Slovakia and Dubcek in 1968. Slovak Culture in Early Spring

Auteur(s) : 
Les dossiers du CERI
Date : 
09/2018

Political relaxing manifested itself most visibly in the cultural sphere. On one hand, culture presented a kind of seismograph of the era; on the other hand, it actively contributed to a society-wide shift itself. Literature and fine art stepped beyond the boundaries of communist cultural policy in the second half of the 1950s, when independent groups of artists – Skupina 29. augusta (Group of the 29th of August; translator’s note), Galandovci, Skupina 4 – were formed after 1957, and unbound themselves from the shackles of the political order of socialist realism and returned to the heritage of inter-war Slovak modern art and avant-garde

A new generation of artists, unstoppably “rehabilitating” abstract art, followed them on the threshold of the 1960s. They irrepressibly set off on their own path, tried new methods of formally simple, but even deeper production in terms of ideas, searched for new meanings in seemingly ordinary objects, and staged performances that were initially not presented to the public at private “confrontations” of conceptualists. Open to free interdisciplinary communication, they cooperated with photographers, filmmakers, and musicians, and sculptural works became a part of modern architecture (J. Jankovič).

International political relaxing and closer contacts with the world “beyond the Iron Curtain” also contributed to an extraordinary boom of Slovak culture in the 1960s. Translations of works that had been previously prohibited emerged, famous people visited Bratislava between 1963 and 1965 (J. P. Sartre and S. Beauvoir, A. Ginsberg, R. Garaudy, A. Robbe-Grillet and, together with him, the first “western” coproduction of a movie, The Man Who Lies (L’Homme qui ment, in 1968), as well as musical performers. Emerging Slovak film found itself on the threshold of a great creative era. This was announced by director, S. Barabas, in his movie, Piesen o sivom holubovi (A Song about a Grey Pigeon; translator’s note), but especially in S. Uher’s film, Slnko v sieti (The Sun in a Net; translator’s note), dedicated to unadorned “socialist” everydayness; M. Forman called Uher the “John the Baptist: of the “new wave” in Czech film. Authors abandoned great heroes and constructive optimism and began an extraordinarily fruitful creative era, rich in formal experiments and original works of art. While the first wave of authors revised themes that had been taboo up to that time, the new generation, emerging at the end of the 1960s, set out on their own, conventionally-free, on the path of portraying metaphorical improvised works on one side (J. Jakubisko, E. Havetta), but also a new look at “socialist” everydayness on the other (D. Hanak). Like film, Slovak interpretative art and theatre was literally flowering. Age-groups of distinct acting personalities, scenographers, and directors emerged in this era, whose extraordinary productions gained publicity also in television, via so-called Bratislava Mondays. Opera and ballet blossomed, and Slovak performers attracted attention at foreign scenes and competitions (L. Popp, later P. Dvorsky, and others).

Writers also dealt with the trauma of a misused constructive generation and young authors abandoned the ideological schemes of “socialist optimism” and defended their “right for disillusion,” just as the talented poet M. Rufus did “for sadness.” A mature generation of writers and poets (D. Tatarka and A. Bednar) was followed by another generation (M. Valek, Ľ. Feldek, J. Stacho, R. Sloboda, and V. Sikula).
While art and culture were experiencing a boom and their results were awarded at many foreign exhibitions and festivals, the political elites, due to their close communication with the Slovak intelligentsia and under the influence of Alexander Dubcek, gradually became an integral part of the process of democratization. 

Alexander Dubcek Opens a Path to 1968

A. Dubcek was a prototypical representative of party elites of a new generation, and his personal input during the period of early Spring became one of the crucial factors of the political movement in the 1960s, not only in Slovakia but throughout the CSSR. Shortly after taking the office of the first UV KSS secretary (Spring, 1963), he personally pushed through the completion of a thorough rehabilitation of unlawfully convicted Slovak bourgeois nationalists. He also focused on the reassessment of marginalized milestones in Slovak national history that had been overlooked for years and continued by “returning” historic personalities to the awareness of Slovak society (M. R. Stefanik and L. Stur). It was also because of these actions that he came into conflict with the orthodox communist centralist, A. Novotny (well-known Czech historian K. Kaplan has called him an anti-Slovak chauvinist), who returned to worn rhetoric from the 1950s, criticizing Slovak elites. Dubcek, initially respecting party subordination and the pressure of the center to silence Slovak critics of the political regime, preferred consensus to using means of power to gradually become a representative of the critical ideas heard in Slovakia, an associate of the processes of democratization and their direct realizer.  
The appearance of Dubcek at the September UV KSC plenum (26th to 27th of September 1967) may be considered a prologue to 1968 in Czechoslovakia – he gave a speech that had not been approved beforehand by the KSC leadership, which was something unheard of at that time. In his speech, Dubcek criticized the negative impact of Sika’s economic reform on Slovakia as well as the overall economic development Slovakia had experienced after February 1948. Immediate verbal conflict between Dubcek and Novotny took place backstage. Their conflict culminated at the following UV KSC plenum (30th to 31st of October 1967), where Dubcek came with criticism of Novotny himself and with a demand to abolish his accumulation of functions (Novotny was not only the first UV KSC secretary, he was also president and chief of the army, and he controlled the most important party departments, including that in charge of finance). At the same time, Dubcek deemed it necessary to increase the competence of Slovak national bodies. He was subsequently called a “Slovak nationalist” by Novotny, which resembled closely the well-worn premise of so-called Slovak bourgeois nationalism, and in doing so, the first man of the KSC shifted criticism to the position of “Czechs contra Slovaks” once again. The conflict culminated in January 1968 when Dubcek became first secretary and the journey towards socialism with a human face might have started.

The Year 1968 in Slovakia

January 1968 was the beginning of a discontinuous developmental phase of the Czechoslovak communist regime which had existed for four decades. The year 1968 was a significant milestone not only in the history of this regime and Czechoslovak society, but it was also an important milestone in the development of the entire Eastern Bloc and the communist movement, especially in the West. The intervention by Moscow and the occupation of Czechoslovakia demonstrated that socialism of the Soviet type could not be reformed in the region of Central-Eastern Europe. The essential idea of the movement was discredited, its intellectual attraction faded away, there was a conflict between Eastern and Western European communist parties, and their gradual return to the historical branch of the original workers’ movement – social democracy – began. 

The events related to 1968 were caused by several factors – internal, economic, and social. Many problems were brought to light during twenty-year development of the regime. Some of them had already been indicated by developments during Early Spring: the inadequate, virtually unequal, position of Slovakia in the state structure, the proven connection between the regime and KSC leadership and mass unlawfulness in the 1950s, the not exactly optimal course of Slovak industrialization, but also the overall economic and social development in the country, especially in comparison with developed capitalist countries. In relation to the weakened position of the regime during the period of early Spring, inhabitants experienced feelings of freedom with the possibilities of travelling beyond the Iron Curtain. Accumulated problems in Czechoslovak society, provided by the entire post-war development, became the order of the day in turbulent 1968. The factual abolishment of censorship of the press significantly contributed to their venting in public beginning in spring, 1968.

After 47-year-old Alexander Dubcek became the first man of the KSC in January 1968, the principles of so-called socialism with a human face soon started to take shape with the help of theoreticians such as Z. Mlynar and R. Richta, the leader of a team of authors who prepared the book, Civilization at the Crossroads. They became a part of the KSC Action Program (AP), approved at the beginning of April, which was probably the most famous document by Czechoslovak reforming communists. Although they did not want to head towards free elections and give up their monopoly of power, their goal was to at least humanize and democratize the system to some extent. The AP “was the first complex program of principal reform of Soviet-type socialism throughout its history.” Moscow never agreed with the key premises of this program. One of the important factors influencing Moscow’s attitude was the fact that the AP involved a further realization of Sika’s economic reform, the nature of which led to the union of plan and market. At the same time, it was expected that the KSC would actually stop controlling the economic sphere and would only determine the most fundamental parameters that would provide the basis for its perspective development. It even emerged from the premises of Sika’s reform that the ownership of individual socialist (industrial) enterprises was to be transformed into the hands of boards of workers (which came into direct conflict with the Marxist-Leninist perspective of society-wide ownership of the means of production) that would influence their management. L. Brezhnev thus wondered what exactly the communists in Czechoslovakia wanted to control if they left the economy aside? If the critical subsystem of economic management were disrupted, it could have resulted in the collapse of the whole system of communist control of society – not only in Czechoslovakia, but also in other satellite countries. Apart from the above-mentioned facts, demands for open and free elections, and the restoration of a pluralism of political parties emerged as well. Although Dubcek’s leadership refused these demands, tanks intervened in August 1968.

With respect to Slovakia, if we do not take into account the struggle for democratization of the political system and society, an effort to federalize the common Czechoslovak state was a priority during 1968. The asymmetric system of constitutional organization that had existed until then, where Slovakia assumed a virtually unequal position, was unequivocally considered to be outdated but also anti-democratic. The consequences of this system of control were also the controversial results of economic development in Slovakia over the previous twenty years. Thanks to Dubcek, the ideas of Slovak economists from the period of Early Spring became a part of the AP. For example, the premise claiming the process of Slovak equalization could be characterized by internal inconsistency: its underdeveloped character was to be removed, the relative differences per inhabitant were also to be reduced, but the lead “of the pace of growth was not sufficient to reduce the absolute differences.” This was also the reason for heading towards increased competences of Slovak national bodies. The AP also acknowledged the fact that the Czechoslovak economy was an integration of two national economies, Slovak and Czech, which presented a line of argument that not only many Czech economists but also politicians were unable to identify with. And it was this very idea that opened the path towards the federalization of Czechoslovakia and justified its necessity.

The SNR put forward the claim of a federative constitutional organization during the first half of March 1968 (the SNR Presidency had already done so on 17th January). Despite the fact that the idea of Czechoslovak federalization was not unequivocally accepted or understood on Czech side, the CSSR government approved a proposal on creating a committee to deal with the preparation of constitutional law on the country’s federalization in the first part of May. Deputy Prime Minister, G. Husak, was the committee’s leader at that time. Constitutional Law n° 143/1968 Coll. on Czechoslovak Federation was finally accepted only after the occupation of the country on 27th October 1968. The means of the federation’s functionality presented the main difference between the attitudes of the Czech and Slovak sides. While it was headed towards a so-called strong federation, in which the competences of the central federal government were the priority on the Czech side, national governments, which would delegate only a small part of the competences to the center, were considered crucial in Slovakia. It was surely no coincidence that a similar problem would need to be solved throughout the whole period between 1990 and 1992. 

The Czechoslovak Federative State thus came into existence on 1st January 1969. However, everyone who expected that the creation of a federation would bring new powers to Slovak national bodies and that the nature of the policy of “equality” would really be fulfilled, were soon disappointed. This was mainly due to the fact that they had not realized that the federation could only be formal in connection with a constitution guaranteed by the leading role of the communist party. The fact was, neither governments nor parliaments (both national and federal) represented the deciding center of power, but rather it was the UV KSC Presidency. This was shown in practice after G. Husak (a Slovak) took the position of the first man of the KSC in April 1969. The competences of the national councils were gradually eliminated after 1970 and little changed in the nature of the centralistic state. On the other hand, it is necessary to say that the completion of constituting Slovak national bodies (the SNR played the role of parliament, the first Slovak government existed from January 1969, albeit named “socialist”) was of great importance. This fact was especially manifested in the period after November 1989 – there is only a small probability that Slovakia could have moved towards independent democratic statehood in the early 1990s without this development in the constitutional sphere in 1968 – without the creation of a federation.  

The role of Alexander Dubcek

Alexander Dubcek entered Slovak and Czechoslovak history, and also world history, not only as a symbol but also as a real inspiration to the attempt of the fundamental reform of society marked by Soviet models, and he became the most well-known Slovak in the world. Dubcek brought politeness into policy discredited by Stalinist practice which had brought suffering to a great proportion of the society and he opened space for dialogue and freedom of thinking which began to be transmitted from Slovakia to the western part of the common state as well. The release of the accumulated energy of the intelligentsia that had matured and gained an education in the period after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes in Khrushchev’s speech at the twentieth CPSU meeting in 1956, supported a creative explosion in all areas of art, but also historiography and other social sciences. Film, television, and theatre production, literary and historical works, political essays, painting, sculpture, architectural works, and the musical creations that originated in the 1960s still belong to the golden pool of Slovak and Czech culture, and they aroused much admiration abroad as well. This dimension of the results of Dubcek’s political activity is still underrated.

The process of reformation, as we perceive it in hindsight, was not only a response to the bestiality of Stalinism and its Czechoslovak executors. It was this response from which the famous and globally-known attribute of “socialism with a human face” originated, which represented a refusal of the “socialism” whose face was of every kind but human. The revivalist movement personified by Dubcek also represented an attempt to respond to new civilizational challenges. It was no coincidence that it originated and was realized in Czechoslovakia, the most developed state of the Soviet Bloc at that time in terms of economy, and the only Soviet Bloc country with an authentic democratic tradition from the inter-war period. Another historical context is not insignificant either. It was exactly in the same year when the process of reformation began in Czechoslovakia that student protests were ongoing throughout Western Europe against unresolved problems in most western societies. These were not only revolts against consumer society, but also responses to new problems brought by civilizational development of the time. The above-mentioned publication of Civilization at the Crossroads sought to offer an answer to what the Czechoslovak response to these challenges should have been by defining the task to acquire the commencing scientific and technical revolution.

The great extent of support that the revivalist process had in Czechoslovakia, but especially in Slovakia, is also remarkable. It is difficult to find a parallel to this literally panhuman, political movement; to the great, almost unreserved, support the attempt to bring political and social change led by Dubcek had. The first phase of the spontaneous support of the expected change brought by November 1989 was also related to a strong call to follow the revivalist process of 1968, and Dubcek, as its symbol, became one of the leading factors in the mobilization of people demanding change on the squares – this was manifested by their spontaneous call, DubCek na hrad! (Dubcek for President!; translator’s note) A paradox occurred at this time – Dubcek and his comeback to the top of politics were feared by both the leaving company of normalization leading KSC politicians, and the incoming group of leaders of the Slovak revolutionary movement, Verejnosť proti násiliu (Public against Violence; translator’s note), which, with the support of the Czech Obcanské forum (Civic Forum; translator’s note), refused to respect this call and did not nominate him for president, since there were other notions of direction and transformation of Czechoslovak society, refusing any connection with the revivalist process of 1968.

By all means, November 1989 and the post-November developments would have proceeded differently without the experience of 1968 and the presence of Dubcek’s personality. Dubcek finally expressed his disapproval of some aspects of political development and the chosen conception of transformation by publicly claiming allegiance to social democracy with the aim of contributing to a balance within the political scene and to establishing this standard movement of European politics within the Slovak political scene. Dubcek’sjoining of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia (SDSS; Sociálnodemokratická strana Slovenska; translator’s note) in the spring of 1992 became a kind of symbolic completion of the development of the Slovak left-wing movement in the XXth century. Dubcek’s father was a social democrat, and Dubcek became a communist and after evaluating his life experience; he finally joined the SDSS and became its leader. Together with his dream of “socialism with a human face,” he became a part of the social-democratic political tradition in Slovakia. However, the question remains whether the reform attempt led by him had a chance to succeed, and whether “socialism with a human face” – called the “third path” up to now – could have been viable at all. Dubcek had remained in the collective memory of the Slovak people due to his ability to resist Moscow and virtually the whole Moscow-controlled Eastern Bloc. This can be proved by his phone call with L. I. Brezhnev from the middle of August 1968, who emphasized several times that Moscow would have to take steps in the interest of stopping this development that had occurred in Czechoslovakia – despite this fact, Dubcek carried on enforcing the ideas of “socialism with a human face.” Even the fact that, as chair of the Federal Assembly, he had signed the above mentioned “club-law” in 1969 (which he regretted soon afterwards), cannot change Dubcek’s legacy.

However, there is still another dimension of Dubcek’s political performance that is spoken and written about less than his attempt to revive socialism, but which is less controversial and questionable with respect to Slovak history. This was his struggle to remove the great injustice and humiliation caused by the Czechoslovak KSC leadership with the help of the KSS through the fabricated trials of bourgeois nationalists, not only with regard to SNP leaders but also to the entire rebel generation and the whole of the Slovak nation. Dubcek not only recovered the rehabilitations of the victims of judicial crimes committed in the name of fighting alleged Slovak nationalists, but he also went the extra mile for the national emancipation of Slovaks via open confrontation with Czech anti-Slovak chauvinism represented by the first ÚV KSC secretary and president, A. Novotny. Dubcek managed to defeat Novotny politically and to create conditions for at least a formal refusal of the concept of Czechoslovakism and the settlement of relations between the Czechs and Slovaks via the adoption of the Constitutional Law on Czechoslovak Federation. Dubcek, at the same time and with great force, raised the question of uneven economic development in the Czech regions and Slovakia and made it possible for an entire series of analyses documenting the negative impact of the chosen conception of Slovak industrialization created. He allowed a whole generation of Slovak economists to emerge who enforced the compensation of disproportions in economic relations between the SR and CR even after November 1989. By creating a political space for at least the partial acknowledgment of the historic roles of Ľ. Stur, the founder of the Slovak political nation, and M. R.  Stefanik, one of the founders of an independent Czechoslovak state, Dubcek also contributed to the completion of the process of national emancipation of the Slovaks. He tried to resolve the conflict regarding the nature of constitutional organization based on the principle of equality right up to the last moments of his political activity. Dubcek thus joined these great figures of the Slovak nation and he belongs among the three most important historical figures in the historical awareness of the Slovaks.