Czechoslovakia: pro-freedom demonstrations

from the Prague Spring to democracy

After the Second World War Czechoslovakia, like the rest of Soviet-occupied eastern Europe, came under Moscow’s heel. The ruling communist party brutally stifled all forms of dissent and repressed religious organizations, industrial strikes and farmers’ protests.
In 1968 Alexander Dubček’s attempt to introduce reforms for "socialism with a human face" was crushed by the violent reaction of the USSR, which responded by invading the country and launching a so-called “normalization process”. The “Prague Spring" had proved to be an illusion.
Not until 1976, with the signing of the Declaration of Charta ’77– in defence of human rights – did organized opposition re-group, while in Slovakia in the second half of the Eighties the movement that had defended the Catholic church broadened its scope to campaign for all forms of religious freedom.
On 16 and 17 November 1989 thousands of people took to the streets in Bratislava and in Prague, starting off the “Velvet Revolution” that was to lead to the collapse of the regime and the election of Václav Havel as President of the Republic.
On 1 January 1993 the Czechoslovak federation split – without bloodshed – into two, giving birth to the Czech and Slovak Republics.

The post-war period
By the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was enjoying good relations with the USSR: there were no outstanding territorial conflicts or historic problems between them and already in 1943 the president in exile in London, Edward Benes, had underwritten a treaty of friendship with the Soviets. In March 1945 an agreement with the provisional government, representatives of the “National Slovak Council” and the communists was signed in Moscow: this gave rise to the “National Coalition Front”, led by Zdeněk Fierlinger, with a programme that included equality between the Czech and Slovak nations, the expulsion of the Germans and Hungarians and the introduction of economic/social reforms.
The elections of May 1946 produced a new government led by Klement Gottwald. Alongside the communists, the most important player was the Slovak Democratic Party, which Moscow had been trying to remove since the summer of 1947, using the so-called “Slovak plot” – contrived ad hoc by the secret police – as a pretext. Mass repression followed and the Democratic Party was excluded from all political action. The communists took over every sphere of public life and on 25 February 1948 forced president Benes to appoint a new government under their control. On 10 March Jan Masarik – son of the founder of the Republic Tomas Masarik – committed suicide: many still see his death as a political assassination.

After the May elections Benes resigned and was replaced by Gottwald, who signed the new Constitution. Mass purges soon spread to all State-run bodies, organizations and secondary schools. Some three hundred thousand people felt the iron fist of the regime first hand. Numerous activists from the old democratic parties fled abroad, where they tried to put together some form of political opposition; some of them were kidnapped in Austria by the Czechoslovak secret service and dragged back to face harsh sentences: between 1948 and 1954 at least a hundred thousand people fell victim to the political trials that led to countless executions and life sentences. Society reacted with a few sporadic protests; on 11 October 1951 a train was hijacked and the 111 passengers managed to cross the border into Germany: this “freedom train” caused a huge sensation and came to symbolize the population’s hope of escaping from dictatorship.

The years of the great repression
In addition to spying on Democratic Party activists, the regime soon trained its sights on religious associations, especially those of the Catholic church. In June 1949 the archbishop of Prague Josef Beran was interned in a concentration camp, where he was to remain until 1963. Shortly afterwards most Czech and Slovak bishops suffered the same fate, replaced at the head of their dioceses by vicars subservient to the regime.
The dictatorship imposed strict limitations on the freedom of the Catholic press and on the possibility of organizing pilgrimages and processions. In April 1950 the entire framework of Czechoslovakia’s Greek-Catholic churches was suppressed: with the so-called “Action K” all monasteries were closed and 1164 Slovak and 1180 Czech monks were interned in concentration camps, while “Action R” aimed to empty the convents, forcing numerous nuns to work in factories or deporting them to concentration camps. Tried on trumped-up charges, hundreds of lay preachers and priests were sentenced to long years or even life in prison.
In 1949 the collectivization of agricultural land triggered farmers’ protests, which were brutally suppressed: between 1948 and 1954 tens of thousands of “kulaks” were sentenced to hard labour, 11 to death, at least 1629 families were forced out of their homes and many youngsters from their secondary schools.
The purges also affected communist activists. Thanks to a survey conducted with the support of Soviet consultants, an alleged “nucleus plotting against the State” was “discovered” within the Party, led by the secretary general Rudolf Slanski, sentenced to death after a show trial. In 1954 the leaders of the Slovak Communist Party, accused of being “bourgeois nationalists”, received life sentences or faced long years in prison.

The first protests
The dire economic situation and exploitation of the workers led to rising discontent. In November 1951 Brno was the scene of the first mass demonstration: a group of workers took to the streets to protest against the suspension of their Christmas bonuses and soon the strike spread all over the city, the demonstration was broken up by force and its leaders sentenced to 12 years in jail. In June 1953 price rises and currency variations – which deprived people of their savings – caused the first national protest: 129 factories went on strike, in Plzn thousands of people thronged the streets shouting: “Out with the communists! We want free elections!” Dissent was immediately crushed: in Plzn alone 231 demonstrators were arrested and sentenced to up to 14 years in jail.
These protests were the first test for Antoni Novotný, who in March 1953 had replaced Gottwald as party leader. They forced the communist leaders to acknowledge their mistakes in applying the “principles of socialism” and to change their economic policy in order to guarantee a higher standard of living.

Novotný’s policies
After hastily consigning the repercussions of the Hungarian crisis and of Kruschov’s secret report to the 20th Moscow Congress to the archives, in 1957 Novotný also took over the office of President of the Republic and adopted a neo-Stalinist line: in 1960 he changed the name of the country to the “Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia”, added an article to the Constitution about the “leading role” of the Party and about “fraternal collaboration with the Soviet Union”, developed heavy industry, concluded the collectivization of farmland and intensified repression.
Between 1956 and 1961 the ranks of the persecuted swelled from 6,261 to 13,165, while between 1955 and 1969 approximately 55 thousand people were imprisoned for political reasons. The reaction of civil society was feeble, the only exception being the rise in the number of underground monasteries linked to the outlawed orders and the secret ordination of priests and bishops. Despite fierce repression, these structures managed to survive right through to the regime’s demise.
In October 1961 the 22nd Soviet Party Congress, which marked the second stage of the de-Stalinization process, once again forced Novotný to adapt: monuments to the Soviet dictator were pulled down, an amnesty was granted and certain trials dating to the years 1948-1954 were reviewed, a number of prominent State figures and party activists were rehabilitated and the country enjoyed a period of timid economic, scientific and artistic liberalization. In June 1967, during the 4th Congress of the ”Czechoslovak Writers’ Union”, members condemned the interference of the censors and restrictions on the country’s social and cultural life: the Union’s magazine was shut down and three writers excluded from the Party. In October, during the plenum of the Central Slovak Committee, Novotný was strongly criticized and responded by accusing the Slovak secretary Alexander Dubček of nationalism.

The Prague Spring
On 31 October 1967 in Prague a number of university hostels suffered a blackout and students holding candles, who had taken to the streets shouting “more light”, were unexpectedly and brutally attacked by the police. This provoked an instant protest throughout the capital’s universities. A commission of inquiry was set up and in the January plenum Alexander Dubček was appointed First Secretary of the Party, thus heralding the “Prague Spring”.
On 23 March 1968 Novotný resigned as president. Having rejected his policy, the Party defined a strategy for gradual “democratization” which included, among other things, the reform of the economy and the police, restrictions on the direct influence of the Party on state bodies, the right to meet freely and the right to freedom of speech. Censorship was abolished and religious, political and social organizations re-surfaced. In April Václav Havel published an article in which he invited an opposition party to form and on 27 June Ludvík Vaculík published the “Two thousand words” manifesto contemporarily in four magazines. In this manifesto, Vaculik blamed the Communist Party for the situation in the country, but at the same time invited the population to give the government their tactical support, for fear of foreign intervention. Moscow considered this document – which enjoyed enormous resonance – further proof of an imminent counter-revolution and accelerated its preparations for military intervention, intensifying pressure on the Prague government.

On 14 and 15 July there was a meeting in Poland of the Warsaw Pact heads of state, who declared: “We shall never allow imperialism, pacifically or otherwise, from within or from without, to open a breach in socialist territory and change the balance of power in Europe to its own advantage”. On 29 July negotiations began between the Czechoslovaks and Soviets in which Dubček undertook to restore both the leading role of the Party and censorship by 25 August, resume control of the mass media and ban all activities on the part of anti-socialist organizations. At the same time, a leader of the conservative wing of the Party, Vasiľ Biľak, sent a letter to the Soviet leadership asking for “fraternal help” to defeat the “counter-revolution”, thus providing an “official” pretext for armed intervention.

During the night between 20 and 21 August, 700 thousand Warsaw Pact soldiers, thousands of tanks and hundreds of aircraft and helicopters crossed Czechoslovakia’s borders without meeting any resistance. The leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party were arrested and interned in a prison camp in the Ukraine. Within thirty-six hours the whole country was occupied. The invaders encountered the firm and decisive reaction of the population: from the early hours of 21 August demonstrations were staged in almost all cities and towns, in some cases, especially in Prague, turning into guerilla uprisings that provoked the armed response of the invading forces. Between 21 August and 18 October 1968, 100 people lost their lives, while 335 were seriously injured.
People tried every ingenious means at their disposal to stop the tanks, changing street signs, erecting barricades and forming “live barricades” by lying down in front of the tanks; they tried to heighten the invading troops’ awareness of the injustice of military intervention by means of flyers and writings on the wall expressing solidarity with the country’s political detainees.
This determined resistance forced the Soviets to open talks with the leaders of the “Prague Spring”. These talks led to the signing of the “Moscow Protocol”, an uneasy compromise that revoked all the reforms and accepted the conditions imposed by the USSR. On 27 August the heads of the “Spring” were allowed back into the country. With a desperate plea on the radio, Dubček appealed to the population to suspend all forms of resistance, promising that the reforms would be preserved. In actual fact, he bowed to Moscow’s orders: “untrustworthy” party members were removed, censorship was re-introduced, control over social gatherings was reinforced and organizations deemed counter-revolutionary were outlawed. It became increasingly clear that “socialism with a human face” had failed in its intent: the country’s youth was the first to realize this and attempted a few protest actions, without success. On 16 January 1969 university student Jan Palach set fire to himself in Wenceslas square in Prague; another 30 followed his example and seven died as a result. Palach’s gesture became a symbol of dissent and reawakened people’s consciences: in March a number of protest demonstrations took place, prompting Moscow to demand the removal of the Czechoslovak leaders: Dubček was replaced as party secretary by Gustáv Husák.

The “normalization” process, i.e. a return to the typical Soviet model, was completed in record time. The last protest was on 21 August 1969, the anniversary of the invasion, when thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets, setting up barricades and clashing with the forces of law and order. At least five people died, many more were injured and over 2000 demonstrators were arrested. The next day, Parliament voted a special law introducing new repressive measures. In 1970 the “normalization” process reached a crucial stage: purges within the party led to the expulsion of 300 thousand members (including Dubček), while another 100 thousand handed back their party membership cards, 1000 party organizations were shut down and 100 thousand people lost their jobs.
For several years attempts to re-organize some form of opposition continued, especially among the students and intellectuals, but were crushed by the secret police: by 1974 over three thousand people had been sentenced for “political crimes”. The failure of the “Prague Spring” led to a wave of escapes: between 1948 and 1989 approximately 200 thousand people fled the country, 282 of whom died in the attempt.

Charta ’77 and opposition in Czech and Slovak territory
By the mid Seventies the communists considered the “normalization” policy successfully concluded: society was enjoying the fruits of economic development and all signs of opposition activities had faded, except those of the underground Church and a few individual protests, such as Václav Havel’s open letter to Gustáv Husák in 1974.
The repression of independent artists, however, stimulated renewed organized opposition, especially after the arrest in 1976 of a number of musicians, including a protestant pastor. Towards the end of that year organizers began to collect signatures to the “Declaration of Charta ’77”, inspired by the International Charter of Human Rights underwritten in October by the Czechoslovak government; the “Declaration”, initially signed by 242 people, was made public on 1 January 1977 and underwritten by 1898 people. To avoid a repressive reaction, the signatories underlined that they were not planning to form an organization, but simply an informal group of people of “different convictions, confessions and professions united in their desire to defend human and citizens’ rights individually or together”. The only formal role in Charta ‘77 was that of its spokesmen, initially Jan Patočka, Václav Havel and Jiří Hájek.

In 1978 a magazine entitled “Information about Charta ‘77” came out and a partnership with the Polish Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) was formed, leading to the publication of joint declarations and meetings abroad. In 1981 a “Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarność” movement was formed, although it only became effective towards the mid Eighties.
Increased repression persuaded 17 members of Charta ’77 to set up a group to document illegal actions on the part of the police: 24 October 1978 saw the birth of the “Committee in Defence of Unjustly Persecuted People” (VONS), which by 1989 had published 1125 declarations related to the same number of cases of repression. In 1979 eleven VONS members were arrested and five of them received sentences varying from three to five years. Other independent groups included intellectual circles that organized seminars and discussions, the underground Church and samizdat publications. Repression was stepped up even further between the end of the Seventies and the early Eighties and this greatly limited the scope of Charta ’77 and the VONS, while pacifist and environmentalist movements developed, especially among the young.
In Slovakia – where opposition movements were not so strong – the “Movement in defence of the Catholic Church and the Right to Freedom of Confession” started to spread in the mid Eighties. In July 1985, during celebrations for the 1100th anniversary of the death of St. Methodius, 150 thousand believers gathered in Velehrad shouting slogans in defence of religious freedom. Towards the end of 1987 leading representatives of the underground Church distributed a petition demanding that bishops be appointed to the 8 dioceses left vacant for decades. The document, also backed by the archbishop of Prague František Tomášek, collected half a million signatures. The most significant event took place in Bratislava on 25 March 1988, when some 3000 people holding candles gathered silently in the city centre, as a sign of protest against the restrictions imposed on religious life. The crowd was dispersed with hydrants.

1988-1989 and the “Velvet Revolution”
Between 1988 and 1989 political movements and protest demonstrations multiplied. On 21 August 1988, on the anniversary of the invasion, a huge gathering was organized in Prague in which thousands of people sang the national anthem and chanted slogans against the Russians. Seventy-three demonstrators were arrested. On 28 October – Czechoslovakia’s Independence Day – two thousand people took to the streets in Prague shouting “Masarik” and “Freedom”. In January 1989, all the opposition organizations joined to mark the anniversary of Jan Palach’s tragic death. In August in Prague thousands of people protested, shouting “Palach lives. Free elections. Long live Havel!”. No fewer than 851 demonstrators were arrested and imprisoned, including Havel himself. Their sentences provoked a series of reactions, also involving spheres with no organic links to the opposition.

On 21 August, protests were characterized by slogans hailing the changes under way in Poland and Hungary and young Hungarians and Poles also took part, many of whom were arrested.
On 16 November in Bratislava, students took to the streets and the next day in Prague tens of thousands of people gathered to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the universities on the part of the Nazis; here the procession turned into an anti-communist rally. The demonstrators were brutally attacked by the police, 568 people were injured and hundreds arrested. The “Velvet Revolution” had begun. Threatened with strikes, the government was forced to punish those responsible for the attacks on the demonstrators. On 19 November the “Student Coordination Committee” came into being, as did the “Civic Forum”, which was to become pivotal for the Velvet Revolution, led by Václav Havel. As a direct result of the 20 November marches in Prague and elsewhere, involving over two hundred thousand demonstrators, the Party agreed to negotiate. The first talks came to nothing, and the possibility of a general strike on 27 November looked increasingly likely. On 25 November eight hundred thousand people took part in the “Civic Forum” march in Prague, with delegations from all over the country, and for the first time the event was broadcast on television. Havel and Dubček spoke to the crowd. On 27 November a general strike brought the whole country to a standstill: the protest involved millions of people. Husak was forced to resign. On 29 December Václav Havel was unanimously elected President of the Republic. On 8 and 9 June 1990 the first free elections were held, won by the “Civic Forum” in Czech territory and by “Society against Violence” in Slovak territory. On 1 January 1993 the Czechoslovak Federation split, giving birth to the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

Further insights
Opposition in the Czech Republic
Opposition movements in Slovakia
Václav Havel

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By the Editorial Staff with the contribution of Annalia Guglielmi

12 November 2009

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