ESSAY

The Spring That Died

Peter Rehak August 22 1988
ESSAY

The Spring That Died

Peter Rehak August 22 1988

The Spring Th at Died

ESSAY

Peter Rehak

Peter Rehak was bom in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, 52 years ago and came to Montreal with his parents at age 13. He returned to his native land as Associated Press correspondent in Prague for a critical lf/2 months through August, 1968. Honored with awards from the Overseas Press Club of America for his Prague reporting, Rehak returned to Canada in 1972 and now is executive producer with CTV’S public affairs program W5. His first book, Undercover Agent, will be published in October.

Just before 2 a.m. on Aug. 21, 1968, the high-pitched sound of aircraft landing in quick succession at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport shattered the stillness of the summer night. Soviet paratroopers burst out of the planes and seized the airport. Within the hour, columns of Soviet tanks from East Germany and Poland rumbled into the city, their snarling engines spitting blue exhaust fumes into the night air. By dawn, every major artery and bridge was occupied. The invaders came to crush the Prague Spring—a brave experiment in independence that was characterized then by the slogan “Socialism with a human face.” That flirtation with freedom had made an oppressed nation light-headed on hope. And, until it was so cruelly suppressed, that hope captured the imagination of the world.

Hopes: I had been reporting on the Prague Spring since April, and to me it was a story that you did not just cover, you lived it. In a sense I am living it still—especially now, on the 20th anniversary of the invasion and at a time when the hopes aroused throughout Eastern Europe by the Prague Spring have been rekindled by new leaders espousing new reforms. It was easy to become infected by the zest for life evident everywhere in Prague, 1968. That was particularly true for me because I had been born in

Czechoslovakia. I grew up in Canada but I still knew the language. I knew some of the land’s history, including its years of occupation by Nazi Germany and the 1948 takeover by the Moscow-supported Communist regime, whose successors still rule the country. I felt a special affinity for the land of my birth. The world’s attention was rivetted on Czechoslovakia then because it seemed that democratic developments there might set a pattern for all of Eastern Europe. The country’s new

leaders were trying to move closer to its traditional liberal roots while remaining in the Communist camp. But the big question was whether the Soviet overseers—and their increasingly nervous allies in other capitals of the Warsaw Pact military alliance—would accept the changes that brought political debate, promised economic reforms and inspired cultural creativity. Soviet force had been used to quell unrest in East Ger-

many in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956. But in 1968, after months of tension, it seemed by mid-August that Moscow had resigned itself to the reforms introduced under Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Czechoslovak Communist party since January. The invasion startled even the experts. Token forces from Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria—but not from Romania, which had been free of Soviet forces for 10 years—joined the operation. As people took to the streets shouting “Go home” to the occupying army, they removed road signs to confuse the invaders and denied them food and water. A general strike forced the Soviets to negotiate with Dubcek, who had been carted off to Moscow. President Ludvík Svoboda, a 72year-old hero of the Second World War, refused to sanction a pro-Soviet puppet government. The state-run radio and television remained on the air for days in support of the resistance. About 100 civilians were reported killed by the invading forces. Power: It is hard to imagine 20 years later why Moscow acted in the way that it did. But in 1968, the words glasnost and perestroika—openness and restructuring-had not yet entered the political vocabulary. Leonid Brezhnev was in charge in Moscow, and his allies were the desperate old men whose power dated from the Cold War’s beginnings. The most vocal opponents of the Prague reforms were East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht, the goateed Saxon who had built the Berlin Wall in 1961, and Wladyslaw Gomulka, the authoritarian who ruled Poland then. They clearly saw the

changes in Prague as a threat to their own regimes. Dubcek’s “Action Program” proposed freedom of speech and freedom for all citizens to travel abroad. To show that he meant what he said, Dubcek lifted state censorship. Almost overnight, newspapers, radio and television reported gory details of the Stalinist past and recent economic misdeeds. I arrived in Prague just before May Day, the traditional time to show off military and political might by parading troops and placard-carrying workers. But the show on May 1, 1968, was like no other such parade. It was a love-in between the people and the new leadership. Old men in the long-banned uniforms of the Czechoslovak Legion, which had fought against the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, marched past with membersof Sokol, the nationalisticgymnastics association, and the boy scouts—both outlawed since the Communist coup in 1948. Adding to the “new look” were marchers from

the association of former political prisoners. It was little wonder that Dubcek faced pressure. By May, the Soviet Politburo had condemned his reforms as “revisionist.” Ulbricht was campaigning to station Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia. And all five hard-line countries—the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria—fired off a joint letter flatly demanding that Dubcek deal with his “right-

wing antisocialist forces,” reimpose censorship and restore “party unity.” Dubcek replied that Stalinism did the party more damage than anything he was doing. Soviet troops crossed the border at the end of May for “manoeuvres.” Then, on Aug. 3, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact officials met Czechoslovak leaders in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and hammered out an agreement that seemed to end the crisis. The Soviet troops withdrew. People relaxed and went on vacation. Dead: Very early on Aug. 21, as I was having a postmidnight nightcap with three of my journalist colleagues in the Alcron Hotel, where we all lived, we heard the unmistakable noise of the military planes landing. We looked at each other in disbelief and I flicked on a small portable radio. I just caught the words “an important announcement from the Central Committee ” before the transmission went dead. I charged down several flights of stairs and heard the rest of the message in the hotel’s garage, where the PA system was hooked into Radio Prague by a direct landline—a common setup in public places. Whoever stopped the on-air transmission had forgotten

to cut off that system. And there was no mistaking the message that the country had been occupied. I darted to the Telex machine and dialled into the Associated Press network. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first word of the invasion in the West.

Price: By dawn, the city was in chaos. Tanks and armored cars rolled down the narrow streets and sidewalks. All the country’s transportation systems had stopped. There were hundreds of foreigners in Prague. An international geological congress had been under way. So had a meeting of a multiple sclerosis association whose participants included Shirley Temple Black. My wife, Louise, who had arrived a few days before the invasion with our baby, Anna, rounded up the former Hollywood child star for an interview. A few days later, they all left in a convoy of foreigners organized by the U.S. Embassy. Despite the short-term reinstatement of Dubcek, the Prague Spring had ended. The country had paid a heavy price. Aside from those who died, as many as 100,000 people left for the I West—mostly professionals g and intellectuals—and those 8 who remained behind faced years of oppression.

The unmistakable message of the invasion was that a small country in the centre of Europe should not try to achieve its dream of independence, nor to attempt liberalization before it came to the Soviet Union itself. And even now, in the days of glasnost and perestroika in Moscow—and in neighboring Hungary—there is no rush for reform in Prague. And who can blame the people who lived through the Prague Spring, and who watched it die? □