Socialism’s Waves: The Prague Spring

The Prague Spring invasion of Chezchoslovakia in 1968 by the five countries of Warsaw Pact was a result of the vulnerability rather than the power of the USSR. The Prague Spring is a period of time when the government of Czechoslovakia led by Alexander Dubcek seemingly wanted to democratise the nation and lessen the stranglehold Moscow had on the nation’s affairs. It began on January 1968 when the reforms were considered as a strong attempt to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of decentralisation of the economy. The freedoms granted included loosening restrictions on the media, speech, and travel. Although Dubcek mentioned that Czechoslovakia will still apply the ideology of Marxist-Leninist, Historian Anna J Stoneman argued that USSR was scared that if Czech’s achieved a “degree of autonomy within the socialist system,” it will threaten their position as the leader of the communist world, thus show their vulnerability.

Soviet’s main reason in the Czechoslovakian Invasion was the possibility that the Prague Spring reformation will be too far, and would eventually favour capitalism. This is because the strong idea of liberalisation that is enforced by Dubcek. Historian, Gaddis argued that “Brezhnev had ordered the invasion out of a sense of vulnerability– the fear that the ‘Prague Spring’ reforms could spread.” Brezhnev was scared that if Soviet let this to happen, members of the Warsaw Pact could leave and they could possibly turn their backs on communism. This is because of the Hungarian Uprising that took place in 1956 which traumatize the Soviet leaders that if one satellite state is freed from communism, it will lead to a widespread rebellion against Moscow’s leadership of the Eastern Bloc. Thus, the Soviet Union would have to stand alone facing NATO. USSR also thought that if Czechoslovakia was not forced back into Orthodox Communism, the entire world would see how socialism had failed, even if invading the country “shattered whatever illusions remained that anyone might voluntarily embrace that ideology.” (Gaddis, 2005). Therefore, they have to be assertive to the satellite states including Czechoslovakia. As a result, on the night of August 20, 1968, 200,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks were sent into Czechoslovakia to occupy the territory and brutally and efficiently suppress the Prague Spring movement.

Apart from having the feeling of vulnerability upon the orthodox communist ideology, USSR was also in the era of stagnation which positioned them in the vulnerable position in 1968. The standard of living was low and most of the resources were scarce,  Brezhnev’s government could not afford to lose any more of its satellite states, which the Soviet economy relied heavily upon. The Czech economy had been slowing since the early 1960s, and cracks were emerging in the communist consensus as workers struggled against new challenges. If the Czechoslovak crisis led to more economic, political, and social instability in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union could lose important trade partners in the COMECON and trying to suffocate future uprisings would represent great costs. Apart from that, Historian, Anna J Stoneman argued, “Dubcek proposed opening relations with Western powers to allow private enterprise and proposed a ten-year transition to democraticised socialism. This is reasonable as at this point, the USSR was in no position to risk so much damage to its economy by sharing their trade “shares” to other countries, especially the Western-Capitalist countries. This could result in higher price and lower quantity of goods imported from Eastern European countries. Therefore, the way Soviet leadership, including Brezhnev, saw it, losing Czechoslovakia, and possibly other socialist states as well would be the same as losing control over the Soviet Union itself.

Although vulnerability was the main reason behind the Soviet invasion, the USSR’s remaining power over their satellite states influenced the decisions freely. Historian, Mark Kramer argued, “it was procedure rather than the result that provoked the Soviet leader’s anger.” Even though Dubcek’s government still applies the existing framework of the Marxist-Leninist State, the idea of “liberal” society makes USSR feel that they have to take actions to stop this reform. USSR also still have the power over the Warsaw Pact’s countries including Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania which made them eligible to invade Czechoslovakia. Analysed by Annales School of Thought, the Soviet Union has a policy of compelling the socialist governments of its satellite states to subordinate their national interests to those of the “Eastern Bloc” or known as the Brezhnev Doctrine was significant. This is because USSR had the “power” and the “right” to intervene whenever a country in the Eastern Bloc appeared to be making a shift towards capitalism.

In conclusion, even though Soviet’s power over Czechoslovakia was crucial, it was not the most significant reasons why USSR invaded the Prague Spring in 1968. Soviet’s fear and vulnerability was at the peak of falling down, and Kremlin was concerned that the “contagion” of Czech democratisation would spread and that the Czechoslovaks themselves go too far in creating an open society. Therefore, it is more reasonable to think that the idea of the Soviet’s fear of “democratisation” and “liberalisation” becomes the most significant factor of Czechoslovakia invasion. As Hitler once said, “ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”

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