Prof Rempel lecture: Fall of Khrushchev

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The Prague Spring of 1968

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.

The Soviet Union's relationship with the smaller states of Eastern Europe that lay between it and the West had been ambivalent from the start. At the end of World War II, as we know, Russian troops came as liberators from the Nazis and yet also as conquerors whose rule was imposed more or less by force majeure against the will of a majority of people in these countries. In the Russian view, of course, they had liberated Poland, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and other nations from oppressive and backward regimes to make them "people's democracies," started on the road to socialism under the benevolent protection of the USSR.

I. A Security Zone

The Russian view of them included this Marxist idea of a progressive revolution to be defended against relapse into capitalism; but it also included the somewhat contradictory perception that these countries were potentially hostile to the USSR, or could be used by those who were, just as Hitler had used them to strike his terrible blow. They were a security zone as well as an area of Communist extension and proselytization. The Kremlin attitude toward them was a blend of contempt and comradeship.

The Yugoslav rebellion against Kremlin tutelage deeply colored this outlook. The strongest and most enthusiastically pro-Russian movement, in the beginning, had proved to be the most intractable; independent Communists were not to be trusted. Yugoslavia remained communist, but she broke away from Moscow, was not a member of the Warsaw Pact, and began in the 1950s to develop a mode of "market socialism" that Stalin's heirs regarded as little more than capitalism in disguise. The Yugoslavians regarded it, however, as truer to the spirit of Karl Marx than the despotic "state capitalism" of the USSR. They appealed also to the Lenin who spoke of the autonomy of the soviets - the rule of the workers themselves, not of an elite party or an omnipotent state. Yugoslav communism came to be best-known for its industrial "self-management," by which the workers in the factories or farms jointly owned and participated in the management of their enterprises. Centralized state planning was kept to a minimum.

Yet Tito, who imprisoned some of his critics, was far from a political liberal. For some time the magazine Praxis sent brilliant rays of new Marxism - critical, revisionist, anti-Stalinist - from Belgrade, but eventually Tito suppressed it. During his long life the Partisan hero dominated Yugoslavia and was a major force in the world by virtue of his prestige.

Russian-Yugoslav relations fluctuated. In 1955 Khrushchev led a delegation to Belgrade seeking reconciliation, though he did not handle the apology well. Tito apparently approved the brutal military action against Hungary in advance. He also approved of Khrushchev's intermittent anti-Stalinist campaigns but was annoyed by the equally persistent backtracking. The Yugoslav leader tried to make himself a magnet for the "uncommitted" nations of the Third World.

In 1961 he assembled two dozen heads of state at Belgrade, including India's distinguished leader Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt's Abdul Nasser, Algerian head of state Ben Bella, and "Kwame" Nkrumah of Ghana. But apart from the negative feature of being more or less hostile to both sides in the Cold War and desiring to remain neutral, these states had little in common. Moreover, the young states were unstable. Leaders rose and fell. Six years after 1961, Nehru was dead, Bella deposed, Nkrumah in disgrace, Nasser discredited. Attempts to build a bloc in the turbulent world of the emerging Asian-African nations were condemned to frustration.

So between 1962 and 1968 Tito swung back to building bridges to Russia, only to be disgusted again by the 1968 Czech intervention. Yugoslavia opened lines to the West sooner than did other Eastern European countries. Her percentage of trade with the West grew from 50 percent in 1965 to 61 percent in 1969, during which period her trade with Communist countries declined from 35 percent to 27 percent. And she achieved a rather impressive record of economic growth for a time.

Conditions in the other so-called people's democracies differed somewhat. All of them were forced to submit to one-party rule, suppression of opposition, and censorship of the press; but these varied in intensity. The Catholic church, for example, was able to exist in Poland and East Germany but was severely persecuted in Hungary, where in 1951 Cardinal Mindszenty and other leading Catholics were arrested and church establishments broken up. In the 1956 revolution Mindszenty was released from prison to become a hero of the people, then forced to flee when the revolution was repressed, taking refuge in the American embassy, where he remained for many years.

In later years, he quarreled with the papacy, which preferred accommodations, with the communist regimes to severe criticism of them. Similarly unevenly applied were the other indices of sovietization: collectivization of agriculture, that is, enticing or forcing of farmers into large cooperatives of which they became paid employees; crash programs for heavy industry; abolition of strikes and conversion of trade unions into tools of the state; and centralized economic planning.

Polish agriculture was not collectivized; East German was. Hungary, severely repressed in 1956, quietly became the most liberal of the bloc regimes in the ensuing years, as if the Russians were inhibited from repression by the burden of their 1956 guilt. Rumania had a near-Stalinist internal regime, in return for which she became the most outspoken critic of Soviet foreign policies, siding defiantly with the Chinese, the Albanians and the Jews. Tiny Albania, with the power of weakness, abused everybody equally - the West, the Soviet Union, and eventually China, too.

In general, the Russian model was not suitable for these countries. They were attracted to the West. The futile rebellions of 1953, 1956, and 1968 showed that they could not escape by open resistance, but they often gained important concessions by stealth and intrigue. Three million east Germans "voted with their feet" by migrating to the Federal Republic, until the Wall put a stop to it.

The members of the bloc differed greatly in degree of economic and social development, from fairly backward peasant societies in Bulgaria and Rumania to highly advanced industrial ones in Czechoslovakia and Germany. They varied greatly too in ethnic composition, culture, national characteristics. On the whole, the Stalin model was never applied to these countries as ruthlessly as it had been in Russia, and economic reforms came faster and went further there in the sixties than they did in the USSR.

In this area arose the idea of "human socialism," which, as Edda Werfel wrote, "terrifies not only the capitalists but the Stalinists as well." It was the idea that somehow one might combine the vest features of both East and west, the economic security of communism with the personal liberty of capitalist democracy. Tito, Imre Nagy, and then Alexander Dubcek spoke for the hope of a happier socialism. That this was not achieved is indicated by the Wall around East Germany, periodic revolts in Poland, and spring 1968 in Prague. Thirty-two divisions of Soviet troops stationed in the countries of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany guaranteed that these revolts could not succeed, if they were overt and violent. But gradually and silently, and with varying degrees of progress, the movement toward liberalization went on in Eastern Europe.


II. A Striking Landmark


In this process the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and 1969 were a striking landmark. The Czechs are said to be not by nature a volatile or violent people. Their hero is the Good Soldier Schweik, who outwitted the Austrians by cleverness and not by confrontation. (He pretended to be stupid and fouled up every task.) In 1948 Masaryk killed himself, and Benes died of a broken heart; neither thought of leading resistance to Communist rule. As we noted earlier, much goodwill toward Russia historically existed among both the Czechs and the Slovaks , and the Communist party had a by no means negligible following.

Forced collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of private businesses followed the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia, with the party firmly in control. Beria's man Slansky endured the last of the grand Stalinist purge trials in 1952; Gottwald, who took over as the top leader then, soon died in Moscow after attending Stalin's funeral. The next strong man was Antonin Novotny, a colorless but efficient "little Stalin" who did not de-Stalinize at all until 1961, at which time the Stalin and Gottwald monuments were torn down. All this suggests a substantial degree of submissiveness in the land of Jan Hus, which can partly be explained by the bitter hatred of Germany implanted during World War II, the knowledge of having been betrayed by the West at Munich, and the feeling of having to lean on the Soviet Union for want of alternative.

But economic progress was slow, and public opinion polls show strong anti communism. Western influences could not easily be kept out of this country, which has borders with Austria and West Germany. Something called the "big beat," an import from Western popular music, became a symbol of anti-Soviet attitudes. With economic growth continuing to decline, the Czech economist Ota Sik brought forward a Liberman-like plan for market socialism. Tried cautiously in 1965, it did not work because it was not fully applied.

Changing just half the economy, Sik noted, was like changing the side of the street on which cars may drive for just half the cars. His was one oft he boldest voices calling for economic reforms. The Czechs, a deeply cultured people, also responded to the rising demand for a more humane, democratic, and open type of communism. Some of them knew that Yugoslavia had a decentralized economy and workers' management, that Poland had avoided collectivizing agriculture, that Hungary's economy was flourishing under an experiment in Libermanism.


III. Alexander Dubcek


The Imre Nagy of the Czech 1968 Spring was Alexander Dubcek. He was a Slovak who had replaced Novotny when the increasingly irritable dictator insulted the Slovaks (whom many Czechs regarded as their cultural inferiors) after a visit to their national museum. Dubcek's credentials looked impeccable to Moscow; he had been a faithful apparatchik for many years, never disobeying orders or questioning a policy. He had welcomed the coup of 1948, helped with collectivization and nationalization, and accepted the 1950-1954 witch hunts without a murmur. He had spent three years at Moscow attending the Higher Party school (1955-1958). While he was there, the Khrushchev speech threw the school into confusion, and the invasion of Hungary upset him. But in general Dubcek looked like a party hack if ever there was one.

His transformation into the democratic hero of the 1968 freedom movement was a major surprise. a certain simplicity of mind and character made this genuine proletarian really believe in communism's promises to lead to a free society. "It is not possible for a small minority to introduce and maintain socialism," Dubcek had come to believe. Under his guidance, or perhaps because he simply followed the public lead, rampant democracy broke out in Czechoslovakia, as it had in Hungary twelve years before. But there was no violence, as there had been in the Hungarian revolution. Press censorship was ended, and the newspapers celebrated their independence by indulging in all kinds of criticism, even of the USSR.

This and support of the Sik economic reforms were the chief Czech sins. It seemed possible that opposition parties might be permitted. The reforms were all quite legally handled and supported by the vast majority of public opinion. They aimed at curing the economic blight by making party officials responsible to the public - "democratic socialism." The Prague paper Red Truth declared that the party should not rule in the name of the workers but must be held accountable to them.


IV. The Wrath of the Kremlin


The wrath of the Kremlin soon turned in Prague's direction. Russians could be quite sure that the Americans, hopelessly mired in Vietnam, would not challenge them in Eastern Europe. After the Czechs refused to obey a summons to come to Moscow and were unimpressed by the visits of other Communist luminaries including East German Walter Ulbricht, Brezhnev himself descended on Prague in July, bringing with him almost the entire Presidium. The Czechs were subjected to a tongue-lashing, but they stood fast. Dubcek proved a wily and patient negotiator, not losing his temper under abuse and threats and promising to bring the situation under control if given time. He once confided that his tactic was to smile and agree with Brezhnev and then do nothing - a true Good Soldier Schweik.

But the Russians' patience neared exhaustion. Dubcek was becoming all too popular in Czechoslovakia. "Socialism with a human face" threatened to spread. Dubcek's critics allege that he was unrealistic in doing nothing to dampen the euphoria of the Czech and Slovak people but not preparing them for resistance either.

On the night of August 20 Dubcek was arrested and dragged off to Russia or Poland, along with several of his colleagues. The next day a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia by some 200,000 troops from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Hungary began. Dubcek agreed to renounce his ideals and submit. There was no fighting; resistance would have been futile. Dubcek was reinstalled and remained in office for six months, presiding over a return to censorship, purging Dr. Sik, and telling his people, to their dismay, that progress was possible only by bending to the Russian will. He accepted the presence of Soviet troops on Czechoslovak soil.

It was costly victory for the Soviet Union, for the world communist movement was completely sundered; the split that began with the Yugoslav revolt and continued with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and then the Sino-Soviet rift was completed in 1968. It could not be argued that the Czechs had threatened Soviet security, as was the case in Hungary; their only crime was wanting democratic socialism. It was an event that would have shocked the world more had others not been engaged in their own special crimes and inanities: the Americans in Vietnam, the students in Paris, London and Berlin protesting against their own governments and societies. They had as little time to worry about the Czechs as had been the case thirty years before.

But many Communists of Western Europe, including Italians, French, and Spanish, would never again trust the Brezhnev leadership or accept Russian domination of the communist movement. Eighteen Western Communist parties protested, as did Yugoslavia and Rumania. The affair brought to a halt a trend toward improvement in Soviet-Yugoslav relations. The Chinese (who claimed that the Americans and Russians were working together against Czechoslovakia) noted with alarm the Russian attack on another communist state.

Manifestations of anti-Soviet sentiment continued in Czechoslovakia for some time. In January 1969, a young man immolated himself; his funeral was attended by 800,000 people, but no violent incidents occurred. On March 28, the Czechs beat the Russians in a hockey game, an event said to have been viewed with delight by six million Czechs on television; crowds then smashed some windows in Russian offices. Dubcek thereupon resigned, and full censorship was imposed. Gustave Husak, replacing Dubcek as first secretary, said that "cheap gestures and slogans about democracy, freedom and humanism and the so-called will of the people" were only "naiveté and political romanticism."

On the anniversary of August 21, huge crowds fought with police in Prague's Wenceslas Square. Dubcek as dismissed from the Czech Presidium on September 26. At least, as Husak said, he was not dragged off to be shot; after a short term as ambassador in Turkey he returned to live in the Slovak village where he was born. Party purges and an extreme Stalinist tone in the press marked an abrupt end to socialism with a human face.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


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