The Book of the Week is “Hope Dies Last, The Autobiography of Alexander Dubcek” with Jiri Hochman, published in 1993.
In 1920, Czechoslovakia became a sovereign state. In the nineteenth century, Slovakia had been under the thumb of the Hungarians, but it currently has its own identity, culture and language.
History has its fools. Dubcek was one of them. However, such a tragic figure inspires optimism– that helps oppressed people function, that helps them survive until they see better days.
Born in November 1921 in what is now Slovakia, Dubcek– who had an older brother, moved with his family every few years around what is now the former Soviet Union. His parents had briefly lived in Chicago prior to his birth. They were socialists and studied Marxism. In autumn 1921, his father became chairman of the newly formed Czechoslovak Communist Party, and was also a carpenter.
In spring 1925, the family moved to Kyrgyzstan to help build infrastructure for a famine-plagued area, through the auspices of an organization of a couple of hundred Eastern Europeans who sought to do cooperative charitable works. It was there that Dubcek became fluent in the Russian language, in addition to Czech and Slovak.
In March 1939, when Adolf Hitler took over Czechoslovakia, “Czechs, Jews, Communists and Social Democrats were declared public enemies. Remaining civil and political rights were terminated and anti-Semitic laws were imposed.” Dubcek’s family was Christian, and his homeland (Slovakia) was forced to fight for the Axis powers.
At seventeen years of age, Dubcek joined the (then-illegal) Communist Party like his father before him. He hid Party documents in his family pet’s doghouse, where they weren’t found by the oppressive ruling authorities. The Party’s main activity was the distribution of leaflets, which became more dangerous in 1940. However, the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941 was viewed as good news by the Slovaks.
Dubcek and his brother got jobs at an arms factory, working at a lathe. Their Monday through Saturday commute was rigorous: wake up at 3am to walk five miles to the train station; take the train; walk another two and a half miles to the workplace. Do it in reverse at shift’s end. Otherwise, they wouldn’t eat.
In spring and summer of 1944, Slovak partisans (which included Dubcek and his brother) and the Czech Army engaged in guerrilla warfare in the Slovakian countryside, where the Germans were committing atrocities.
In early 1945, the Soviets took over Czechoslovakia, instituting land reform and national health care while telling the people there would be full employment.
In March 1945, Soviet troops came in after the time the Nazis were all but defeated, to grab the glory. The Soviets’ war propaganda convinced the Czech people that Russia beat Germany, and anti-fascism was good, so their Communist system became preferable to Germany’s.
In summer 1949, Dubcek chose to quit working in a nationalized yeast factory to working for the Communist Party in a district office in what is now Slovakia. He eventually supervised bureaucrats in industry, agriculture and ideology– which he fully believed in himself; that is, prior to the shocking time (1956) he learned of Josef Stalin’s purges and oppression of dissidents.
In the early 1950’s, Dubcek’s family was permitted to holiday in the mountains, skiing, hiking, picking berries or mushrooms. In August 1955, as he was fluent in Russian, he (without his wife and children) was sent to a government school in Moscow for career training for three years.
As first secretary of the Slovak Communist Party, Dubcek wanted to move his country toward de-Stalinization. The tyrant Stalin, who died in 1953, accused dissidents of “bourgeois nationalism” and used other kinds of lingo that labeled Soviets whose words or deeds suggested that they might be thinking about Western culture and values.
Calling someone a bourgeois nationalist would be like calling someone Hitler nowadays– childish, and most likely, incorrect because the accused and Hitler aren’t the least bit analogous. Anyway the Soviets who did the accusing were just “… Marxist-Leninist ideologues convinced that any nationalism was detrimental to the cause of proletarian revolution.” Nonetheless, those accused under Stalin were disappeared without a fair legal proceeding to determine their guilt or innocence.
Stalin perpetrated and perpetuated a culture in which horribly insecure, power-hungry men made ridiculous, baseless accusations (and encouraged the general populace to do so) backed by sociopathic sadists with weaponry to put down threats to their power. The bureaucrats with survival skills lingered in the Soviet government into the 1960’s.
In late 1967, Dubcek was appointed the top leader of Czechoslovakia. He had been able to relax the Soviet censorship of the press but he needed to give his nation’s people more liberties to continue his Action Program, which included proposals for political and economic reforms that would move his government toward a democracy.
Dubcek felt that those dissidents who had been oppressed under Stalin, who had been released from the gulag, should have been pardoned, received their old jobs back, and received restitution. But no other government officials in the Soviet sphere agreed with that. They were all still steeped in the past lies and not ready to change.
In early 1968, Dubcek met with a Party functionary each from Poland and Hungary. They turned out to be snitches for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. In March 1968, Brezhnev played Dubcek for a sucker by inviting him to a conference of Soviet bloc countries, to be held in Dresden. He told Dubcek it was about economic planning but it turned out to be a criticism session of Czechoslovakia– as Czech leaders were permitting a diversity of opinions from the press (horror!) which bordered on counterrevolution.
After two more charades masquerading as conferences at the behest (or rather, high-pressure tactics) of the Soviets, all of the Party functionaries present, signed an agreement with loophole-filled language that would allegedly allow some of Dubcek’s proposed reforms to be implemented.
And Dubcek’s naivete continued. He should not have been gobsmacked the way he was. He should have known the Soviets wouldn’t hesitate to fire on protestors and use dirty tricks in order to crush a resistance movement. He did know that if he resigned during the phony negotiations, the Soviet oppression of Czechoslovakians would get much worse sooner– but only about five months sooner.
Read the book to learn what transpired in Prague in the third week of August 1968 and thereafter (Hint– Dubcek wrote, “After 1968… rewriting of history was the common practice, and hundreds of historians, including quite a few of my friends, were persecuted.”)