Prague's lessons for Warsaw -- beyond last night's TV version
With last night's broadcast of the British-made docu-drama, "Invasion," American viewers have had a privileged view inside the Kremlin walls during the critical days of 1968 when Soviet leaders forced Czechoslovakia's Alexander Dubcek and his ruling circle to renounce their tentative experiment with socialism.
But left aside from the film of necessity are the root causes of the tragedy and the lessons to be learned from it. The recent crisis within the Warsaw Pact precipitated by the social unrest in Poland make the lessons all the more significant.
Fortunately we are not left with the film alone to find these lessons, for we also have a book "Night Frost in Prague" (subtitled "The End of Humane Socialism") by Zdenek Mlynar, one of Dubcek's close associates, through whose eyes the TV story unfolds. The book is complete with background going back to the time of Stalin's death.
What so upset Kremlin leaders about the "Prague" Spring" that they sent in the Banks? The liberalization envisioned by Dubcek and his colleagues consisted of turning over control of the economy to a managerial class outside the Communist Party per se and relaxing censorship. Czechoslvakia was to become a meritocracy still under the firm guidance of the party and public criticism wa to be tolerated.
The Prague Spring has been called a move toward democratization and pluralism but nothing so bold as alternative political parties was to be permitted, at least not in the early phases. Dubcek, Mlynar, and the others were all, to a man, dedicated Communists and they never allowed their fealty to the Warsaw Pact to be held in doubt.
What sounded the alarm in Moscow, according to Mlynar, were two things: a rash of middle-by Dubcek without prior approval from moscow and the abolition of cencorship, a step which allowed open criticism of Soviet policy. Mlynar reports that in a meeting with Dubcek three weeks before the invasion, Soviet leader Breshnev blew his stack over an unflattering cartoon in a Prague magazine. Dubcek's prime minister immediately called his interior minister and ordered him to have the offending issue confiscated from the news stands, but the order was refused on the grounds that such an action by the police would be illegal. "If I break the law once, I'll break it again," said the interior minister, "and [then] we're right back where we started."
The axiom to cover the alarm raised over these changes is familiar: Comprehensive and full party control over all public affairs must be maintained in every country of the East bloc, and Kremlin leaders consider less than this as an intolerable risk to Soviet hegemony. The impressive fact about the demise of the Prague Spring is how very little loss of control is necessary to sound the alarm. On the eve of the invasion, Czechoslovakia under Dubcek remained a totalitarian state, albeit one that allowed criticism of its policies in the media.
By far the most important lesson to be learned from Mlynar's account is how little matters of policy count once the alarm is raised. In retrospect it is manifestly clear that power struggles in the Soviet hierarchy and politics within the East bloc set the course that ended with tanks in the streets of Prague and Russian paratroopers in Dubcek's office.
According to Mlynar, after Khrushchev's fall in late 1964 Breshnev assumed power by default and was not able to consolidate his power until 1970. Thus the Prague Spring caught him before he had fully secured his position. He was faced with a coalition of military men -- old marshals who had led the Red Army in World War II -- and Stalinist hawks in his Politburo. Dubcek failed to appreciate the delicacy of Brezhnev's position and, to complicate matters, two other East bloc leders, Ulbricht of East Germany and Gomulka of Poland, felt gravely threatened by developments in Prague. To protect their interest Ulbricht and Gomulka played on the Kremlin rivalries by adding clamor to the alarm, thereby strengthening the hand of the Moscow hawks. Brezhnev, fearful of being outflanked, sided with the hawks in favoring intervention.
Shortly after the invasion Brezhnev told a member of the Czech presidium "You thought that when you were in power you could do what you wanted . . . Not even I can do what I'd like; I can achieve only about a third of what I would like to do. If I hadn't voted in the Politburo for military intervention . . . almost certainly you would not be sitting here. And I probably you wouldn't be sitting here either." In Mlynar's view, Brezhnev forestalled a Kremlin putsch by taking the initiative and joining the hawks.
Dubcek was not without warning. Shortly before the invasion he met with Hungarian leader Janos Kadar at the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border. As they parted on the station platform Kadar asked him, "Do you really not know the kind of people you're dealing with?"
How do the lessons of 1968 apply to 1980? The East bloc should be seen as a complex and volatile alliance. The vociferous complaints against the trouble in Poland issuing from East Berlin and, ironically, Prague are not to be taken as a mere rhetorical chorus directed from Moscow but rather as bona fide pressure on the Kremlin. And finally the policy debate now taking place in Moscow over where to set the limit for the Poles may be considered as a preliminary round of maneuvers in the struggle for power which is sure to follow Brezhnev's departure.