several reformatory or emancipatory developments began, which, viewed in retrospect, in their combination led up to the Prague Spring.” Brandt stresses the importance of the work of the economic reformers around Ota Šik, as well as the sociological analyses of the philosopher Radovan Richta and his group. Last but not least, the Franz Kafka Conference in May 1963 initiated by the literary scholar Eduard Goldstücker is also viewed as a crucial event. A cautious examination of its own past began within the communist party after 1948. This subsequently influenced the activities of the party’s reform commission, which was set up in 1963 under Zdeněk Mlynář to deal with the relationship between democracy, law and politics within socialism. At the same time, Brandt emphasises that the Czechoslovak communists “originally enjoyed a relatively high level of support among the population”. For example, the party won almost 40 per cent of the vote in the free elections of 1946. This made it easier for the communists to credibly lead the reform process in 1968.

Wim van Meurs connects the memory of the “Images from Prague in August 1968” with other events in Eastern Europe that have influenced collective memory in a similar way. He discusses Boris Yeltsin’s speech on a tank in Moscow on August 21st 1991 and the “heroes of the fall of the [Berlin] Wall”. These heroes include both East Germany’s protesting citizens and West German politicians Helmut Kohl and Willy Brandt, who with his visit to Warsaw in 1970  “laid the foundation for the end of the division of Germany and Europe”. He also looks at the popular uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956) and finally the events in Poland that followed the founding of Solidarity in 1980. A commitment to democracy and freedom connects all these events. According to the author, who specifically mentions Russia, Poland and Hungary in his conclusion, this commitment must be continued today under different circumstances as the cornerstone of a “New Ostpolitik“.

Reason for hope

Similar to Tamara and Michal Reiman, the Lithuanian poet and writer Tomas Venclova, born in 1937, also writes as a contemporary witness to events. He further discusses his personal experience of attempts at democratic development, which resulted in some disappointment but ultimately hope. Venclova uses the memory of the Prague Spring as an opportunity to give a historical review of resistance and dissidents in Lithuania under Soviet rule. He soberly analyses these figures’ various motives and goals. As a convinced European, he also critically notes that most Lithuanian dissidents tended more towards nationalism than democracy, which still has an impact on Lithuanian politics today. Nevertheless, he finds reason for hope and a “paradigm shift … to a truly European, bourgeois concept of people and state”.

Michael Thumann, a journalist and expert on Eastern Europe, provides an appropriate thematic conclusion. He discusses a global political event that can be viewed as a late consequence of the Prague Spring, namely the end of the Soviet Union. Through his stimulating description of the meeting in the Białowieża Forest on December 8th 1991, during which the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus decided on the formal dissolution of the USSR, Thumann challenges the “myth” widespread among today’s Russian elite that “an empire was destroyed without need”. The many courageous people who fought for freedom and democracy in what was then the Eastern Bloc can now view with belated satisfaction the quiet end of the state that emerged from the October Revolution and ruled over Central and Eastern Europe.

Gerd Tebbe is a scholar of Central and Eastern Europe based in Berlin.

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