40 years on, Europe hesitates to commemorate Prague Spring

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The crackdown on the Prague uprising on 21 August 1968 marked the beginning of the end for Soviet-type regimes, but the importance of this event is nowadays neglected. Jean-Michel de Waele, political science Professor at Brussels free university (ULB), reflects on those historic days in an interview with EURACTIV.

De Waele says the failed attempt by Czech and Slovak leaders to reform the communist regime from within had shown the Soviet Union’s incapacity to accept decentralisation and democratisation, and was a forerunner to the crisis which eventually led to the collapse of communism twenty years later.

But he believes the significance of this event is nowadays neglected. In public perceptions today, the surge of Solidarno?? in Poland in the 1980s has overshadowed the Prague Spring, although both events are equally important, De Waele says.

“Solidarno?? […] has become a part of Polish history and has been defended by the successive Polish governments, something that the Czech government has clearly less done for the Prague Spring,” says De Waele. “However, I remain convinced that the Prague Spring has played an absolutely fundemental role”. 

“I think the dissidents of Solidarno?? have drawn the lessons of the Prague Spring failure”. “If Bronislav Geremek [the Polish dissident and politician who recently died in a car accident, EURACTIV 14/07/08] was still among us, he could have explained to what extent the crackdown on the Prague Spring has marked mentalities in Poland, for example,” De Waele said.

The Belgian Professor says that Western powers, and the US in particular, have been ambiguous towards the Eastern bloc during the Cold War, helping the dissidents but also stabilising the regimes by doing business with them. This, he says, was probably out of fear of political instability which could have led to a nuclear conflict. But he admits that the events from August 1968 in Czechoslovakia have also sent a signal for the West to realise the weakness of totalitarian regimes.

De Waele further argues that a similar ambiguity and lax attitude toward human rights abuses is visible in relations with other countries today. “It seems that, with the Beijing Olympic Games, Westerners are definitely very blind on the issue of human rights. Depending on how rich you are, they will be more or less challenging.”

Furthermore, he regrets that even in modern societies, History is manipulated to satisfy simplistic views. As an example, he point out that only 20 years ago Yugoslavia has been a relatively democratic and free country, while today everything relating to Yugoslavia bears a negative mark. He says he does not believe in projects such as writing a common European History, but rather hopes that people everywhere would have the courage to look at their countries’ History as it is.

To read the full interview in French, please click here.

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