Escape to Freedom
Posted 21 November 2017
At the beginning of Part II
Prague Spring 1968
Conditions Improve for Our Escape
The citizens of Prague woke up to the sound of rumbling tanks through their streets. It was August 21, 1968. Still, I went to work in the morning as usual. But when I saw people lining up at the food store, I knew it was the first signal that spring was over, and our dreams of freedom were gone.
Some Historical Background
To be able to understand the happenings of the Prague Spring of 1968, it is necessary to understand the geographical and historical background.
Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic, since the country divided itself in 1992 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. But in 1968 it was the capital of Czechoslovakia. The country was located next to Germany on the west, and the Soviet Union on the east, among others, two giants that had played conflicting roles in our land during World War II. Lots of people outside of Europe used to mix up Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which was in the south of Europe, next to Italy. Two different countries, but with somewhat parallel histories.
Czech history goes back to about the year A.D. 600. The late Senator Henry Jackson, of my home state of Washington, once surprised me by pointing out the modern history of Czechoslovakia could be quite simply summarized in major events in twenty (or so) year increments, beginning with 1918 and the end of World War I. So:
* Czechoslovakia was established as a sovereign nation at the end of the First World War in 1918, when the treaty of Versailles ended the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
* In 1938 Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany, disestablished as a country, and split into the German Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia, ancient territorial names. With liberation in 1945, Czechoslovakia again was free. But it quickly became a satellite of the expanding Soviet Union.
* And then there was the happening of the Prague Spring in 1968, which was in fact a movement to re-establish a free and independent Czechoslovakia. But the movement failed when Red Army tanks invaded.
* Finally, twenty-one years later, the Soviet Union would collapse, and Czechoslovakia would be free again.
The Political Situation in 1968
It was a hot year in the history of the Cold War between East and West. There were demonstrations all over the world. However, the significance of demonstrations in Czechoslovakia was especially outstanding. A massive demonstration of truly democratic ideas was highly unusual within the Soviet Union’s hard fist of dictatorship. This was due to the past experiences of those who tried it, if they survived at all.
The Communist world was expanding after Leonid Brezhnev consolidated his power in the Soviet Union after the toppling of the previous leader, Nikita Khrushchev. So the Governors of all the satellite countries had to be changed as well. This was a practice proven as a survival necessity for dictatorships. There was an internal struggle for power in the Czech Communist Party leadership, and Alexander Dubcek emerged as the leader.
With such changing of the guard, it had been customary to seek the approval of the general population, and to loosen the screws of dictatorship a little bit. However, things got out of hand. The common people got involved in politics, even those who had no association with the Communist Party governing on behalf of the Soviet Union. There were discussions in the streets, and some changes were promised. These changes mainly involved the policy of governing, the economic system, and basic freedoms.
Several individuals established a new citizens independent organization in an effort to assure permanency of the promised reforms. The organization was named the Club of Non-communist Advocates, and it was growing fast. Under the rule of the communist government, the establishment of a new opposition party was unthinkable. So a club trying to help foster popular support for needed government reforms seemed to be unacceptable. This club would probably be recognized today as a grassroots democracy movement.
The leaders of the Soviet Union saw quite well what was going on in Czechoslovakia, and understood that what was happening in one of their colonies was not in their best interest. There was talk that Czechoslovakia would separate from the Soviet Union as a free country, and maybe as a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) as well. In addition, if this were allowed, other satellite countries would follow.
So, in August of 1968, the Soviet Union, with the token help of other satellite countries, invaded Czechoslovakia with an overwhelming force. They took Dubcek and other Czech communist leaders to Moscow for a frank discussion.
And that was the end of the Prague Spring of 1968.
After the Invasion
There were hard times after the invasion by the “friendly” armies under the Red Army command. A new “loyal” government was established. A “normalization process” was initiated to finalize the fight against all those who had promoted the reforms. They were branded as “counter-revolutionary” forces, and the new loyalists were called “conservatives,” or “conserves” for short.
There was also an organized effort to make the troublemakers disappear. This was so the newly established “conservative” government would not have any difficulties with the real government, in Moscow. It is said that 10% of the population, some 140,000 people, emigrated; however, not all of them permanently.
There was some resistance within the means of unarmed citizens, after the invasion. A free underground press, radio and television for maintained for a while. But there was no hope for a democratic government once the Red Army had settled in.
I believe that the realistic struggle, with all the hope attached to it, was during the several months from the start of the Prague Spring in 1968 until August 21st of that year. Perhaps also the year before, also, leading up to those events, to a limited extent. Meaningful reforms had been planned and promoted, new politics were fostered, and dreams of independence seemed closer to reality than ever before.
When speaking of the Prague Spring, I am talking about events that happened nearly 50 years before our present time (2017). But I believe that what happened in Prague at that time has substantial significance for today. It was a struggle for democracy, specifically the struggle for freedom of individuals to be able to control their own destiny. We probably all agree the struggle for democracy, for the personal freedom of individuals, is a perpetual struggle. So it is important to remind ourselves that we have to guard our freedom with everything available to us.
In September of 2001 (just a year before I wrote this presentation in 2002) the world was shocked by a massive attack upon civilians of the United States. In the eyes of those who have fought for freedom, the United States has always been the world symbol of democracy, and its defender. This, I think, was one of the reasons for the attack. The terrorist organizations which instigated these attacks are in principal anti-democratic movements which promote dictatorships. As such, they will fight us because we stand in their way to governing by terror for the pleasure of the few.
We should never forget how lucky we are to live in a country which stands for its democratic principals, and which is dedicated to defend them. We should never forget what an effort it takes to be free. – Thomas O. Lenda, May 15, 2002