Alexander Dubcek was a most unlikely hero. Modest, sincere, and cautious to the point of indecision, he rose in 1968 from obscurity to become the leading figure in the prague Spring, a reform movement that breathed new hope into the lives of Czechs and Slovaks, inspired the Western new left, challenged the authority of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe, and anticipated elements of the final collapse twenty years later. His was the “human face” that people identified with the Prague Spring and its violent demise when the Soviet troops invaded that same August. Yet there were questions. How could a man whose life had been lived within the Communist world have challenged that system at its roots? Was Dubcek merely a symbol, a figurehead of reform? Or was he a true leader, who put his distinctive stamp on the course of events?

In Hope Dies Last, Dubcek tells a story that illustrates a quality in him not immediately discernible in earlier accounts of his life, yet one that helps to explain the apparent contradictions between the nature of the man and his rise to power. In early 1966, when Dubcek, then leader of the Slovak Party, was locked in a battle for survival with President and First Secretary Antonín Novotný, he took a brief holiday in the High Tatra mountains, an Alpine range that just majestically out of the undulating farmland of northern Slovakia. For two days Dubcek and a party of foresters hunted a bear that had been killing sheep on both sides of the Slovak-Polish border, but they had no luck and the hunting party dispersed. Dubcek, however, felt the bear was still lurking about, and had a premonition. “If I get the bear,” he told a departing associate, “it means Novotný won’t get me.”

He persuaded one of the remaining foresters to go with him for another try, then sat outside most of the night in the freezing cold and the snow. Suddenly Dubcek saw a shadow move among the trees. It was the bear. He waited for a clear shot, fired, the bear roared and stumbled into the woods. The forester was terrified. They had no dogs, and were alone. What if the bear were only wounded? Dubcek insisted, and they set out to look for it, circling about on higher ground. Some way off in the bush, they found the animal, dead.1 A year and a half later Dubcek issued a carefully prepared challenge to Novotný’s leadership, and in January 1968 replaced him as first secretary.

Beneath the shyness and modesty, Dubcek was a man of great tenacity and courage. It took him a long time to realize that communism needed reforming, but once he reached that conclusion, he proceeded slowly, methodically, and patiently toward that goal, displaying tactical political skills that were sometimes not obvious during the Prague Spring.


Extracting political autobiographies from former Communist politicians can present formidable problems. The tight-lipped, regimented atmosphere inside the ruling party, the craven orthodoxy of most Party members, the hobbled press, the crippling fear that petrified public life—none of these was conducive to the calm, untrammeled reflection that leads to good political memoirs. The problem was compounded by the fact that most Communist functionaries spent a lifetime packaging such convictions as they may have possessed in the wrapping of ideological cliché, which does not bear reading.

Alexander Dubcek was no exception. He was an uninspired and uninspiring public speaker, and for most of his career, he hewed to the Party line in his public utterances. Even speaking as a private person, he was less than eloquent. The only extended account of his political career entirely in his own words, the transcript of a three-hour interview Dubcek gave to Hungarian Television in early 1989, is, despite its charm and poignancy, a rambling, incoherent, and almost unreadable document.2

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Jirí Hochman, who is listed on the title page as “editor and translator,” had a larger hand in the book than his billing suggests. Hochman, who has been living in the United States since 1974, was a correspondent for the leading Czech Communist daily, Rudé právo, and as a supporter of reform was jailed during the “normalization” process in the early Seventies. His original proposal—to write a critical biography of Dubcek—changed when an agent entered the picture and decided that an autobiography would make more sense. This idea dovetailed with Dubcek’s own intentions: in the spring of 1990, he had engaged his former secretary, Dr. Oldrich Jaroš, and Jaroš’s wife to help him prepare his memoirs.

Hochman wrote a “skeleton” of the book in English, and only then went to Dubcek with his tape recorder. He blended Dubcek’s narrative into his own, and the manuscript was translated into Czech. Dubcek went over the first twenty chapters, but in September of last year he was incapacitated by a car accident and died two months later. The final ten chapters, dealing with the period from the Soviet invasion to the present, were vetted by Dr. Jaroš and others. In a recent interview3 Dr. Jaroš says that in the last third of the book, Dubcek’s language is “more emotive” than in the chapters Dubcek himself authorized, although I confess I did not notice this in the English edition. He also says that Dubcek would certainly have added more thumbnail portraits of the people he had dealings with, and had more to say about the period after the Velvet Revolution, in particular about the unresolvable conflict between Czech and Slovak politicians that led to the country’s dissolution on January 1 of this year.


Historians and others interested in Dubcek’s authentic “voice” may wish to take such things as caveats, but the general reader can only be grateful for the trouble Hochman and his publishers have taken to make Hope Dies Last both readable and accurate. The book contains a wealth of insights into the mind and experience of an unfanatical true believer. There is, however, at least one aspect of the man that has been lost in this process. Hochman told me that in conversation Dubcek displayed a “Munich complex.” Like former Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš, who had ordered his army not to defend the country when Britain and France acceded to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland in 1938, Dubcek worried to the end of his life over the moment of his greatest defeat. “No matter where he would begin,” Hochman said, “five minutes later he would be back in Moscow, August 26, 1968, contemplating whether he should have signed [the agreement legitimizing the invasion] or not.” His concern to justify himself can be felt throughout the book, but the obsessiveness of it is missing.

Dubcek’s account, in this book, of the dramatic Moscow “negotiations” in August 1968, when the pro-Dubcek leadership was abducted to Moscow at gunpoint and forced to acquiesce in the invasion, is the most comprehensive we have in English from a direct participant. The only other detailed eyewitness account of those events, Nightfrost in Prague, by Zdenek Mlynár4 suggests that Dubcek was not an active participant in the “negotiations” and may have been drugged. This is not the impression Dubcek leaves us with. Depressed and exhausted he may have been, but he also had his wits about him and his courage intact. In response to a godfatherly diatribe by Leonid Brezhnev, Dubcek wearily rejects the Soviet justification of the invasion. “Think of me what you will,” he says,

I have worked for thirty years in the Party, and my whole family has devoted everything to the affairs of the Party, the affairs of socialism. Let whatever is going to happen to me happen. I’m expecting the worst for myself and I’m resigned to it….I would be acting wrongly, comrades, if I didn’t tell the truth…I believe that bringing in the troops was a terrible political mistake that will have tragic consequences. Because if the appraisal of the situation on your part is somehow unreal, then the methods and solutions to the problem will be incorrect and the results will not be those you believe you are achieving.

Without abandoning the decorum of Party rhetoric, he had managed to distill a lifetime of experience into a single unassuming rebuttal. None of this had the slightest effect on the Soviet leadership. He signed in the end, but only after he had been persuaded that refusal to do so would have been taken by the Czechs and Slovaks as a signal for a futile uprising. The moment haunted him for the rest of his life.


A great irony of the Prague Spring was that its leading proponent had impeccable Communist credentials. Dubcek was the only Communist leader in Czechoslovakia—and probably in all of Eastern Europe—whose life had been lived almost entirely within the Communist sphere. His parents had a long, pioneering association with the Socialist movement. As a young unemployed carpenter in trouble with the authorities in Budapest, Stefan Dubcek migrated to the United States, settled in Chicago, and joined the Slovak branch of Eugene Debs’s American Socialist Party. He became an American citizen in 1916; a year later, as America entered World War I, he was in prison for refusing Army service. After the war he went back to Chicago and married a young Slovak émigrée, who, Dubcek says, “brought [him] to the study of Marxism.” When the Socialist Party split after the war, the Dubceks joined one of the Communist parties that emerged, and went back to Slovakia in 1921, stirred by the revolution in Russia and by the prospects that had opened up for Slovakia as part of the new country of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, their second son, was born in November of the same year. He had missed being an American citizen by a matter of months.


When Alexander was three, the family moved to the Soviet Union under the auspices of a Party-sponsored cooperative aid program called Interhelpo. The idea was that skilled workers would settle permanently in the more backward areas of the new country and help to “build socialism” in the most literal way. They spent the first ten years in Pishpek, later called Frunze, a small city in Kirghizia near the Chinese border. Dubcek’s account, a mixture of personal memory and family legend, shows vividly the long hand of Moscow slowly reaching out to choke the life out of a well-intentioned idea. He had clear recollections of Stalin’s forced collectivization program, which began in 1929 and reached Soviet Central Asia a year later. They are reminiscent of a later holocaust.

I remember dreadful scenes at the Frunze railroad station. Some [of the uprooted farmers] died en route, and those who survived, including children, looked like living corpses. They were so hungry they ate fodder for pigs and poultry that was teeming with maggots. I can never forget the sight of a dead man with his belly blown out. I asked my mother what the man had died from, and she said, “From hunger.”

The young Dubcek was bewildered by these events, and they cast a dark shadow over an otherwise happy time in his life.

In 1933, the family moved to Gorky, where his father worked as a pattern maker in an automobile factory, and frequently acted as an interpreter for engineers from the Ford Motor Company who were helping them to set up their assembly lines. Dubcek remembers being inspired by good teachers, but also says he did not realize how strong a role indoctrination had played in his education. Meanwhile the grip of Stalinism was tightening. In 1935, his older brother, Julius, injured a neighborhood boy in a street fight and his mother fled with him back to Slovakia to avoid complications with the authorities. Dubcek and his father remained in Gorky another two years before going home.

Undeterred by his experience in the Soviet Union, Dubcek joined the illegal Czechoslovak Communist Party at the age of seventeen, and was involved in its clandestine activities during the Second World War, when Slovakia was a quasi-independent republic led by the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso.

Dubcek’s attitude toward Slovakia’s first foray into self-government is unequivocal. “This regime made Slovakia an accomplice of Nazi Germany,” he comments.

It declared war on the Allied powers and sent three divisions of the Slovak Army to help the Germans on the Eastern front. It launched totalitarian terror against its own people, destroyed the political and human rights its citizens had enjoyed in democratic Czechoslovakia, and sent almost 60,000 Slovak citizens of Jewish origin to certain death in Nazi extermination camps.

Dubcek was twice wounded as a guerrilla fighter during the Slovak uprising in 1944; his brother was killed, and his father spent most of the war in Mauthausen. In Dubcek’s mind—as in the minds of so many other Slovaks of his generation—the struggle against fascism was inseparable from the struggle to restore the Czechoslovak republic, to gain an equal place for Slovakia within that country, and to establish socialism. The force that bound these diverse intentions together in him was, paradoxically, loyalty to the Soviet Union, and to a belief that had its deepest roots in the example of his own family. It was a powerful force that survived the many violent reversals in Soviet policy, and it never completely came unraveled.


At this point in his life Dubcek most resembled a character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: Boxer, the loyal, hard-working horse whose personal slogans are: “I must work harder,” and “Comrade Napoleon is always right.” His rise through the ranks after the war, from local factory official to regional secretary of the Bratislava Party in 1958, was marked by just this tireless, unquestioning loyalty. He seems to have been popular among ordinary Slovaks, and claims not to have known of any instances of serious injustice in any of his jurisdictions. Like Boxer, he was aware of discrepancies between theory and practice, which in Slovakia became particularly blatant in the campaign against “bourgeois nationalism.”

The Stalinist purges of the years between 1949 and 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, were the lowest point in the Czechoslovak Party’s history. In the interests of the “class struggle,” tens of thousands of people—from large landowners and industrialists to small farmers and shopkeepers—were deprived of their positions or their property, arrested, tortured, tried on trumped-up charges, and sent to prison or to their death. Inevitably, the Party turned this mania for purification on itself. Most of the high-profile victims—like Rudolf Slánský and Vladimír Clementis—were leading Party members who were tried with great fanfare in tightly scripted show trials.

A less visible aspect of these purges was the way in which they were used by Czech Party leaders to get rid of their enemies in Slovakia, and to eliminate the greater independence Slovakia had gained from Prague after the war. For this purpose, the Stalinist crime of “bourgeois nationalism” (defined as “excessive consciousness of belonging to a given ethnic group and an undue emphasis on local government”),5 must have seemed the perfect tool. Thus, whereas the Czech victims of Stalinism were accused of espionage and other inventions that were often thinly disguised forms of anti-Semitism, most of the prominent Slovak victims—like Clementis, who was executed, or Dubcek’s later nemesis, Gustáv Husák, who spent many years in prison—were eliminated ostensibly for their roles in the Slovak National Uprising, or for pushing too hard for Slovak political interests.

At the time of these purges, as district Party secretary in Central Slovakia, Dubcek backed the campaign against “bourgeois nationalism.” His speeches (quoted by William Shawcross but not mentioned in his own book) express support for “the merciless fight against bourgeois nationalism and its standard-bearers, who were discovered and condemned as enemies of the Party and people,” and he believed that the campaign had “educated Slovaks in [the] spirit of Czechoslovak nationalism.”6

In Hope Dies Last, Dubcek glosses over his erstwhile orthodoxy, and indicates that he quietly resisted the spirit of the campaign while supporting it to the letter. He tells how, at the funeral of one of its victims in 1952, he ignored changes the censors had made in his text and delivered a eulogy that prompted a journalist to confide to his diary: “This man Dubcek is remarkable for his innocent honesty. He may well reach the top of the Party—but he is much more likely to find himself in prison. His ingenuousness is ridiculous, but astonishing and refreshing.”7

It did not take long after Stalin’s death in 1953 for some people in the Party to realize that the purges had gutted its membership, badly damaged the economy, and terrorized the population into dumb obedience, and that if the Party were ever to recover from this bloodletting, it would somehow have to come to terms with it. As a first step, the “errors in socialist justice” would have to be admitted.

Dubcek’s first encounter with the rude beginnings of the rehabilitation process came in Moscow, where he was sent in 1955 to the Higher Political School, a sort of postgraduate institution for rising Party functionaries. He spoke fluent Russian and had greater freedom to observe and discuss matters with his fellow students. It was here, he says, that he first began to question the absolute rightness of his beliefs.

At the time, survivors of the Gulag were trickling back into civilian life, and their stories were circulating through Moscow. Dubcek realized that there must have been millions more—all of them innocent—who did not come back. “It was a terrifying thing to learn,” he said. Yet he mentioned nothing of this to his Czechoslovak colleagues. “Since my very young years,” he explains, “I have been inclined to think things through before making a move or a judgment, and this was no exception. It took me time to digest this flood of depressing news and to separate men from ideas and the good from the bad.”

The thaw in the Soviet Union sanctioned by Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin was slow in coming to Czechoslovakia. In 1958, a commission had investigated the purges earlier in the decade, but its report remained secret. When Dubcek came home from Moscow that year, he said it was like coming from spring back into winter. He resumed his steady rise through the Party ranks, and entered the national scene in 1960, when he was appointed industrial secretary of the Czechoslovak Party. It was here that he first came into direct conflict with President Novotný, a notorious hard-liner with an appalling ignorance of Slovakia. Novotný had just introduced a new constitution that virtually eliminated separate Slovak political institutions. In general, Dubcek never provoked clashes over anything he considered a side issue or a lost cause, but as the atmosphere inside the Party loosened, he began to push Novotný on three related issues: greater economic assistance to Slovakia, the deterioration of Slovak politics as a consequence of the constitutional changes, and the rehabilitation of Slovak victims of the “bourgeois nationalist” purges.

Novotný saw Dubcek as a “weakling” surrounded by “spineless” secretaries8 and was determined to get rid of him. Dubcek responded with the instinct of any natural politican. He toured Slovakia, talking to local officials and forming a broad network of tactical alliances within the Party. He pushed hard to have big industries located in Slovakia. And he got himself appointed the second-ranking member of the Kolder Commission, headed by Drahomír Kolder, a group established by Novotný to re-examine the political crimes of the early Fifties. Dubcek calls this experience a watershed, and was shocked by the revelations.

I learned…that victims were subject to both physical and psychological torture, were deprived of sleep through continuous interrogation, of water, of decent food, of civilized medical treatment. They were kept in cold cells, forced to sleep on concrete floors (even in the winter), threatened with cruel measures against their wives and children if they refused to sign fabricated confessions. I also learned that the personal involvement of the top Czechoslovak leaders had reached almost savage proportions; top Party officials, including Novotný, had divided among themselves the property—down to pots and pans and bedsheets—of their former friends and colleagues whom they had sent to the gallows. The memory is sickening.

Dubcek, however, was not a sentimentalist. He realized that for economic and political changes to take place, the old guard would have to be dislodged. He also knew that if the public were informed about the leadership’s involvement in the Stalinist crimes, their positions would eventually become untenable. He therefore encouraged the press in Bratislava to write more openly about the issues of reform, while cautioning them to stay within limits. When Novotný objected to an article in the Slovak Pravda incriminating Novotný’s prime minister, Dubcek reminded him that it said no more than the truth, and added, “I think part of the problem is that the public is not informed about the Party’s effort to rectify its injustices. They see developments in the Soviet Union and think rehabilitation in Czechoslovakia is going too slowly.”

There was by now broad support inside the Party for change, and it was this support that made his policies tenable. Yet he did not arrive at his reform strategy as many others had, through abstract analysis, but rather by noticing what was going on around him and devising tactics to solve immediate problems. He had shown that patience and attentiveness to people’s real interests could work wonders. His conclusion was that if the Party was losing support, it was not so much that its principles were wrong or because it had departed from the authentic teachings of Marx and Lenin as because its behavior had alienated the public. Something, therefore, had to be done about the way the Party functioned in society. To survive, it had to seek and win the confidence and support of the people.

The reform program that gradually emerged within the Party in the early Sixties—later embodied in the “Action Program” of 1968—had several related aspects. The centrally controlled economy would be loosened so that individual enterprises could assume direct responsibility for their operation. Then the hierarchical structure of the Party and its decision-making processes would be altered to give more authority to people lower down and to allow workers more say in the selection of their supervisors. And—an important issue for Dubcek now—the political relationship between Czechs and Slovaks would have to be reformed as well.


It is not generally appreciated how inseparable the Slovak question was from Dubcek’s rise to power, and indeed, from the whole course of the Prague Spring. William Shawcross’s account of the Slovak side of the story is the fullest, but some Czech accounts of that time, like Zdenek Mlynár’s, virtually ignore it, and the Czech author Pavel Tigrid, who gives the question a good airing,9 claims that Dubcek did not begin to perceive the problem of Slovak relations with the Czechs until well into his career. It is true that Dubcek did not make an issue of Slovak grievances until he started going to Prague in 1960, but his awareness of the problem went back much further.

Dubcek was no Slovak nationalist, but he was a local patriot. He calls the original Czechoslovak constitution, which recognized only a single Czechoslovak nation and language, “an awkward fiction, insensitive toward the Slovaks.” A fresh start was made after the Second World War when Slovaks were promised a larger degree of autonomy, but when the Communists took over in 1948, and again in 1960 when the constitution was revised, those gains were eviscerated. The Slovak Communist Party was the only autonomous Slovak political institution of any importance left, and it must have attracted a variety of political followers who had more in common as Slovaks than they did as Communists, and who would seek compromise on issues of ideology in the interests of the higher cause. (To this day there are Slovaks who claim that, inside the Slovak Party, the reforms were used strategically to bring Slovak politicians to power in Prague.)

Dubcek mentions little of this in any detail, except to remark that Slovak political culture is different from the Czech. As an example, he cites the relatively greater freedom of the press in Slovakia in the early Sixties. For most of the period leading up to the Prague Spring, the Czech press remained frequently subservient to the Party, and Czech writers who could not appear in Prague frequently published their work in Bratislava. In late 1967, when the Party closed the official writers’ union weekly, Literární noviny, Slovak writers opened the pages of their union weekly, Kultúrny Zivot, to the Czechs, and its circulation soared to over 100,000 copies. The more relaxed political climate in Slovakia—which Dubcek had helped to create—was a major factor in hastening Novotný’s collapse, and when Dubcek took over in Prague, he brought his more open political style with him. One of his first acts was to relax press censorship (it was abolished several months later). But having freed the Czech press he found it far harder to keep within limits than he had the Slovak.

Ironically, when the Soviet invasion crushed the Prague Spring, the only aspect they left intact was the political reforms affecting relations between Slovakia and the Czech lands, perhaps because of the presence of Gustáv Husák as first secretary. In 1970, the country was declared a federation of two equal nations, each with its own legislative council and authority over its own local councils, and a bicameral federal assembly, with equal Slovak representation in one of the houses, the Assembly of Nations. In the absence of political democracy, these changes were meaningless, and seen as important only by ambitious Slovak Communists who were tired of having to consult with Prague on every major political decision.

Yet a virus had been implanted that two decades later proved fatal for the republic. By keeping the constitution of 1970 after the Velvet Revolution, and maintaining the reform Communist political structure, right down to the voting procedure in Parliament, Czechoslovakia hobbled itself with a set of ill-conceived arrangements that, among other things, gave a minority of Slovaks in the Federal Assembly the power to block major constitutional amendments. The ensuing frustration was an important factor in creating the climate for separation.


Dubcek’s account of the Prague Spring is surprisingly one-sided. In his memory, the period was dominated by ominous rumblings from the Kremlin and other capitals in Eastern Europe; he scarcely mentions the ebullient and often euphoric public mood. The Soviet leaders did everything they could to discourage, delay, and undermine the reforms, from late-night phone calls to large-scale Warsaw Pact maneuvers on Czechoslovak territory. Dubcek was summoned to meetings with Brezhnev, or Kadar, or Gomulka, and asked to explain himself. Communiqués expressing undying friendship and cooperation were issued with his signature on them. In good faith, he thought that patient persuasion would work for him now as it always had, and he was convinced that nothing he was doing endangered the security of the alliance, or threatened the existence of socialism.

But Dubcek was also under pressure from within by the pent-up energy his reforms had released in Czechoslovak society, and by the hopes they inspired elsewhere in Eastern Europe. He makes almost no reference to the demands for more sweeping changes—including a multi-party system—that filled the press, or the criticism of his indecision and weakness in the face of growing Soviet pressure. He omits entirely one of the greatest challenges to his authority, a petition called “2000 Words,” signed by many writers, artists, and intellectuals, alerting people to the threat of military intervention and calling on them to take matters into their own hands. Even had the Soviets not invaded, Dubcek’s days, like Gorbachev’s after him, were numbered. Given the urgency in public opinion, it was only a matter of time before a more radical and decisive politician challenged his leadership.

The fatal flaw at the heart of Dubcek’s reasoning was his reliance on the good will and cooperation of the public to shore up the Party’s authority. The Party’s ultimate statement was the Action Program which, although he did not write it, is obviously tailored to his vision and as full of contradictions as the man himself. It stressed the leading role of the Party, while also saying that this role must be won through merit, not enforced through directives. It reaffirmed the primacy of Marxism-Leninism, but promised a move toward rule of law. It was designed to contain the reforms within clear ideological limits, but it came too, late, and would not have worked even had it been implemented. Like a CEO attempting to improve the fortunes of a large corporation by concentrating on a new management style, Dubcek forgot that the Party had a single raison d’être and a simple raw product: power. His style of reform and the reforms themselves compromised that power and, in the end, prompted those who had a vested interest in it to react as they did. Dubcek never really understood the true nature of the Party until he became its victim.


Dubcek’s silence in the Seventies and Eighties, when he was living in virtual exile in Slovakia, shows the same dogged will he displayed throughout his political career. He could easily have fled to the West during his sham ambassadorship to Turkey in 1970, and it appears the new Czechoslovak regime would have welcomed his defection as final proof of his devious intent. But he chose to remain, and he even had to “escape” from Ankara back to Slovakia by a clandestine route before the door was slammed in his face. The police bugged his flat; they harassed his family and friends and anyone who came in contact with him. They followed him everywhere he went, even into the middle of the lake where he would have private conversations with old cronies, treading water while the police circled round them in a motor launch. Yet he accepted this with stoical good humor. He welcomed the Velvet Revolution as a vindication of all he had strived for, and then watched helplessly as the country began to tear itself apart. And in the last year of his life, he made himself unpopular by vigorously opposing the dismemberment of the country he had worked for all his life.

But are his political failures the last word? Dubcek was the kind of down-to-earth person who would have been popular no matter what his cause. Socialism for him was not a grand scheme for transforming the world, creating a “new socialist man,” ridding the world once and for all of exploitation and ushering in the dictatorship of the protelariat. Such phrases may have passed his lips, but it is doubtful they ever entered his mind. Dubcek’s socialism was more immediate, associated with the things he loved best: a home, a garden, family, security, prosperity. He wanted those things for everyone. His horizons were small, but he brought a measure of common decency to the grand scheme. That was precisely what the grand scheme lacked, and it was what destroyed it in the end.

This Issue

September 23, 1993