Czechoslovakia’s Imprisoned Conscience

Contrary to appearances, Prague Spring, the fleeting period of democratic reform in Czechoslovakia, did not emerge from nowhere. It was as if several different streams combined to break the dam of bureaucratic rule. Some of them were barely visible, while others were subterranean, ignored by the press, unseen by the public, and isolated from the others slowly moving in the same general direction.

Such was the case of the Prague student movement, which exploded during the winter of 1968-1969 and dealt one of the final blows to the ossified regime of Antonin Novotný. Yet it had been germinating for several years before then.

During those middle years of the Sixties, the student movement was hardly more than a small cluster of people irritating the authorities, particularly by constantly questioning the practices of the Czechoslovak Youth Union, the official organization for young people, the only one permitted, which served as the bureaucracy’s special weapon for keeping young people—especially students—quiet.

Coming to school, a student had two worlds to choose from. On the one hand, the world of the bureaucracy, represented by the officers of the Youth Union. This world had certain attractions: the hollow satisfaction of consorting with slightly more powerful people, better chances to travel abroad, and, for a few, the possibility of preferment in certain jobs later on. But it was a world full of officious bustle, steeped in compulsive pretending. “Thanks to the Government and the Party, we’re day after day increasingly happy.” An officer of the Youth Union was expected to pronounce slogans as inane as this with a straight face.

To choose this public world, and what passed for politics in it, was not exactly selling out, for there was little to sell. It was a fact of this cynical life that some people wanted to get ahead badly enough to shed a scruple or two. That was their affair. It would have been different if they could really do harm to others, but even if they rose in the hierarchy of the Youth Union they were seldom able to do this. They were ignored or ridiculed by their fellow students who viewed them as harmless.

The other choice was to carve out a strictly private world, limited to a few friends. One could spend one’s energy in collecting stamps or reading novels but also—and this was crucial—avoid the pervasive hypocrisy of the regime. The private world was in many ways restricted but it was, at least, decent.

There was no point in challenging the established order. Why bother? Whoever tried got burned just enough to dissuade others. People would be sympathetic but would not speak out in another’s defense. The price of maintaining one’s private but decent world was to ignore the larger, public but hypocritical one.

But the political situation changed perceptibly in 1963. Slight ripples of de-Stalinization finally reached Czechoslovakia, causing a stir here and there, including in the universities. Alone or in tiny …

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