Winter followed Prague Spring

April 17th, 1969, marked the final end of Prague Spring when Alexander Dubček was forced by the Soviet authorities to resign as the Czechoslovak Communist Party's first secretary. It had begun with promise when he had first been elected to the post in January 1968, and ushered in a period of liberalization. The press had been allowed more freedom from state control and censorship, and victims of previous purges under Stalin had been rehabilitated.

Dubček described his policies as “socialism with a human face,” and proposed a new constitution to guarantee civil rights and liberties, together with more genuine democracy. The Czechoslovak people were optimistic that their national identity could flourish, once liberated from the shackles of Soviet Communist conformity. Cinematography boomed with its "New Wave" of independence.

Other Communist governments looked with alarm at these events. This did not conform with how they thought the Communist grip on power should be maintained. Dubček told the Soviet and satellite governments that he could control the process, but they grew increasingly alarmed, and in August 1968, invaded Czechoslovakia and reimposed hard line controls. Dubček urged his people not to resist, but the brief scent of freedom was gone. It would be another 20 years before the country could be free again. Dubček was expelled from the Communist Party the following year, and was only rehabilitated after the 1989 overthrow of the communist regime, to be made Chairman of the federal Czechoslovak parliament.

The repression of the Czech bid for freedom had not been as brutal as the savage repression of the similar Hungarian attempt in 1956, largely because the people did not resist, but it was as thorough. The liberalizations were reversed, and the iron hand of Communism once more gripped the daily life of the people.

The lesson is that Communism and liberty do not mix. Socialism as an economic system simply does not work, and people will, if given the chance, replace it with one that does. That is why Communist governments maintain a monopoly of power that permits of no possibility of replacement. People have to endure the shortages, the shoddy goods and the deprivations because they have no alterative. The system maintains itself with the barrels of its guns.

There is now a Museum of Communism in Prague. I visited it recently and can recommend it. There are reconstructions of life under Communism, including some of its repression, but the mood is not dark. It is more mocking, making fun of Communism and its failures. There is a mock-up of a shop from that era, with an amusing commentary explaining how corruption was used to circumvent the system and its shortages. It would be useful if those advocating Socialism today were to visit it to see what it was like in practice. But of course, they would say that this "wasn't really Socialism." No real-world example ever is, because they all fail in practice.