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The Rise and Fall of the Czech Rebellion

The Seventh Night

by Ladislav Mnacko
Dutton, 220 pp., $5.95

The Czech Black Book Sciences

compiled by the Historical Section of the Czechoslovak Academy of, edited by Robert Littell
Praeger, 316 pp., $6.95

The Voices

by Joseph Wechsberg
Doubleday, 120 pp., $3.95

Prague’s Two Hundred Days

by Harry Schwartz
Praeger, 274 pp., $5.95

Prague Spring: A Report on Czechoslovakia 1968

by Z.A.B. Zeman
Hill & Wang, 160 pp., $5.00

Plan and Market Under Socialism

by Ota Sik
International Arts and Sciences (White Plains, N.Y.), 382, n.p. pp.

Reading these books in Prague, in the chilly spring of Dr. Husak when the snow lay grimily in the ditches and the censored newspapers piled up unsold in the kiosks, I found myself doing what the Czechs and Slovaks were doing: taking the first chance for months to look back and size up history. Alexander Dubcek has fallen. As a Czech friend said, “There is only one good thing about this. The great schizophrenia is over. We no longer have to protect the leaders we loved while rejecting the compromise they were forced to put into practice. The situation is black and white now, and in a way we feel more free.”

So a time of looking back has begun. For the first time since August, it is possible to ask seriously questions upon whose eventual answers the whole future of Czechoslovak society will depend. Were the reforms of last spring the right reforms? Were the leaders then too swift to release the press too slow to renew the cadres of the Party by an emergency congress? Could the disaster of invasion have been averted by a slower pace, or instead by reforms done with revolutionary speed and thoroughness, or even by open warning that the Army would be used to maintain the integrity of all the frontiers? Did the compromise accepted in Moscow after the occupation lead inevitably to slow disintegration of the leadership, or could another line have been drawn beyond which Dubcek and Svoboda might have refused to retreat? Should the nation have refused all compromise and gone down fighting leaving to the next generation the memory of how—for the first time since the Battle of the White Mountain—the Czechs preferred a Thermopylae to a Munich?

One truth already shines through that the months since August have not been simply a retreat over conquered ground. The crippled leadership, both by its helplessness and by its restrictive measures against existing reforms, provoked a new and staggering advance of democracy on another front. The working class took the stage, with the Czech and Moravian students at its side, and demanded a democracy of workers’ councils with the reformed trades unions acting as an autonomous but extra-parliamentary force. A new “human face of socialism” emerged, and although the union leaders have now given up direct political defiance and any extension of the existing forty-six workers’ councils will almost certainly be blocked, the whole Czechoslovak experiment has acquired a new dimension. In a letter addressed this month to the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, three student representatives say this: “All of a sudden the original slogan ‘Society is not free because the intellectuals are oppressed has changed into the completely new and perhaps more accurate ‘Only when the immediate producer enjoys full and true democratic rights as a citizen in society—only then can the intellectuals have the right to talk about their own freedom.”’

What happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 happened as the result of the natural and inevitable development of a socialist society and economy, but at the same time as the willed, long-prepared, and more or less controlled achievement of a fairly small group of people. Czechoslovakia was growing out of the coal-and-steel production-geared economy into the stage of sophisticated technology: this enforced such changes as respect for market pressure, a new use of labor, and especially of qualified management. And these changes in turn enforced political relaxation of the leading role of the Party. But in Czechoslovakia it was only a considerable section of the Party itself, aided by the intellectuals who recognized this necessity (with very different degrees of perception) and set about the necessary economic and political changes. For the first part of 1968, as in the previous few years of political ferment at the top, most Czechs and Slovaks looked on with rather passive appreciation. The Slovak writer Ladislav Mnacko, in The Seventh Night, illustrates this situation when on one page he attacks Western journalists for assuming that the whole “Prague Spring” was caused by the revolt of the intellectuals, and six pages later laments that the intellectuals neglected the workers: “if the working class had been more deeply committed to the regeneration program, the worst need not have happened.”

Without a new mass involvement of the Czech and Slovak peoples in political action—until the great weeks of resistance after August 21—the disunity within the Party remained decisively important. The Black Book, the documentation of the week after the invasion put together by the Academy of Sciences, is not only a matchless primary source for those days but a brilliant retrospective light cast on the months which went before. It shows how varied and individual Party opinions still were, and how often Communists surrendered to their instinct to keep difficulties to themselves and away from the public.

Why didn’t Dubcek put the pro-Soviet “traitors” behind bars in January, a furious foundry-hand demands. Why did he coddle them? A newspaper regrets the “humanistic treatment” of these men from January to August: “we have kept in office even those we knew could betray us.” There is a full record in The Black Book of the large group of active collaborators in the state security who had been in the confidence of the KGB and who helped enthusiastically in the arrest of Dubcek and the others.

Equally interesting is the material about those—like Drahomir Kolder—who helped to dethrone Novotny in January but thought they could use the Soviet occupants merely to slow down the pace of reform. The men who were subsequently denounced on all the walls of Prague as traitors and who had met in the Hotel Praha on August 22 numbered no fewer than a third of the Central Committee. They passed resolutions which endorsed the Action Program of the spring and rejected any return to “pre-January” conditions. The Action Program promised on behalf of the Party institutional guarantees of press and personal liberties, the fundamentals of the economic reform, and rights for minority groups within the Party. Oldrich Svestka, one of those who tried to publish a statement welcoming the invasion, produced a “parallel” edition of Rudé Pravo which made the same promises while attacking “anti-socialist forces”: exactly the line which the official Rudé Pravo of the Husak era takes today.

The Black Book is a register of unforgettable things—the street scenes, the Soviet citations for “gallantry” in “capturing” the Academy itself, the eloquence and prophetic gift of the legal underground press, the fat and suspect General Lomsky (interviewed shaving in the besieged Assembly) who became a hero in the hour of trial—but nothing is more revealing than its evidence on the genuine variety of opinion in the Party itself.

When the blow fell, Joseph Wechsberg did the wisest thing which a good journalist caught in Vienna could do: he went to his radio and stayed there with a pencil for a week. Czech-speaking, he has preserved something of those “Voices” of the legal underground radio for history. It is all here: the first hours, with the sound of gunfire at Czechoslovak Radio in Prague, the silence, the first broadcasts from hidden studios, and then the torrent of resistance with stations cutting in and out, warning each other of approaching raiders, creating a new nation out of the ruins by their own courage and moral leadership. Mr. Wechsberg has recorded the news, the poetry, the jokes, the interviews with shocked citizens or tearful Russian tourists, the code messages, even the moment when in Brno the girl announcer forgot she was on the air and flirted with a man who said that she was young and pretty—too young to remember 1939….

Wechsberg ends with the return of the delegation from Moscow, with the exhausted Smrkovsky, “barely audible, unable to keep his voice under control, as he said that he was ‘bowing deeply to the people of this country….”’ Mr. Wechsberg adds an account of the refugee Czechs in Vienna, a part of the whole story which has not been told before, and descriptions given to him later of how the radio resistance operated technically. He fills in his “Voices” with slices of political narrative, not always quite accurate, and can’t resist the untrue gibe that “the New Left in Europe accepted the occupation without a protest…approved of the occupation.”

Mr. Wechsberg says, rightly, that “the big question whether Czechoslovakia should have resisted will dominate people’s thoughts for months, years, decades to come.” Ladislav Mnacko almost, but not quite, says that Czechoslovakia should have fought. He answers the question obliquely by going back to Munich, and bringing up the old charge that it was not only her allies which betrayed Czechoslovakia then, but the nation’s leaders themselves. “We, too, failed at the decisive moment; we too betrayed our own cause.” For this he blames Gottwald and the Communist leadership more than Benes, for preparing to take the Party into clandestinity when “from him alone, the whole nation expected the decisive, liberating, fateful word: Fight!” From then on, Mnacko persuasively argues, the Party leadership—with the exception of the Slovak Communists who fought in 1944—expressed its guilt at the surrender and the slightness of resistance in the Czech lands by self-abasement before the Soviet liberator during and after the war.

This is a wild, enraged book whose judgments are more emotional than rational, and Mnacko’s mood in writing it seems to have been one of belligerent self-exculpation. Staring into the dark Danube, after seeing the first Soviet tanks in Bratislava, he exclaims: “It serves us right!” He blames Gottwald for the Party’s docility, but conveys somehow that he is really blaming the whole nation and himself as well. Mnacko in 1948 was a young Communist journalist petted and spoiled by the Party leaders for the sake of his vivid polemic gift, given a lift in the shiny black official Tatras when the big men drove out to exercise their power. As the terror developed, he enjoyed an ultimately humiliating “Narrenfreiheit,” allowed in petty things to bait and defy those who had the keys of life and death. In 1950 he wrote exultantly about the death sentence passed on a Slovak miller, framed on racketeering charges, although he knew that the man was a scapegoat for the Party’s failures. Gradually, though, the stink of fear exuded by the Slansky trials infected him. He drank heavily, then realized that his only defense lay in making himself feared too. Mnacko began to use his immunity to fight for the victims; he published Overdue Stories, chronicles of the moral devastation of Stalinism, and “became a garbage can for our shame and sorrow.” At length, and somewhat boastfully, he presents his record of defiance to the authorities, aid rendered to hundreds of helpless men and women baselessly accused, repartee flung in the face of the Slovak leaders, police spies beaten up. By the early Sixties, Mnacko’s books and journalism had become a major force of opposition in Slovakia and beyond, yet he remained, inexplicably, untouched. “I was an awkward customer,” he says, “brash, a journalist to be feared.” And “in any abnormal society…the best weapon and the best defense is—political scandal.”

Mnacko has given his book a sharply dramatic form: the seven days of present reality as he moves about occupied Bratislava; the seven nights in which he lies awake or drinks with acquaintances, and broods on recent history. Prague’s Two Hundred Days and Prague Spring are sober narratives of what took place with intermittent excursions into historical analysis. They are both sound and both useful, and yet the difference between them is instructive. Mr. Schwartz is the New York Times specialist on Communist affairs, an American journalist who spent a fair part of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Dr. Zeman spent the first twenty years of his life in Czechoslovakia, and now teaches modern history at the University of St. Andrews. He returned to Prague last year for the first time since 1948. Both men have written books, Mr. Schwartz principally about Soviet affairs and Dr. Zeman about the modern history of Central Europe.

Harry Schwartz, a Kremlinologist, is at his best when he deals with Communist bureaucracies. He sorts through the successive Moscow pronouncements as the Czechoslovak experiment developed, and he is sharp to identify the moments at which the jargon held real menace, for those who could interpret it, and the moments at which it was hollow. He shows how the Communist Party of Slovakia began to exert its pressure on the Prague leadership as early as 1962, and how Novotny then abandoned the policy of stonewalling and came increasingly to seek a precarious and opportunistic balance between reform and reaction, under fire from both wings.

Mr. Schwartz offers a very full inside account of the Central Committee meetings from November 1967 to January 1968, demonstrating once again the heterogeneity of the coalition which brought Novotny down without agreement on how far the subsequent reforms should go. Drahomir Kolder proposed for first secretary the ambiguous Lubomir Strougal, now head of the Party secretariat for the Czech lands and regarded as an ambitious hard-liner who may willingly use Soviet endorsement to replace Dr. Husak one day. Strougal turned it down, but proposed instead Oldrich Cernik, a cautious but faithful man of the Reform who stood by Dubcek through the months ahead and the ordeal of August. In the end, if Mr. Schwartz is right, it was Novotny himself who nominated Alexander Dubcek.

The months that followed showed how very different were the views represented in this coalition, and how inevitable was the resultant conflict…” Mr. Schwartz emphasizes the fatally rapid run of events in early May: the May Day parade at which Israeli flags were seen, the anti-Polish demonstration that evening, the anti-Communist rally in the Town Square on the 3rd, and the departure of Dubcek, Cernik, and Vasil Bilak to Moscow that night. There Dubcek was to accept the Soviet demand for maneuvers on Czechoslovak territory; maneuvers whose extent he tried to conceal from the nation for many weeks. This silence was the first experimental wedge driven by the Russians between the leadership and the people.

But Mr. Schwartz remains consistently on the surface formed by political events. To him, the whole episode is simply the attempt of Czechoslovakia, led by politicians and intellectuals, to regain democracy and national independence. He has nothing to say about the interrelations of the New Economic Model and the political sections of the Action Program, about the way in which the underlying development of a modern society in Czechoslovakia, the irresistible need for new methods of management and for the unfettered use of the talents of new groups of highly trained but frustrated people, acted as a tide on which the writers, the students, and the progressive Communists were powerfully carried forward in their attack upon the outworn, centralized bureaucracy. It is true that Professor Sik’s Plan and Market Under Socialism carefully restricts itself to the economy, but these relationships were spelled out repeatedly by, for instance, Leszek Kolakowski in the early Sixties. Nor, although Mr. Schwartz reports events up to the end of the year, does he see the significance of the workers’ council movement and the factory-university alliance which reached its peak in November and December. He mentions them as facets of general resistance, not as the new dimension of the reform which they represented.

The importance of the workers’ council movement, though, and of the remarkable factory-university alliance which began about August and is only now fading away, is not only that the Czechoslovak reform continued to develop even under the military occupation. It is that the reform took a direction which neither the Soviet leaders nor most progressives in Czechoslovakia had foreseen. They had expected that, if left unimpeded, a conventionally plural political system would have developed parties competing against a single Communist party. They had expected that while a new and meritocratic economic system was beginning to produce the goods the consumer wanted, Czechoslovakia would remain socialist in the sense of state ownership of the means of production and of national allegiance to Comecon and the Warsaw Pact. The working class had remained suspicious of the reforms in the early part of the year, fearing that while the intellectuals won the right to publish what belles-lettres they pleased, the employee would only harvest insecurity as factories were closed and wages juggled in the name of technocratic efficiency. Gradually, as free elections renewed the whole trades union structure, the workers came to see that they could control and benefit from the economic reforms if they acted as an independent political power themselves through the system of workers’ councils offered to them (slightly as an afterthought) in the Action Program, and through the openly political activity of the Revolutionary Trades Unions.

By December, this new force was behaving almost as a political party, combining wage demands with open support for the democratic ideas personified by men like Josef Smrkovsky. Through the lively cooperation between factory and university, the workers at last swung behind the basically liberal changes in politics and the economy, while a part of the intelligentsia proclaimed that the truly socialist nature of the reform lay in this factory-floor emancipation of the worker rather than in conventional state ownership or pact allegiances. If this development could have gone on, the path toward a working-class Communist Party of a genuine kind might gradually have opened.

Dr. Zeman, though his book is shorter and less comprehensive, is more of a sociologist. Early on in Prague Spring, he points to “the survival of the professional, technical, and artistic intelligentsia” after 1948. This group—his old friends and their children among them—had mostly adapted to the new regime and preserved their personal standards of efficiency and probity: it was their influence which largely determined the liberal and meritocratic form which democratization assumed in early 1968. Dr. Zeman describes the way in which Novotny and his hopelessly overloaded bureaucracy divided and kept dumb the “workers, peasants and intellectuals” whose state it was supposed to be, until Novotny could say in 1956 that “the workers in justice and security” were now “the main instruments of the class struggle” (surely the most appalling give-away a Stalinist ever let fall). After 1948 the ranks of the Party, once some sort of élite, were bloated, diluted, and terrorized until the distinction between Communist and non-Communist melted away: neither knew what was going on, and both were equally powerless. “Only the manipulators, the ‘technicians of power,’ and the masses remained. Each group regarded the other with a blank, anonymous face.”

By scrutinizing the “revolt of the intellectuals” with a large lens, Dr. Zeman has made a more interesting selection of texts than Mr. Schwartz. The ideologists who formed the link between Party and intellectuals, the conservative Auersperg and the cautious reformer Mlynar, were never at ease; as the novelist Ludvik Vaculik wrote at the time, they regarded their charges as “mad chaps who mess around with politics without knowing the rules, thus helping the dogmatists in the Party and jeopardizing the work of the progressive Communists.” As so often, those who besought others not to rock the boat ended up by pulling the cork out: Mlynar was one of the first after the invasion to call for repression of “anti-socialist forces,” while Auersperg helped Svestka and the others to draft their address of welcome to the occupants.

Discussing history, Dr. Zeman takes a slightly pro-Habsburg line. He pays little attention to the long Russophilia of Czech and Slovak nationalists (Mnacko is much stronger here), and suggests that the First Republic’s foundation on a wave of anti-German feeling, at a unique moment when both Russia and the German lands were powerless, led Masaryk to exaggerate Czechoslovakia’s attachment to the West and overlook the realities of the new state’s position in Central Europe.

In Two Thousand Words, the manifesto of June 1968, there is a passage which Dr. Zeman quotes but Mr. Schwartz does not. “Let us not overestimate the importance of criticism by the writers and the students,” Ludvik Vaculik wrote. “The economy is the source of social change…the practical quality of our future democracy depends on what happens to the factories and in the factories.”

When he wrote that, Vaculik seemed still to see “the economy” not only as the source of change but as a necessary cook preparing the victuals for democracy seated in the dining room. Today, Czechoslovakia has been “normalized” on the political surface; subjectively, people are turning passive again. But economic crisis persists, demanding its “New Model.” The economy is still “the source of social change,” but Vaculik’s remark that “democracy depends on what happens to the factories and in the factories” has acquired a new content since the workers came, so late but with such spontaneity, to create their own reform and make the economy not just the source but the site of democracy. Czechoslovak society grows like a shifting volcanic island emerging from the sea. No restorative political structure which does not fit its rising contours can escape distortion, and then ruin.

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