Few people have the sickening privilege of assisting at their own exhumation. But this privilege has been granted to the Czech and Slovak political exiles who left their country after August, 1968. The historical pathologists of Western universities and newspapers poke about in the great mud moraine in which the Czechoslovak experiment in socialist humanism lies buried. Here emerge the stumps of half-completed structures, hastily dug foundations whose purpose and origin today provide matter for invigorating controversies. There lie the contorted shapes of personalities and their utterances, caught in strange and often contradictory attitudes.

Many of these personalities stand along the edge of the excavation, giving advice: turn over this clod and find me saying something different; that shapeless lump which you have thrown aside is a night meeting which seemed at the time to be decisive, with all of us in our shirt-sleeves and several of us weeping. Their recollections and interpretations are respected. But, at the same time, they cannot control and sometimes cannot entirely recognize the preliminary judgments which “history” is beginning to pass.

How important, for example, was the military intervention? As an episode that will mark the consciousness of those who lived through the last week of August for the rest of their lives, its importance cannot be exaggerated. But, after a colder look at the evidence, one feels justified in raising the question of its political importance. Military invasion was only the penultimate deterrent; the final sanction was that the foreign forces now on the streets should install a regime of direct military-police terror and transport every dissident in the land into labor camps. The tanks and the troops, though they occupied public buildings and private offices, did not do this. They stood in Prague and Bratislava as a monstrous warning: if our demands are not fulfilled, then we shall carry out the ultimate measures.

Seen in this way, the actual move across the frontiers has less political importance. It was a theatrical heightening of the threat which was already posed by the massing of the armies around the frontiers. Similarly, the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s course of trying to stave off the threat by political concessions actually began before August 21 (witness the Presidium’s secret decision in late July at Cierna And Tisou to impose controls on the press, after Brezhnev had threatened to use force), so that the “Moscow Compromise” after the invasion |did not itself initiate the process of the surrender of liberties in exchange for dishonored promises to withdraw the troops, a process which in effect still goes on.

Other questions of this order, and much more disconcerting ones, are raised by Mr. Shawcross in his biography of Dubcek. Mr. Shawcross, a young British journalist, has produced a useful and well-written book which contains—and the author did most of the research in the difficult conditions of 1969—much information about Dubcek’s years in Slovakia which will be new to an English reader. It is a book about factual matters rather than about the social and intellectual aspects of the reform, and it is Shawcross’s interest in practicality and tactics, along with his refusal to accept uncritically the activity of the intellectuals during 1968, that leads him to his questions. In the first place, he believes that the “Prague Spring” was a failure, and that it could not have been otherwise, given the way it developed. The condition for its success could only be to win Soviet tolerance, and it did not.

Surely the Soviet Union was right. By its own standards, there was a danger of counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia in summer 1968. How it would have ended is unclear….

Secondly, he believes that the intellectuals—in particular the journalists—must bear their considerable share of responsibility for what happened in August. The behavior of the newspapers, radio, and television after the collapse of the censorship undermined Dubcek’s position. The campaign to expose the show trials of the Fifties and those who helped to stage them contrived to weaken—unintentionally—embryonic public confidence that a Communist Party that had allowed such things to happen could nonetheless be trusted again. So far as the Russians were concerned, press outbursts culminating in the “Two Thousand Words” in June confirmed their view that counterrevolution was rampant in Czechoslovakia.

This view is not a popular one. But at least two of these books confirm that Mr. Shawcross is not alone in holding it. An old friend tells the playwright Pavel Kohout, while under the first shock of the invasion: “If it hadn’t been for you, this would never have happened.” Even the philosopher Ivan Sviták, writing in April, 1968, warns against writers who combine to “compromise individual persons” and “create the illusion that writers can change presidents” (an allusion to the public campaign against Novotný).


There is something in these doubts. The press, aware of the mass of vengeful conservatives still in the Central Committee, was instantly suspicious of appeals for self-control; Smrkovský and even Dubcek were criticized for asking journalists to restrain themselves. The free press played a large role in Soviet assessments, and it was significant that, at the Moscow and Cierna meetings, Brezhnev came armed with files of (inaccurate) quotations from the Czech and Slovak press.

This is however a view that must be qualified. In the first place, it was less the content of articles and broadcasts that helped to persuade the Russians that the leading role of the Party was in danger than the relatively rare instances when journalists openly defied the appeals of their leaders to go easy. In general, there was remarkable self-restraint, and radio commentaries, for instance, were always carefully edited to remove things which “it is better not to say openly at present.” Much exposure journalism was done at the instigation of radicals in the Party leadership, who used press freedom for immediate political aims but were not necessarily in favor of a total absence of censorship for all time.

Secondly, forces were at play which make retrospective criticism of tactics seem a little irrelevant. The censorship dissolved as Czech journalists began to teach the people how to speak again. It is vain to say that this was unwise; this is what had to be done. But there was released a growing torrent of pent-up public frustration, whose strength and unanimity of direction perhaps nobody quite foresaw. The press did not manufacture this, and when it began to flow, the journalists tried to guide it into sensible channels rather than to pander to it. At least as much blame must attach to the political leadership, which failed to take the only possible course of restraint: to say squarely to journalists that the country was in peril of military attack. But then many of the leaders, Dubcek included, could not admit even to themselves that the situation was so grave.

The failings of leadership lead to Shawcross’s other question, to which his Dubcek does not really offer an answer. Did the Prague Spring have a chance on its own internal terms, if one puts aside the Soviet reaction? The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia undertook its experiment in socialist democracy with an enormous mortgage to the past in the form of public mistrust and its own autocratic and manipulative traditions. Could the Party, even led by “revisionists,” be trusted to create a more pluralist political system, to maintain freedom of expression, and to tolerate genuine parliamentary and perhaps electoral competition? This is the question that runs through the collection of lectures and articles by Ivan Sviták, which were composed in 1968 and 1969.

Sviták calls himself a Marxist but not a communist; between the Liberation and 1948 he was a left-wing Social Democrat. In 1968, he was one of the founders of “KAN,” the club of “engaged non-party people,” which acted as a pressure group for a pluralist parliamentary system. These pieces do not offer any coherent program; they are eloquent, emotional, and often contradictory responses to events (though Sviták omits the oddest of his advocacies, his support for the sinister figure of Rudolf Barák, once Minister of the Interior under Novotný).

But there are also very consistent elements. Sviták combines extremes of utopian aspiration with black pessimism. “Sovereignty of the people now! Let’s be realistic! Let’s want the impossible!” he writes just before the invasion. The Paris May and the Czechoslovak Spring seem to him proofs that a prerevolutionary situation exists throughout Europe which will eventually overcome “the current wave of conservatism and technocratism” in the superpowers. At the same time, he displays from the beginning a disbelief in the ability of the Party to democratize the nation. Even the Dubcek leadership is a “power elite,” and the Party’s influence remains, in the spring, still unlimited. After the invasion, Sviták’s suspicion intensifies. He proclaims the final failure of the Party, and even of the Czech experiment in communist revisionism which can never work because it neglects the power game of the superstates.

With hesitation and then with gathering conviction, he argues that Czechoslovakia should have fought the invaders: the policy of concessions was a “masterful fraud against human trust….”

In Sviták’s opinions one can trace—though he does not analyze it—the way in which the Czechoslovak experiment progressed from quantitative toward qualitative change, from reform toward revolution. At first he calls on the intellectuals to put pressure on the new leadership, then for an alliance of workers and intellectuals, and finally he proclaims that only the working class can liberate itself. In Czechoslovakia during 1968, a reform movement whose impetus came from intellectuals and the professional class gradually provoked into existence a genuine political movement of the working class itself, expressed through the workers’ councils and the independent agitation of the trades unions.


This is the fundamental movement in this episode, which neither Michel Salomon nor the anonymous Czech journalist “M” nor, in fact, William Shawcross adequately recognizes. M. Salomon’s book—he was a reporter for L’Express—is a lively and hasty summary of his own interviews and notes. It is informative, but weak on analysis (and a Freudian printer’s slip blames Jirí Hendrych, Novotný’s chief ideologist, for exterminating the Czech intelligentsia during the war. Heydrich is meant, and this is not the only garbled name: “Hausberg” for Auersperg and “Schneidarek” for Snejdarek are other examples).

M’s A Year Is Eight Months is a careful and restrained account of what took place during 1968, but suffers from having been written in 1968, too close to the events it describes—which were actually then still taking place—to make any very original or profound points.

A very much more ambitious and complete account is provided by Tad Szulc, who was New York Times correspondent in Prague until his expulsion in December, 1968. This is a long, full, factual book, which attempts to put the history of Czechoslovakia since 1945 into relevance with the tensions that developed elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It can serve as a good general account of relations between Moscow and other ruling Communist parties, especially in the first dozen years. His detailed account of the Slánský trials in Czechoslovakia, and his use of the records of earlier purges in neighboring countries to show the significance of the triple attack on “Titoists,” “Trotskyites,” and Spanish war veterans, is impressive.

In his eyewitness account of the days following the invasion, Mr. Szulc displays his own perilous speciality of knowing more than other journalists about military dispositions and intelligence intrigues (an expertise implicitly saluted by the decision to throw him out of Czechoslovakia). However, he is not a man for speculation, and his political approach is blunt (“Sik’s reform had limitations. The Czechoslovaks could not, at this juncture, consider a return to private enterprise….”) And it is surprising, in a book of this length and scope, to find almost no reference at all to Western policy toward Eastern Europe and no account of the part the German question and the West German attitudes in particular played in Czech and Soviet calculations.

Journal d’un contre-révolutionnaire, though completed in 1969, does not suffer from lack of perspective. It is a work of literature, perhaps the most brilliant and accomplished to come from Czechoslovakia since the intervention, and at the same time a triumph of clever political journalism. Pavel Kohout took part in the Prague rising of 1945 as a boy, helped to seize the Social Democrat headquarters for the Communists in February, 1948, wrote adulatory poems to President Gottwald which were spooned down the throats of Czech schoolchildren in the years of Stalinism. Wives and mistresses succeeded one another with seasonal rapidity. Kohout became a playwright, and in the course of time a critic of his party’s leadership. At the historic writers’ union congress in 1967, he was among the most defiant. In 1968, I saw him on platforms in his black leather jacket, carrying with him frantically cheering audiences as he attacked the tyrants and judicial murderers still in office.

Kohout’s problem, evidently, is that of self-recognition. The Prague press recently published the most acutely embarrassing of his Stalinist poems, with the intention of discrediting his public image as a freedom fighter, and the Kohout case was one of many which preoccupied non-Party Czechs in 1968. There were those who felt that it was characteristic of the period that men should be allowed to change their minds, and there were others—more—who remained suspicious of the converted and, like Sviták, were inclined to transfer that suspicion to the Party itself.

Kohout’s book is not a self-justification, but an attempt to get the contradictions in his own life into some sort of coherent relationship. The Journal is made up of three separate narratives, printed with rather obvious symbolism in three different typefaces, which advance in a sort of triple formation by installments. There is a journal which starts on August 21, which finds Kohout on holiday in Italy at a crisis in his relationship with the young girl Z. The second element is a refurbished journal covering the years between 1945 and late 1967, beginning with the Prague rising against the Germans and ending with a comic and memorable dramatization of the writers’ congress on the eve of the reform. The third journal describes his own activities and reactions from January, 1968, until the last weeks before the invasion.

The three narratives are tightly pulled together by the presence of friends who appear in all of them in their own equally extraordinary transformations: P., who steals Kohout’s first love in 1945 and becomes a Party bureaucrat in the writers’ union; Slavek, who flees to the West, returns and is imprisoned, becomes a spy, and ends up as one of the nation’s spokesmen over the “legal” radio during the week after the invasion; the girl A., loved by Kohout and his friend in 1945 who later marries one of the most hated mechanics of the judicial persecutions. I know of no other book, apart from the novels of Kundera and Vaculík, that brings the foreigner closer to the personal realities of Czechoslovakia.

Monstrous events and shattering discontinuities took place in a society which had preserved high and unforgiving moral standards. The Slánský affair and the deeply ramifying complex of ancillary trials and judicial acts of terror in the Fifties which surrounded it remain for the Czech and Slovak peoples the great violation which cannot be forgiven. The personal accounts of Artur London and Eugen Loebl, survivors of the Slánský trial, have already become parts of the European consciousness.

The Slánský trial, which opened in Prague on November 20, 1952, after three years of preparation by Soviet and Czechoslovak interrogators (“producers” might be a better word), charged Rudolf Slánský, the previous secretary-general of the Party, and thirteen other prominent Communists with membership in “an anti-State conspiratorial center,” as “Trotskyite, Titoist, Zionist and bourgeois nationalist traitors…under the direction of Western espionage agencies.” Three, including London and Loebl, got off with life sentences. The rest were hanged on their own totally fictitious confessions, and their ashes scattered from a sack along an icy road near Prague.

But the Slánský trial was only the centerpiece of an enormous and rambling mausoleum of terror, the dome of Stalin’s monumental determination to show that patriotism and independence of mind were crimes aganst “proletarian internationalism.” Beneath the “anti-State center” trial lay the “Slovak bourgeois nationalists’ trial,” the trial of the diplomats, the trial of the “anti-State group in Security,” and many more, and below that level in turn came the arrests of tens of thousands of lesser Czechs and Slovaks and hundreds of thousands of dismissals.

In a nation sentimentally committed to the motto of Jan Hus that “truth shall prevail,” all these billions of words of testimony were false and long before 1968 were known to be false.

Both the book by London and the one by Loebl are terrifying London’s, known to millions who have not read it through Costa Gavras’s film The Confession, is the more detailed and reflective, being based on notes written covertly in prison and preserved. No moral or physical cruelty was spared these faithful Communists, battered down by their interrogators until their hearts broke and they confessed that they had betrayed men they had saved, worked for forces they had fought, smeared by their Jewishness the Party that had seemed the only irreconcilable foe of Fascist anti-Semitism.

London, whose memory, intelligence, and literary ability make him the best of the living witnesses, takes the trouble to reconstruct the truth of the episodes—the Spanish civil war, the work with the French Resistance—out of which the fictions of his indictment were constructed. That is as well. Last year, as the Husák regime struggled to reduce the impact of the Gavras film, certain papers in Prague and Brno actually went to the files of the Slánský trial and republished some of the most repulsive allegations against London as if they were accepted fact.

Loebl’s book, first published in Slovak in 1968, is very much shorter and more compressed in its personal narrative, but about half of it consists of an edited transcript of the Slánský trial itself. This must be read to be believed. Coached and drilled, the broken defendants recited the lists of their imaginary crimes: the contacts with Anglo-American spies, the systematic sabotage of factories and foreign trade, the work for the Gestapo, the secret plotting with Zionist agents. At times, the “confessions” become so recklessly grotesque that they would be comic if they had not been believed by thousands of disoriented Party members, if they had not led to those ashes slung on the frozen road: one man describes how Noel Coward was the head of British Intelligence and recruited him, another how the police sergeant in a Devonshire holiday village was the master of a foreign spy ring. On his own experiences and conclusions, Loebl is effectively laconic. He is not prepared to forgive himself for the fact that, under insupportable physical torment, he broke down. Once he had “confessed,” he was better treated and felt quite tranquil. “I was a completely normal person, apart from the fact that I had ceased to be human.”

Apart from such primary sources, there is only one full account and analysis of the trials of the Fifties which is based on the Party archives themselves. This is the Piller Report, published here as The Czechoslovak Political Trials with an impassioned Foreword and Postscript by Jirí Pelikán. The Piller Commission on the trials was set up in April, 1968, charged to produce a report for the Fourteenth Party Congress which should have met in September (Jan Piller himself, the chairman, was one of the less reliable brethren in the Presidium under Dubcek). The invasion prevented publication, but this document has emerged through clandestine channels. Since it appeared in the West, the Czechoslovak press has argued desperately that it is a falsification, in the sense that this text is only a draft version drawn up by the reforming wing of the Commission.

There may be something in this. Although it makes no sense to call this version “false,” it seems likely that such a text would have undergone a good deal of revision before publication. It is of a boldness and—particularly where the Soviet part in the crime is concerned—a candor which would surely have frightened even the most radical Party leadership in the tense international situation of late 1968. The report would be remarkable if only for the fact that it contains the text of internal messages from the Soviet Communist Party to the Czechoslovak leaders of the Fifties. The Commission finds that Gottwald agreed to the principle of the trials under pressure from Hungary and Poland, the Czechs being characteristically plagued by fear of appearing “weak.” To a curious extent, the Soviet team of “advisers” who supervised the preparations seems to have run ahead of Stalin himself, who was at first uneasy—as messages to Gottwald reveal—about the idea of including Slánský among the defendants.

Much of the report is devoted to describing the aftermath of the trials. The “Barák Commission” of 1955 was intended “to salve the conscience of the Politburo by putting a political full-stop to the affair.” But the arrest and confessions of the interrogator Doubek in July made it impossible to ignore the part played by Slánský. He was accordingly cast as the “Beria” of the affair, until the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow made covering up the wider political responsibility for “distortions” impossible. Novotný and Barák then tried to suppress the problem, until Barák was arrested in 1962 for plotting against his master. There followed the Kolder Commission of that year, which included Alexander Dubcek among its members, and which suggested cautiously that, although some of the indictments might have foundation, there was much that the Party leadership of the time should answer for. It was only now that survivors began to be released and, in some cases, rehabilitated.

The report says that Klement Gottwald “bears full and major responsibility” for the trials, and makes an almost tender attempt to understand the tragedy of Gottwald’s mysterious personality. Its conclusions are that the machinery which made personal power possible must be dismantled, that law must rule, even over the Party’s leading role, that there must be a separation of power between Party and State, that those who rule must be selected for their moral qualities and personal independence as well as for their “devotion to socialism.”

This makes sad reading now. The Czechs and Slovaks have again retreated into silence; the Party leadership remains in obscure, perpetual crisis; lies as bizarre as a misprint of Hendrych for Heydrich twirl in the vacuum (“London was in the Gestapo…. Hajek is a Jew called Karpeles in disguise…. the writer Laub can’t speak Czech….”) These lies are not believed. But how long will it take a nation exhausted by its experiences to learn to believe anything again?

This Issue

September 2, 1971