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Friday, March 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: Dubcek

William Shawcross, the author of Dubcek (Simon and Schuster, 244 pages, $22.95 cloth, $10.95 paper), has seen it all in central Europe. In the summer of 1968, a 22-year-old graduate of Oxford, he traveled with his sister on a student train to Prague. He had lucked in on what would soon be known as the Prague Spring. The trip, as he says, changed his life. Let him describe his sensations:

Like anyone who has ever been there, we were overwhelmed by the faded but then blooming summer beauty of the city—the dark narrow streets of the Old Town and the Jewish quarter where Kafka lived, the graceful statues on the Charles Bridge, the tiny lanes winding up the hill to Prague Castle and the cathedral. From Prague we took long fides on rattling buses and on ironclad steam trains, marvelous behemoths . . . . We rumbled through long fields of corn ready to be harvested, in and out of dark pine forests where the cart tracks meandered across the rails . . . most of all I remember the extraordinary joie de vivre of almost everyone we met. The joy of talking and of being allowed to remember—and to hope! . . . I had never seen such a bubbling of hope and excitement. I remember one countrywoman looking with astonishment at photographs of the Masaryks I had brought from Prague. “Six months ago we were not allowed to know that these men existed.” That the Communist Party of all institutions was offering such freedoms! It was too good to believe!

Over long jugs of black beer everybody in the beer halls showed contempt for the Russians. Special toasts to Alexander Dubcek were drunk over and over again.

The Prague Spring became the Prague Autumn on a night in August when, on orders from the Kremlin, some 200,000 troops of the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria crossed four frontiers into the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The charge from the Kremlin was that the Communist Party in Prague had lost control of the nation because Dubcek had lost control of the party. Dubcek was portrayed as a “weak and mindless” man who had fallen into the dutch-es of such “vicious agents of imperialism” as Dr. Ota Sik. Dubcek was not accused of leading a counter-revolution, but of “allowing a counterrevolutionary situation to develop?’

Dubcek was dragged off in handcuffs to Moscow, where he uttered a cry of anguish “that they should have done this to me, after I have devoted my whole life to cooperation with the Soviet Union.” It was, he said, “the great tragedy of my life.”

The unity of Czechs and Slovaks prevented the Russians from installing a puppet traitor, but Dubcek was forced to make an agreement with the Soviets. Shawcross and his sister returned to Prague in the winter of 1968-69. The Russians were using “salami tactics,” whittling away the measures of the Prague Spring one by one. Freedom of the press had crumbled. Shawcross, on a wet afternoon, walked up the slope of Wenceslaus Square to the statue of King Wenceslaus, which had become a shrine since a boy had been shot there by the Russians as he pushed a Czech flag down the barrel of a tank during the invasion. A Czech student, Jan Palach, had set himself on fire, as a fierce rebuke to compromise, in April of 1969, after ferocious demonstrations that marked the defeat of the Soviet ice hockey team by the Czechs, the Russians finally removed Dubcek and replaced him with Gustav Husak, his enemy. At this point Shawcross decided to write a book about Dubcek.

Under Husak and pressure from the Brezhnev regime, Czechoslovakia became once more one of the most viciously and stupidly run countries in Europe. More than 120,000 Czechoslovaks went into exile, and a half million who stayed became “non-persons.” Writers became window cleaners, doctors became porters. Nothing changed until the advent of Gorbachev.

Shawcross’s biography was published in 1970. His principle criticism of it today is that “I did not realize . . . that the experiment of humane Communism, or Socialism with a Human Face, was impossible, or even a contradiction in terms.” He now says he was naive. “The last twenty years,” he says, “have shown us nothing so much as the catastrophic nature of Communism everywhere . . . wherever Communism has triumphed . . . Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos . . . its consequences have been utterly disastrous . . . .”

For his new edition, Shawcross has provided an afterward. Dubcek had been banished to an insignificant forestry job. By now another man, Vaclav Havel, a playwright, had emerged as the moral spokesman of Czechoslovakia. The European Parliament, however, had not forgotten Dubcek, who was flown to Strasbourg to receive the Sakharov Prize.

Together, on November 24, 1989, Hayel and Dubcek appeared on a balcony overlooking Wenceslaus Square. It was, says Shawcross, “a remembrance of youth and optimism.” Standing beside Dubcek, Havel was equally cheered by the crowd. Within three weeks of their appearance on the balcony “the Stalinist structures of Czechoslovakia had been swept away by the tidal wave of reform which was roaring across Eastern Europe in the last months of 1989.” Dubcek had been appointed Chairman of the Federal Assembly. It fell to him to propose a single candidate for the Presidency of Czechoslovakia—Vaclav Hav-el. In Havel’s words, “history began again for Czechoslovakia.”

What happened in 1968, says Shawcross, “was a flawed experiment. ‘Socialism with a Human Face’ could not have worked; people would have wanted more—a human government without socialism. But Sakharov was right: Dubcek was an inspiration and the Prague Spring did indeed provide an exhilarating breath of freedom.”

Ota Sik, Dubcek’s economic counselor, was right, too. His New Economic Model didn’t go far enough to champion a complete free market society. But the hints were there.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.