The Prague Spring reforms were an attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. Among the freedoms granted were a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. Dubček also federalized the country into two separate republics; this was the only change that survived the end of the Prague Spring.
The reforms were not received well by the Soviets who, after failed negotiations, sent thousands of Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. A large wave of emigration swept the nation. While there were many non-violent protests in the country, including the protest-suicide of a student, there was no military resistance. Czechoslovakia remained occupied until 1990.
After the invasion, Czechoslovakia entered a period of normalization: subsequent leaders attempted to restore the political and economic values that had prevailed before Dubček gained control of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). Gustáv Husák, who replaced Dubček and also became president, reversed almost all of Dubček's reforms. The Prague Spring has become immortalized in music and literature such as the work of Karel Kryl and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
In June 1967, a small fraction of the Czech writer's union sympathized with radical socialists, specifically Ludvík Vaculík, Milan Kundera, Jan Procházka, Antonín Jaroslav Liehm, Pavel Kohout and Ivan Klíma. A few months later, at a party meeting, it was decided that administrative actions against the writers who openly expressed support of reformation would be taken. Since only a small part of the union held these beliefs, the remaining members were relied upon to discipline their colleagues. Control over Literární noviny and several other publishing houses was transferred to the ministry of culture, and even members of the party who later became major reformers—including Dubček—endorsed these moves.
In the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia, then officially known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR), underwent an economic downturn. The Soviet model of industrialization applied poorly to Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was already quite industrialized before World War II and the Soviet model mainly took into account less developed economies. Novotný's attempt at restructuring the economy, the 1965 New Economic Model, spurred increased demand for political reform as well.
By 1967, president Antonín Novotný was losing support. First Secretary of the regional Communist Party of Slovakia, Alexander Dubček, and economist Ota Šik challenged him at a meeting of the Central Committee, and Dubček invited Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev to Prague that December. Brezhnev was surprised at the extent of the opposition to Novotný and supported his removal as Czechoslovakia's leader. Dubček thus replaced Novotný as First Secretary on January 5, 1968. On March 22, 1968, Novotný resigned his presidency and was replaced by Ludvík Svoboda, who later gave consent to the reforms.
On the 20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s "Victorious February", Dubček delivered a speech explaining the need for change following the triumph of socialism. He emphasized the need to "enforce the leading role of the party more effectively" and acknowledged that, despite Klement Gottwald's urgings for better relations with society, the Party had too often made heavy-handed rulings on trivial issues. Dubček declared the party's mission was "to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations ... a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties ..."
In April, Dubček launched an "Action Program" of liberalizations, which included increasing freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement, with economic emphasis on consumer goods and the possibility of a multiparty government. The program was based on the view that "Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations, but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy. The program would limit the power of the secret police and provide for the federalization of the ČSSR into two equal nations. The Program also covered foreign policy, including both the maintenance of good relations with Western countries and cooperation with the Soviet Union and other communist nations. It spoke of a ten year transition through which democratic elections would be made possible and a new form of democratic socialism would replace the status quo.
Those who drafted the Program, however, were careful not to criticize the actions of the post-war communist regime, only to point out policies that they felt had outlived their usefulness. For instance, the immediate post-war situation had required "centralist and directive-administrative methods" to fight against the "remnants of the bourgeoisie." Since the "antagonistic classes" were said to have been defeated with the achievement of socialism, these methods were no longer necessary. Reform was needed, stated the Program, for the Czechoslovak economy to join the "scientific-technical revolution in the world" rather than relying on Stalinist-era heavy industry, labor power, and raw materials. Furthermore, since internal class conflict had been overcome, workers could now be duly rewarded for their qualifications and technical skills without contravening Marxist-Leninism. The Program suggested it was now necessary to ensure important positions were "filled by capable, educated socialist expert cadres" in order to compete with capitalism.
Although the Action Program stipulated that reform must proceed under KSČ direction, popular pressure mounted to implement reforms immediately. Radical elements became more vocal: anti-Soviet polemics appeared in the press (after the formal abolishment of censorship on June 26, 1968), the Social Democrats began to form a separate party, and new unaffiliated political clubs were created. Party conservatives urged repressive measures, but Dubček counseled moderation and reemphasized KSČ leadership. At the Presidium of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in April, Dubček announced a political program of "socialism with a human face". In May, he announced that the Fourteenth Party Congress would convene in an early session on September 9. The congress would incorporate the Action Program into the party statutes, draft a federalization law, and elect a new Central Committee.
Dubček's reforms guaranteed freedom of the press, and political commentary was allowed for the first time in mainstream media. At the time of the Prague Spring, Czechoslovak exports were declining in competitiveness, and Dubček's reforms planned to solve these troubles by mixing planned and market economies. Within the party, there were varying opinions on how this should proceed; certain economists wished for a more mixed economy while others wanted the economy to remain mostly socialist. Dubček continued to stress the importance of economic reform proceeding under Communist Party rule.
On June 27, Ludvík Vaculík, a leading author and journalist, published a manifesto titled The Two Thousand Words. It expressed concern about conservative elements within the KSČ and so-called "foreign" forces. Vaculík called on the people to take the initiative in implementing the reform program. Dubček, the party Presidium, the National Front, and the cabinet denounced this manifesto.
Initial reaction within the Communist Bloc was mixed. Hungary's János Kádár was highly supportive of Dubček's appointment in January, but Leonid Brezhnev and others grew concerned about Dubček's reforms, which they feared might weaken the position of the Communist Bloc during the Cold War.
At a March 23 meeting in Dresden, leaders of "Warsaw Five" (USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany) questioned a Czechoslovak delegation over the planned reforms, suggesting any talk of "democratization" was a veiled critique of other policies. Władysław Gomułka and Janos Kádár were less concerned with the reforms themselves, but with the growing criticisms leveled by the Czechoslovak media, and worried the situation might be "similar to the prologue of the Hungarian counterrevolution". Some of the language in April's KSČ Action Program may have been chosen to assert that no counterrevolution was planned, but Kieran Williams suggests that Dubček was perhaps surprised at, but not resentful of, Soviet suggestions.
The Soviet leadership tried to stop or limit the changes in the ČSSR through a series of negotiations. The Soviet Union agreed to bilateral talks with Czechoslovakia in July at Čierna nad Tisou, near the Slovak-Soviet border. At the meeting, Dubček defended the program of the reformist wing of the KSČ while pledging commitment to the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. The KSČ leadership, however, was divided between vigorous reformers (Josef Smrkovský, Oldřich Černík, and František Kriegel) who supported Dubček, and conservatives (Vasil Biľak, Drahomír Kolder, and Oldřich Švestka) who adopted an anti-reformist stance. Brezhnev decided on compromise. The KSČ delegates reaffirmed their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "anti-socialist" tendencies, prevent the revival of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and control the press more effectively. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops (still in Czechoslovakia after maneuvers back in June) and permit the September 9 party congress.
On August 3, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration. The declaration affirmed unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against "bourgeois" ideology and all "anti-socialist" forces. The Soviet Union expressed its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a "bourgeois" system—a pluralist system of several political parties representing different factions of the capitalist class—was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along its borders.
That night, 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks entered the country. The troops first occupied the Ruzyně International Airport, where air deployment of more troops was arranged. The Czechoslovak forces were confined to their own barracks and were surrounded until the threat of a counter-attack was assuaged. By the morning of August 21, Czechoslovakia was occupied.
Neither Romania nor Albania took part in the invasion, the latter having withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact in 1962. During the attack of the Warsaw Pact armies, 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed (19 of those in Slovakia), 266 severely wounded and another 436 were lightly injured. Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist.
Although on the night of the invasion the Czechoslovak Presidium declared that Warsaw Pact troops had crossed the border without the knowledge of the ČSSR government, the Soviet Press printed an unsigned request, allegedly by Czechoslovak party and state leaders, for "immediate assistance, including assistance with armed forces". At the 14th KSČ Party Congress (conducted secretly, immediately following the intervention), it was emphasized that no member of the leadership had invited the intervention. More recent evidence suggests that certain conservative KSČ members (including Biľak, Švestka, Kolder, Indra, and Kapek) did send a request for intervention to the Soviets. The invasion was followed by a wave of emigration, unseen before, which stopped shortly after. An estimated 70,000 fled immediately, and the total eventually reached 300,000.
The Soviets attributed the invasion to the "Brezhnev Doctrine" which stated that the U.S.S.R. had the right to intervene whenever a country in the Eastern Bloc appeared to be making a shift towards capitalism. There is still some uncertainty, however, as to what provocation, if any, occurred to make the Warsaw Pact armies invade. The days leading up to the invasion was a rather calm period without any major events taking place in Czechoslovakia.
On August 25, citizens of the Soviet Union who did not approve of the invasion protested on the Red Square; eight protesters opened banners with anti-invasion slogans. The demonstrators were arrested and later punished; the protest was dubbed "anti-Soviet".
A more pronounced effect took place in Communist Romania, where leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, already a staunch opponent of Soviet influences and a self-declared Dubček's supporter, gave a public speech in Bucharest on the day of the invasion, depicting Soviet policies in harsh terms. In Finland, a country under domineering Soviet political influence, the occupation caused a major scandal. Like the Italian and French Communist Parties, the Communist Party of Finland denounced the occupation. Nonetheless, Finnish president Urho Kekkonen was the very first Western politician to officially visit Czechoslovakia after August 1968; he received the highest Czechoslovakian honors from the hands of president Ludvík Svoboda, on October 4, 1969. The Portuguese communist secretary-general Álvaro Cunhal was one of few political leaders from western Europe to have supported the invasion for being counterrevolutionary. along with the Luxembourg party and conservative factions of the Greek party.
Western countries offered only vocal criticism following the invasion. The night of the invasion, Canada, Denmark, France, Paraguay, the United Kingdom and the United States requested a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. At the meeting, the Czechoslovak ambassador Jan Muzik denounced the invasion. Soviet ambassador Jacob Malik insisted the Warsaw Pact actions were "fraternal assistance" against "antisocial forces". The next day, several countries suggested a resolution condemning the intervention and calling for immediate withdrawal. Eventually, a vote was taken. Ten members supported the motion; Algeria, India, and Pakistan abstained; the USSR (with veto power) and Hungary opposed it. Canadian delegates immediately introduced another motion asking for a UN representative to travel to Prague and work toward the release of the imprisoned Czechoslovak leaders. By August 26, another vote had not taken place, but a new Czechoslovak representative requested the whole issue be removed from the Security Council's agenda. The United States government had sent Shirley Temple Black to Prague in August 1968 to prepare to become the first United States ambassador to a free Czechoslovakia. Two decades later, when Czechoslovakia became independent, Black was the first United States ambassador to the country.
Husák reversed Dubček's reforms, purged the party of its liberal members, and dismissed from public office professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political transformation. Husák worked to reinstate the power of the police authorities and strengthen ties with other socialist nations. He also sought to re-centralize the economy, as a considerable amount of freedom had been granted to industries during the Prague Spring. Commentary on politics was disallowed again in mainstream media and political statements by anyone who was not considered to have "full political trust" were also banned. The only significant change that survived was the federalization of the country, which created the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic in 1969.
In 1987, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that his liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika owed a great deal to Dubček's "socialism with a human face". With the fall of socialism in 1989, Dubček became chairman of the federal assembly under the Havel administration. When asked what the difference was between the Prague Spring and Gorbachev's own reforms, a Foreign Ministry spokesman replied, "Nineteen years.
The event has been referenced in popular music, including the music of Karel Kryl, Luboš Fišer's Requiem, and Karel Husa's Music for Prague 1968. "They Can't Stop The Spring", a song by Irish maverick journalist and songwriter John Waters, represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. Waters has described it as "a kind of Celtic celebration of the Eastern European revolutions and their eventual outcome", quoting Dubček's alleged comment: "They may crush the flowers, but they can't stop the Spring.
The Prague Spring has also appeared in literature. Milan Kundera set his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being during the Prague Spring. It follows the repercussions of increased Soviet presence and the dictatorial police control of the population. A film version was released in 1988. The Liberators, by Viktor Suvorov, is an eyewitness description of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, from the point of view of a Soviet tank commander. Rock 'n' Roll, a play by award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard, references the Prague Spring, as well as the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Heda Margolius Kovály also ends her memoir Under a Cruel Star with a first hand account of the Prague Spring and the subsequent invasion, and her reflections upon these events.
Other than the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there is also the movie Pelíšky from director Jan Hřebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovský, which depicts the events of the Prague Spring, albeit it is more about the period of normalization. The Czech musical film, Rebelové from Filip Renč, also depicts the events, the invasion and subsequent emigration wave.
The number 68 has become iconic in the former Czechoslovakia. Jaromír Jágr, who now plays for the New York Rangers, wears the number because of the importance of the year in Czechoslovak history. A former publishing house based in Toronto, 68 Publishers, that published books by exiled Czech and Slovak authors, took its name from the event.
Civilians who had protested against the suppression of the Prague Spring are recognized (after 40 years) by Czech politicians and Russian citizens. No such recognition is reported from the side of the Russian government. Prague and Czechoslovakia are listed among other places where Russian soldiers served their international debt. Comparisons have been made between the Prague Spring and the 2008 conflict in Georgia including a comment made by John McCain.