By Jürgen Danyel
The years 1968 and 1989 are two of the most important landmarks in the history of post-war Europe. As times of revolt they were shaped by profound social conflicts. Political, social and cultural movements stamped them with their specific character. Old orders and value systems began to totter. The once watertight borders dividing East and West became increasingly porous and were overcome completely in the end. No longer willing to meekly accept conditions and value systems they felt to be oppressive, a growing number of people dared to protest in public and summoned the courage to initiate change. As times of upheaval both years were shaped by utopias and hopes, which, in the further course of history, began to wear thin or turned out to be illusions. The student revolts of 1968 in the West, the Prague Spring in the East, the bloodless revolutions in Eastern Central Europe and the fall of the Iron Curtain have cumulated in the memories and experiences of entire generations and condensed into historical narratives with their own dramatic turns and stylized touches. The latter are not only firmly lodged in the memory of contemporaries, but are bandied about by a media craving for history. Marking important anniversaries, the years 2008 and 2009 have branded themselves with a hitherto unknown vehemence on the collective memory and the public sphere. It is therefore all the more surprising that both events are barely connected with one another and the historical links between both upheavals and the social movements initiating them are rarely the focus of debate.
Although both the movements of 1968 as well as the revolutions of 1989 and beyond invite a diachronic comparison it is seldom pursued. The impression overwhelming contemporaries, namely that the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall were totally unexpected events no one could have foreseen, has settled like a thick fog over the historical retrospectives on the turbulent days of autumn 1989. It seems as if 1989 had no formative historical undercurrents, although there were enough signs, the politics of Gorbachev and the effects of the Helsinki Accords, the Polish Solidarność movement and the imminent collapse of the economy as the nail in the coffin of state socialism in the Eastern bloc. And indeed, there are hardly any linear causalities leading from 1968 to 1989; but history sometimes takes curious detours and sidesteps itself. That 1968 is rarely seen as a formative historical influence for 1989 is perhaps due to another factor: the student revolt in the West and the Czechoslovakian experiment of “socialism with a human face” are both generally regarded as leftist political movements. But it is precisely the latter which were rejected in the Europe of 1989 along with the sinking ship of state socialism; in the West this also forced leftist positions onto the defensive. In this respect, 1989 would rather appear to be a counterpoint to 1968. The efficacy of such an assessment cannot be denied. Nevertheless, the political classification of 1968 in this scenario is still strongly determined by the bloc-thinking of the Cold War in both domestic and foreign politics. The clarity and definiteness of this view begins to crumble however when one steps down from the comfortable bird’s-eye perspective of master narratives on political history and takes a look at the social and cultural processes of transformation underway in the long decade of the 1960s in East and West. The processes of social and political differentiation amongst the “1968” generation in the West which took place in their “march through the institutions” in the 1970s and 1980s proceeded differently than the traditional bloc-thinking suggests. The same holds for the violent end of the Prague Spring, which had a substantial impact on the political coordinate system of Czechoslovakian society and the émigré milieus emerging out of the exodus triggered by the 21st of August. This also holds true in particular for the new oppositional groupings formed in the context of Charta 77, the cultural underground coupled with it and the alternative youth culture, which was no longer so easily subsumable under the established pattern of a left-right divide. Things were no different in the West with rise of the new political movements.
One image that became part of the visual world of the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1989 is a photograph which shows Prague students painting posters. The viewer looks into a seminar room, its floor covered by the just completed large sheets of paper and pots of paint. All embellish the year “68” with “spring”; turning the poster 180 degrees clockwise results in “89”, this time with “autumn” added.
Although – due to a sense of fatefulness associated with the ‘eight years’ in their history – the Czechs ascribe certain dates a particular significance, the motif selected by the students was much more than a mere numbers game. More important was another association the poster was to forge: in the perception of many contemporaries the peaceful protests against the regime installed during the ‘normalization’ phase in Czechoslovakia, having now clearly lapsed into senile stubbornness, linked into the social awakening of 1968, which the invasion of Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops on the 21st of August had brutally quashed. Other images loaded with symbolic power from the turbulent autumn days of 1989 seemed to corroborate this impression: on the 24th of November 1989, while taking part in a citizen’s forum, Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel fell into each other’s arms upon hearing that party boss Miloš Jakeš had resigned. On the 26th of November both men then stood on the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house, beneath them a Wenzel Square overflowing with jubilant people. Returning from political exile, the former party leader experienced this moment like a kind of déjà vu and believed himself – as he describes in his memoirs – transported back to the May protest of 1968. It seemed as if history had come full circle.
As motivating as this symbolic reconnection of the “Velvet Revolution” to the Prague Spring may have been initially, it proved ultimately to be an illusion. Having returned to the political stage with high expectations, the onetime reformers soon cut lonely figures. It did not take long for post-communist society to lose its appetite for further socialist experiments. In the same tenor as the tragically failed attempt of 1968 became at once a myth and a piece of unfinished business in the political wasteland of the following normalization, it was now gradually stripped of its mystique and pushed into oblivion. In this respect, the image of the date with its 180°-revolvable numbers game on the student poster was indeed deceptive. It not only conveyed the false impression that it was possible to simply pick up the ideas of 1968, but it also lent all that had happened after the 21st of August 1968 through until the autumn days of 1989 a strange timeless appearance. As if Czechoslovakian society and with it the people had frozen over. Indeed, many of those who became political active in the autumn of 1989 were gripped by this strong contrast between the onetime numbness and the breathtaking sensation of being tumbled along by rapid developments. “It was a total explosion of time”, recalls the writer Jáchym Topol. And yet decisive things had taken place in the “lead years” between 1969 and the collapse of the regime: inwardly Czechoslovakian society had definitively bid farewell to communism long before 1989. This farewell included the utopias of 1968 as well however. Even someone like Gorbachev was incapable of reversing this as he laid his claim on the Prague Spring for a political course that was much discussed abroad. Seen in this light, the words put in his mouth by the press – “Life punishes those who delay” – applied to Gorbachev himself. Added to this was that the brief return to 1968 during Czechoslovakia’s “velvet” autumn could not cover up how the Prague Spring had not only been crushed by Soviet tanks, but also, after the invasion, been left in the lurch by the reformist circle around Dubček. A Soviet strategy initially born out of sheer necessity proved to have a devastating psychological impact on Czechoslovakian society: as not enough puppets could be found for a putsch government, it was the reformers who were forced into doing the dirty work of compromise and gradual retreat. With his act of self-immolation on the 16th of January 1969, the student Jan Palach was desperately seeking to counter the lethargy of a society entangled in such a situation.
In another respect however, it stands to reason to draw parallels between 1968 and 1989: as once during the Prague Spring, again the capital Prague and with it the whole country caught the world’s attention in November 1989. After years in which the country was cloaked in the quietness of a graveyard, here history was suddenly buzzing again, here was a return to Europe. Only this time the people of the formerly socialist neighbouring countries were not only observers; they themselves had delivered striking media images of peaceful, imaginative protests and falling border fences only a few weeks before. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall only a few days later, outstripping Prague once more. But Prague had also had an influence on this event. The East Germans seeking refuge in the grounds of the West German embassy in Palais Lobkowicz on Prague’s Malá Strana, whose abandoned Trabants and Wartburgs clogged the narrow lanes, not only made the ossified conditions in the GDR dance, but also roused the hitherto placid Czechs from their apathy. The heady autumn of 1989 simply defies understanding without considering this transnational dynamic triggered and spread by the media images of the opening of the border in Hungry and the Prague embassy refugees. And as in 1968, they flocked to Prague in the early 1990s, the political and cultural tourists from East and West, seeking to soak in the atmosphere of a spectacular upheaval no-one had seen coming.
The caesura of 1989 and the accompanying collapse of communism have decisively altered the perspective on the movements initiated by the 1968ers as leftist political projects and practices. This applies equally to East and West. Followed by the experiences of occupation, normalization and collapse, the Prague Spring also lost its historical innocence. Even those sceptical towards the “end of history” proclaimed so swiftly after 1989 could not dispute this. Naïve return voyages were – and are – no longer possible.
To look at 1968 through the spectacles of 1989 would then mean however not to set the caesural character of the years of upheaval as absolute. This would open the chance to think in larger timeframes and overlapping contexts. Even if many a depiction still persists with the notion that the Prague Spring came from out of the blue as it were, identifying it as enacted from above following the January plenary assembly of the KSČ and Dubček’s election as party leader, by now such a popular error reveals its own absurdity. The Prague Spring had a long formative prehistory across a variety of social, economic, cultural and political facets, and by no means are all of these adequately accounted for. Amongst them is the meanwhile legendary Kafka conference organized by Eduard Goldstücker and his Prague German literature colleagues and held in Liblice Castle in 1963, or the blossoming of theatre and film, or the small and large effronteries barbed by writers. Then there is the new self-confidence of the children of socialism, who, after the parched years of Stalinist mass mobilization, civil war and the tons-per-annum ideology of planned production, wanted a life that was a bit more modern, a bit more individual, a bit better. They directed their gaze westwards. And so these facets keep unfolding: Beatles films were shown in Prague cinemas, there were the rock ‘n’ roll peccadillos of a Karel Gott, who in the Lucerna gave an Elvis performance and covered the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it black”, or the Allen Ginsberg cult, who visited Czechoslovakia as early as 1965 and was elected King of Májales, the student May Day festival. The new politics envisioned by the reformist circle around Dubček, Šik, Smrkovský, Mlynář and others encountered a society long primed for change. And it refused to be tamed again once the shackles of censorship were cast aside and what was going on in newspapers, on radio and television or on the theatre stages had gone too far even for some of the reformers themselves. What Leonid Brezhnev whispered in the ear of the Czechoslovakian leader – “Alexander Stepanovitch [Dubček], we have to speak with one another urgently” – in a mixture of threat and plead, is known thanks to a documented telephone call between the two on the 13th of August 1968.
As drastic a turn of events as the entry of Soviet troops on the 21st of August 1968 doubtlessly was, one should not lose sight of the continuities. It took more than year until the occupiers and the local Muscovites managed to re-shackle a society unfettered by the Prague Spring. In this period many reform projects were simply continued with in silence, critical books were published and this or that rebellious film was screened. It remains in the realm of speculation to ask if Czechoslovakian society could have been mobilized to take up arms and resist the occupation, if such resistance had even a chance of succeeding, and if even after the 21st of August it had been possible to tip the scales the other way. The restorers of communist rule under Gustáv Husák, who performed a volte-face from reformer to hardliner, only managed to ultimately bring things under control by resorting to a large-scale state and police crackdown. The first anniversary of the invasion, 1969, saw nationwide popular protests and put the reasserted dominance to the test. An unprecedented purge of the party and society ensued, with the deposed Dubček degraded to a forestry worker and scores of critical intellectuals turned into stokers, janitors and factory workers. The critical minds fled the country in droves, if they had not already stayed abroad after the invasion. It was small consolation for Czechs and Slovaks that they were at least able to defeat the hated Soviets at the ice hockey world championships in March 1969.
But for its part the new regime was also unable to rollback particular developments initiated in the 1960s and accelerated in the few months of the Prague Spring. The “normalizing” of the situation could not be had without making concessions. With socio-political gifts and ideological pragmatism the regime was forced to pay deference to those changes in the population’s lifestyles, consumer needs and leisure time activities prompted by the modernization and opening of Czechoslovakian society to the West. This meant getting involved in a race in which the West was setting the standards and in the long run hopelessly overtaxed state socialism, not only economically. The integration this unwritten social contract yielded, which sought to compensate the renouncement of political rebellion by providing the people with consumerism and entertainment, was only partial and only temporary. Often berated as corrupted, the niche society of the weekend country cottages and private islands was apolitical in an ambivalent way however. On the one hand, it did not threaten to stir up political trouble for the regime in the form of oppositional aspirations. On the other hand though, it was no longer so simple a task to mobilize this society for the purpose of reinforcing the hold of the ruling system, although with the old rituals of mass acclamation and enthusiasm, practiced right to the bitter end, the apparatus attempted to keep up the veneer. In terms of life-worlds and mass culture, Czechoslovakian society remained infiltrated by the spirit of Westernization throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was with this reputation that the country experienced the droves of East German tourists, for whom Prague, along with Budapest, was still one of the most libertine and Western cities in the Eastern bloc. This gain in worldly sophistication helped visitors from the GDR patiently put up with all the subtle or blatant humiliations which they were forced to endure with an eye to their West German brothers and sisters, brazenly showing off with their hard D-Mark currency.
The cultural continuity mentioned holds not only for the consumer segment and private lifestyle, but also, and above all, for the alternative youth cultures and the pop culture. Czechoslovakian society also experienced its Swinging Sixties, in which rock ‘n’ roll, the flower power aesthetics of the hippie movement and the new fashion styles imported from the West became mediums and symbols with which a young generation socialized under state-run communism sought to break out of the standard ideological and cultural channels. One of the most striking photographs taken by Josef Koudelka during the Prague Spring allows the viewer to look into the faces of a group of young girls who mingled amongst the May Day protest marchers as flower children. The extent to which this transfer of culture seeped into society was observable each weekend in Prague, where Wenzel Square turned into a giant barter exchange for records from the West. This erosion of authority by culture was irreversible. Rock music maintained its subversive potency even after liberalization was ended violently, living on in the Czechoslovakian underground of the 1970s and 1980s. All attempts by the state to tame music and its affiliated subcultures with socialist copies led to embarrassing results which only succeeded in further stimulating the appetite for the originals. While in the West the commercialization of the music and fashion scene gradually petrified the rebellious spirit of rock and pop culture, it remained vibrant in many places in the East. In a report on “Underground pop in Prague” published in a special issue of the journal Kontinent in West Germany in 1975, one of the scene’s leading minds, Ivan Martin Jirous, described a lively music milieu that looked towards the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, The Doors, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead and combined these influences with their own emotional and aesthetic perspectives. As is known, the founding of Charta 77 was motivated by the imprisonment of members of the Plastic People of the Universe and the band dg307, who the normalization regime sought to muzzle with long prison sentences and an unprecedented defamation campaign. As in 1985 the former Velvet Underground singer Nico, who was still enormously popular in Czechoslovakia, gave two secret concerts in Prague and Brno on her way from Hungary to Germany, the whole alternative scene was in furore and state agencies in panic. Tom Stoppard explored this role played by rock music as a way of life in the collapse of the communist regime in his play “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which premiered in London in 2006. The play traces an arc from Warsaw Pact troops entering Czechoslovakia on the 21st of August 1968 through to the concert performed by the Rolling Stones in Prague in 1990. The main character, a Czech PhD student named Jan studying in Cambridge, gets caught up in the mills of state repression upon his return home because of his – an avid fan of the band Plastic People – passion for rock ‘n’ roll. The destruction of his cherished record collection symbolizes the regime’s impotent rage at this countervailing cultural power and forces the young man to make a decision and give up his niche.
To situate the Prague Spring in a longer social and cultural history perspective is meaningful in another respect as well. A look at the boom in the reminiscences of 1968 shows that the movements of 1968 in the West are still considered separately from the developments in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern bloc countries. The onetime protagonists of the student protests in Paris, Berlin or Berkeley rhapsodize – not without a hint of smugness – about their rebellious youth. The great roll back by those who trace the roots of all contemporary maladies, from the decay of values to the disintegration of the family, back to 1968 failed to materialize. This noisy remembering of the student rebellion and the culture revolution it triggered contrasts strikingly with the curious indecisiveness shown by the Czechs in how they until recently dealt with their “1968”. Only now being gradually overcome, this splitting of memory has concealed how much developments in East and West had in common. It is imperative that approaches taking a comparative and transnational perspective on 1968 are further developed: students played an important role as a motor of change during the Prague Spring. The young generation in Czechoslovakia looked towards Paris and Berlin: the forms, rituals and symbols of protest wandered through borders which had become porous. In both West and East the student movement became a kind of seismograph for the modernization processes occurring in the 1960s and the resulting social conflicts. Although meanwhile well known, stories of direct encounters between the protagonists of both movements need to be explored further and documented. This holds not only for Rudi Dutschke’s much-cited journey to Prague at the end of March 1968 and his discussions with Czech students at the Charles University. His vision of a possible fusion of the movements in East and West remained a minority position. A critical review is thus needed of the distance the West German left kept to the Prague Spring: they sensed that behind the “socialism with a human face” there lurked a liberalization gravitating towards capitalism, and in any case for them Mao was often more important than Dubček or their fellow students in Prague. The story of the relationships between politically motivated students in East and West – and how they perceived one another – was also a story of misunderstandings and divergent expectations. Nevertheless, some of these encounters from the year 1968 outlasted the new political ice age after the invasion. With the violent end of Prague Spring, the cultural distances between East and West once again widened, and the Western curiosity for the neighbouring country waned relatively soon. It would take 20 years before this changed.
The autumn of 1989 and the years following, saturated with change, sparked euphoric reactions in the West given the absence of violence during the upheaval and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. For a time joy and curiosity were the dominant frames through which the West looked at the events unfolding amongst their Eastern neighbours. This desire to rediscover the central part of Europe lying to the East only lasted for a limited time however. The problems and costs of transformation, experiencing cultural and mental differences anew, as well as the inevitable disappointments given the exaggerated expectations – all this accumulated to mar the mood. Striking in comparison to 1968 is a divide between East and West in terms of the social, cultural and political dynamic unleashed: while the changes and ruptures triggered by 1989 impacted on practically all areas of life in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, Western societies took the collapse of communism to be a confirmation of their status quo as the best of all possible worlds. The enthusiasm for change in the East was not accompanied by a comparable dynamic of inner reforms in the West. Institutions, organizational systems and values, which were the subject of critical public debates in the 1970s and 1980s, now served as models for the East. Against the foil of the disastrous impact wreaked by a planned economy, centralism and permanent state intervention, for the new political elites in the East they often seemed to be the only viable alternative. This would only alter upon the emergence of a new set of threats and problems: international terrorism, ecological issues, demographic change, the erosion of political milieus, economic globalization, the transition to an information society and the crisis besetting the financial markets. The upheaval of 1989 remains one of the most important political caesuras of the 20th century and is quite rightly celebrated as a highlight in the history of the democracy and liberation movements. With respect to the social, economic and political development of European societies however, it will most likely be the opening decade of the 21st century that will be seen as marking a caesura.
In terms of culture, there is a striking distinction between 1968 and 1989: the student movement in the West and the Prague Spring in the East will remain etched in the collective memory primarily thanks to the changes they directly initiated or accelerated, from pop culture and the sexual revolution through to alternative visions of life and a flourishing art, theatre, literature and film scene. The peaceful revolutions of 1989 have not been able to unfold a comparable long-term effect. They grew out of a specific cultural hotbed determined by the confrontation with and distinction from a communist regime. The moment a society moved into turmoil and inevitable change, all that was cultural necessarily became political. Theatre stages were turned into political discussion podiums, while actors, writers and artists stood behind the microphones at the rallies. The images of Alexanderplatz in East Berlin on the 4th of November 1989 or those from the Prague theatres, where the Civic Forum and the “Public against Violence” congregated, are imprinted on the collective memory. Also branded in memory are the myriad examples of the tremendous fantasy and creativity with which the people expressed their peaceful protest against the senile communist regimes. The movement of 1989 did not bring forth its own currents in art, literature, theatre, film or popular music. The grassroots and anti-authoritarian political style, decisive in the interregnum phase of upheaval, could not lastingly establish itself. A civil, nongovernmental substructure capable of assuming this role is only gradually taking hold in the transformation societies. After a brief triumph, the countercultures which had grown in the 1970s and 1980s were suddenly confronted with the unfamiliar pressure of market mechanisms and commercialization. Globalization and Westernization became the determining trend in the cultural sector of the post-communist transitional societies. Exacerbating the situation was the weighing up and coming to terms with the cultural heritage of 40 years of state socialism; this entailed at times hefty debates on the controversial issue of the affiliations to the state and entanglement in secret service intrigues by artists and literary figures. Many a musician from the ship’s band performing on the Titanic of state socialism have survived the sinking in good shape and are enjoying a new phase of popularity. The upheaval of 1989 is itself only gradually becoming a theme broached by artists, writers and dramatists. The process of cultural self-reflection has only just begun – and has a long way to go. Remembering both 1968 and 1989 could contribute to turning this process into a truly European concern surpassing all national sensitivities.
This text was published in Transit 68/89, edited by Jürgen Danyel, Jennifer Schevardo, Stephan Kruhl. Berlin : Metropol Verlag, 2009, pp. X-XXI.
Translated by Paul Bowman
Jürgen Danyel was born in 1959 in Mariánské Láznĕ. He studied sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, completing his doctorate in 1987. Research associate at the “Institute for German History” in Berlin, specializing in contemporary history, since 1996 at the “Centre for Research of Contemporary History” in Potsdam. Until 2004 active on the editorial board of “Zeitschrift für Geisteswissenschaft”; numerous publications in this journal and other essay volumes.