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On This Day: Reformist Alexander Dubcek Takes Power in Czechoslovakia

Last updated: March 15, 2023

On Jan. 5, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. He initiated the “Prague Spring,” a period of liberalization in the socialist state that prompted violent Soviet suppression.

Dubcek and Prague Spring

Antonin Novotny, a traditional Stalinist, had served as the president of Czechoslovakia since 1957 and as first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) since 1958. Under Novotny’s rule, the economy had become stagnant, and the Czechoslovakian people began calling for reform.

On Jan. 5, 1968, the unpopular Novotny was replaced as head of the KSC by Alexander Dubcek, who advocated “socialism with a human face.” Dubcek—with the approval of Ludvik Svoboda, who succeeded Novotny in March—introduced an “action program” of democratic reforms.

He instituted free market reforms, granted greater freedom of speech, press and assembly, and created a more democratic government, with more power to local councils and the national legislature.

The Czechoslovakian people were ready for change, having endured 20 years of rigid Communist rule following the Communist takeover in February 1948. Over the next eight months, a period known a “Prague Spring,” arts and culture flourished, while Czechoslovakian youths dreamed of a more free, Western society.

It was “a beautiful time because after 20 years it was possible to breathe and speak freely,” said Czech President Vaclav Havel in 1998. However, the Soviet Union feared that the ideals of Prague Spring could develop into a full-scale revolution. In an Aug. 13 telephone conversation, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev accused Dubcek of “outright deceit.”

On the night of Aug. 20, the Soviet Union sent 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks into Czechoslovakia to put an end to Prague Spring. Dubcek ordered passive resistance, as the Czechoslovakian people took to the streets in protest.

Dubcek, Svoboda and other leaders were arrested and taken to Moscow, where they were forced to sign the Moscow Protocol. The agreement brought about the gradual repeal of Dubcek’s reforms as part of normalization, described by Insight Central Europe as “a harsh period of indoctrination and communist propaganda.”

Background: Czechoslovakia Under Communist Rule

Czech History

During World War II, Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany and divided into several semi-independent states. Following the war, the Communist Party gained power; in February 1948, with the backing of the Soviet Union, it took full control of the Czechoslovakian government.

The communist government began nationalizing all economic sectors in accordance with Stalin’s economic policies. By the early 1960s, the economy was stagnant, and it was clear that Soviet economic policies were ineffective. Furthermore, the harsh communist rule restricted the personal and political freedom of the Czechoslovakian people, who by 1968 were ready for liberal reform.

Key Player: Alexander Dubcek

After being allowed to return to his post as first secretary, Dubcek was forced out in 1969 and replaced by the pro-Soviet Gustav Husak. He was later expelled from the KSC and assigned a forestry job out of the public spotlight.

In 1989, after communist rule in Czechoslovakia came to an end during the Velvet Revolution, Dubcek was elected speaker of the federal assembly, a largely ceremonial position. “I see this as a sort of continuation of the Prague Spring in 1968 and a certain moral vindication for the hundreds of thousands of its active participants,” he declared.

On Nov. 7, 1992, Dubcek died due to injuries sustained in a car crash, less than two months before Czechoslovakia was to peacefully split into two countries. Dubcek, a Slovak who opposed the breakup, had been mentioned as a possible president of Slovakia.

Sources in this Story

  • International Viewpoint: The ‘Prague Spring’ and the ‘Prague Autumn’
  • Time: Into Unexplored Terrain
  • The BBC: World: Europe: Remembering the Prague Spring
  • The George Washington University: (The Prague Spring ’68): The Prague Spring Foundation
  • Insight Central Europe: Alexander Dubcek—a legacy re-visited
  • Radio Prague: Anniversary of Communist Takeover in February 1948
  • Country Studies/Area Handbook Series: Czech Republic
  • The New York Times: Upheaval in the East: Czechoslovakia
  • The New York Times: Alexander Dubcek, 70, Dies in Prague

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