De-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia
Freedom Found and Freedom Lost

On March 5, 1953 Stalin passed away into his place in history, beginning a new era in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  Under the new leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the people of Eastern Europe began to feel the Stalinist repression lift from their shoulders.  This presumption was confirmed beginning with Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in the 2nd month of 1956 during the XXth Party Congress.  This criticism of Stalin’s totalitarian ways would usher in new freedoms that the people of Eastern Europe had not had in years.  The De-Stalinization process in each country could be compared to walking on burning coals; it was attempted by the daring, but those that stepped out had to either head back or pay the price.  In Czechoslovakia, the people were allowed to step onto the burning coals.
     When Khrushchev stepped into power, it was Czechoslovakia that still strongly mirrored the Stalinist way.  For years after Stalin’s death, no competition emerged to the Communist leaders in the country, leaving Antonin Novotny, a man who was disgusted with the idea of de-Stalinization, in charge of the Communist Party.  Novotny had come to power as a result of his successful campaign to promote communism in 1948.  With the help of Stalin he became secretary general in 1951 and prime minister of the Communist Party in 1957.  With the help of a strong economy, Novotny was able to make a new Socialist constitution more than 7 years after Stalin’s death.  As long as the economy was stable, the workers had no incentive to revolt.
    It wasn’t long before the tide would turn, and Stalinist ways in Czechoslovakia faced the beginning of its end.  There were three main contributors to its collapse. First, Khrushchev demanded that information be released about the Stalinist trials and purges from 1950 to 1954.  It was becoming obvious that the Soviet leader would not allow the hard-line Communist way to continue.  Second, and most importantly, a streak of bad luck finally caused an economic recession resulting from inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement in the mid to late sixties. The Soviet control disallowed international trade while they set prices too high for Czech workers.  Last, and more of a result, Czech and Slovak intellectuals came together to write their opinions in Slovak publications.
In addition to the opposition from Khrushchev, Novotny faced a new opponent and critic: Alexander Dubcek.

      Alexander Dubcek
Dubcek was born on the 27th of November in 1921 in West Slovakia three years after Czechoslovakia became an official nation.  He spent the war fighting against the fascists where he wounded his thigh, and spent the post-war years working in a yeast factory.  During the Stalinist purge year of 1948, Dubcek called the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia “a great milestone in our history” (Shawcross 245).  In 1949 he entered the Party and steadily climbed the latter until he became the First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party in 1963.  This was the end of centralization and terror in the Slovak regions.  It would not be long before the same would apply to the whole nation of Czechoslovakia.

    A schism between the hardliner Novotny and the de-Stalinist Dubcek was becoming more obvious with time.  Dubcek spent his time pushing reform for the protections of citizens’ rights and independence of courts and judges, while Novotny publicly worked against the reforms.  One of them had to give.  Novotny, probably beginning to feel the Communist tradition slipping from his fingers, became the aggressor.  Novotny sent a division of tanks towards the capital in order to make sure the deciding committee would choose Novotny to continue leading the Soviet Party.  Learning of the tanks, Dubcek provided evidence of this act to the committee, stopping the tanks from ever reaching the city.  Novotny attempted to explain his action, but to no avail.  On December 16, 1967 the coup attempt on Dubcek failed, and as a result, power changed hands.  Dubcek became First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.  Freedom and reform, for a limited amount of time, had prevailed. It was his platform, that reflected a new feeling of freedom throughout the country, that eventually led to the Prague Spring.
    The masquerade of Khrushchev-like Communism did not last long under Dubcek.  In the beginning of his command, Alexander Dubcek went to Moscow to be informed of the Soviet ‘way.’  Of the meeting, Dubcek stated: “The Soviet comrades have expressed full understanding…which corresponds to the character of brotherly relations” (Shawcross 246).  When the Soviets returned the favor and visited Dubcek in time for his first major policy speech on February 22, 1968, relations between the two nations began to change.  The Soviet Bloc began to heavily criticize the Czechoslovakians.  As the policies of the two countries began to diverge, the Soviet Union watched this “rogue” nation with a keener eye. For the next six months, there was an unprecedented amount of freedom in the country.  Communism was beginning to look more and more like democracy. The government began to criticize the (mostly economic) decisions of the past government. In addition, the Czechosolvak govermnet enriched laws on human rights and freedom, allowing people to state their political beliefs.  As the people of the nation began to taste freedom they began to 1) put more trust into their own government and 2) ridicule Communism.  Specifically, instead of negatively criticizing Communism, which would have led to political suicide, the reformers stated they were pro-human rights. The Dubcek reforms just gave legality to the reforms the people were fighting for. In Prague, American music and pop culture was spreading throughout the youth population.  Economically, they asked for more of a market system that included entrepreneurship and less central control. Scientists, poets, artists and all types of intellectuals began to enjoy the ability to express themselves.  As papers and essays were written about Communism and its use of terror, more and more people began to see Communism for what it really was: Socialism with a totalitarian face.
     Sometimes those who have been released from jail feel as if freedom is a luxury that they do not necessarily deserve.  To the Soviets, this was true of the “freed” Czechoslovak people.  At 11 p.m. on August 20th 1968 Soviet armies from five separate countries cross into the border of their ally, arresting Dubcek (although he wasn’t officially removed until the spring of the following year by Pro-Soviet elements in the Czechoslovak government) and all the reforms that came with him.  A month later Dubcek lamented: “In January we said: Let us eliminate deformations, arbitrariness, unlawfulness; let us develop Socialist democracy and give socialism in this country that human face which is appropriate to it.  This and nothing else is the essence of our post-January policy…the Party and the people will not tolerate any return to the Pre-January conditions in any variation” (254).  The people were demoralized.  Some said the Soviet takeover was worse than that of Hitler’s takeover, because it was done not by an obvious enemy, but by an ally.  Making it even worse, the people of Czechoslovakia now knew what freedom was; losing it, made the transition even harder.  Another Slovak, Gustav Husak, took over as first secretary.  It immediately became obvious that loss of reform was not the only negative effect of the invasion.  Reform was rolled back not only to pre-Dubcek ways, but also with the invasion, to pre-Khrushchev ways.  In addition, the unrest hurt the already ailing economy.   Last, as a sign of the things to come the Czech people began to resent the Slovaks who led the way towards democratization.
    In the years after Stalin, Czechoslovakia reached both ends of the political spectrum. At first it was one of the strongest Communist nations, refusing to take part in much of the common trend of de-Stalinization.  With a new leader and new reforms, “Communism with a human face” began to look more and more like Western democracy.  But Dubcek broke the Soviet rule.  Reform, but never stray too far.  In the end, Czechoslovakia came full-circle and back into the hands of Mother Russia.  Its attempt at reform had failed and as a result, the country was punished with the loss of many of the post-Stalin modifications, and more importantly, the freedom they had enjoyed so thoroughly.

Communism’s Final Stand and New History

    In a region of the world that seemed to be moving toward democratization, Czechoslovakia was at a standstill.   Their attempts at reform had been crushed by a Breshnev-controlled government (that was currently in the local hands of Gustav Husak and the hard-line Communists). Knowing what they had lost, the people of Czechoslovakia had no choice except to continue with their lives and think about a time of relative freedom.  Communism, a system of government that had ruled the nation for generations, was again curtailing the freedom of the people.  While what seemed to be Communism’s securest stronghold, Czechoslovakia would soon not be able to contain the demand for freedom; in fact, the nation was witnessing Communism’s final breath.
     Under Gustav Husak the people were lethargic.  They realized their attempt at freedom had failed and because of it became disheartened.  Husak tried to lift the spirits of the people by giving mercy to the reformers.  Instead of a great purge, Husak gained control a little more gradually…a little more quietly.  Running on the success of the economy, the Communists in Czechoslovakia depended on the Soviets to keep them afloat. Inevitably, this economic system would not last.  Without the free market system, Czech products could not keep up with the quality of foreign products.  Even worse, to show the people that Communism was the answer, Husak refused all reform.  Communism was making a futile last stand.
     Like the water leaks of an old rusty pipe, an underground culture for civil rights began to emerge through the Communist barrier.  Charter 77 and Vons led the way, formed by the people of Czechoslovakia to directly speak out against their repressive government.  The intellectuals and youth generation were immediately put down.  Again, it seemed as if Czechoslovakia would be stuck with a government that would not budge.
     It wasn’t long before Husak (and his younger partner Milos Jakes) was holding the country together with the only action under his control: creating fear.  With Gorbachev leading the Soviets, Husak probably began to see the end of his regime. What Gorbachev started, reformers from the inside finished.  The pipes burst, and reform from Charter 77 and Vons (and even more radical groups) spread through the nation in July of 1989.
     After the Prague Spring it began to look like Czechoslovakia would be able to hold onto its Communist past; inevitably the hard-liner government could not hold back the reforms that came both from the outside (with the Soviets) and the inside (with the reform movement).  Whatever would happen in the future would happen without the leadership of the Communist government.
    With Alexander Dubcek at the head of the Slovaks and Vaclav Havel leading the Czechs, a multiparty system arose in 1990 with seven parties having representation in the Federal Assembly.  With an end to Communist rule, the Czech-Slovak marriage began to crumble.  In the early 90’s the disagreement over what to do with this state is what eventually drove it apart.  The Czechs wanted a strong central government and unification while the Slovaks realized they would never be fairly represented until they were separated.   A rise in Slovak nationalism combined with economic fears of an “uncompromising proponent of federation and market economy” led to the official split on January 1, 1993.  It was on this day where the history of one nation became separate.
     In the newly formed Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel held the position of head of state from since 1993.  It was under his rule where reform was made towards the privatization of business and the lessening of state control.   As a result, The Czech Republic has had more success with more foreign trade and less unemployment.  It was this success that led to membership in NATO and the beginning of negotiations into the EU.