Latest Articles

Edith Ackermann

Talent, intuition, creativity

On the limits of digital technologies

Imagining and realizing novel ideas engages aspects of the mind, body and self that we barely control, says Edith Ackermann in interview. Learning, like the art of living itself, is about navigating uncertainties rather than controlling what we cannot predict. [ more ]

Nikolay Nikolov

Without a façade to hide behind

Eurozine Review

The world's echo system

Ferry Biedermann, Nat Muller

No stone throwing in glass houses

Farid Hafez

The Arab Spring and "Islam"

New Issues


GAM | 10 (2014)

Intuition & the machine

Esprit | 7/2014


Osteuropa | 5-6/2014

Zerreißprobe. Die Ukraine: Konflikt, Krise, Krieg [Crucial test. Ukraine: Conflict, crisis, war]

Eurozine Review

Eurozine Review

The world's echo system

In "ResetDOC", Seyla Benhabib critiques humanitarian reason; "Blätter" reports on Europe's new refugee movement; "openDemocracy" expresses alarm at the expulsions of a predatory capitalism; "Springerin" looks at the Arab Spring's legacy in contemporary art; "Dérive" sees through the technology-driven smart city hype; "Vikerkaar" visits the post-socialist bazaar; "Magyar Lettre" publishes an extract from Endre Kukorelly's memoir; in "Letras Libres", Margaret MacMillan sees parallels between 1914 and 2014; "L'Espill" looks at new forms of Spanish nationalism; "Fronesis" calls for a more radical discussion of crises; and "Schweizer Monat" talks to the lyricist Durs Grünbein.

Eurozine Review

Courage of thought vs technocracy

Eurozine Review

Every camera a surveillance camera

Eurozine Review

All about the beautiful game

Eurozine Review

New fascisms coated with sugar

My Eurozine

If you want to be kept up to date, you can subscribe to Eurozine's rss-newsfeed or our Newsletter.

Share |

The end of illusions?

Czechoslovakia 1968 and after

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 caused the Soviet empire to lose its internal logic even for the communist faithful, writes Samuel Abrahám, who bore witness to the events. Yet today, the naivety of the reform communists of the 1960s serves as a pretext for the cynical dismissal of any vision of a better political system.

Focal Point

Forty years on, the differences between the 1968 uprisings in western and eastern Europe move into ever sharper focus. "In retrospect, the great event of '68 in Europe was not Paris, but Prague. But we were unable to see this at the time." Read the Eurozine focus 1968: Beyond soixante-huit
The Soviet Union's invasion of Prague on 21 August 1968 and subsequent developments are now mostly presented in terms of nostalgic memories or dramatic documentaries, while the ideological battle raging over its ruins tells us more about the present state of society than about what happened in 1968.

For the strongest critics, the effort to build "socialism with human face" was either an insincere gesture or a naive attempt to square the circle. For them, the entire period from 1948 to 1989 was not a complex and divided era, but one continuous "totalitarian regime" to which 1968 and the decade as whole was no exception.

The symbol of 1968 – Alexander Dubcek – attracts the greatest abuse today. Except by his faithful supporters, he is presented as a smiling simpleton, a naive or opportunist politician. On the other hand, Gustáv Husák[1] is benefiting from unexpected revision: as the fox who thought he could trick Brezhnev and save the torso of the reforms. And when he became the leader, the poor fellow had no other choice. Yet the fact remains that Husák had a thousand chances to act differently. However, he chose the worst course for Czechoslovakian society. He achieved what he had wanted all his life – to be at the top, even if it meant being detested and humiliated.

The motives and actions of individuals and the turbulent political events of the Prague Spring that ran from January to August 1968 are now only historical events. However, there are two factors that still resonate today. First, the invasion had fatal consequences for the communist world and its support base in the West. Second, there was an intense feeling of solidarity in society after the invasion.

Without internal logic

The 21 August 1968 was, first of all, the end of a great illusion on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Empire was perverse from the very beginning, but from that day it also lost its internal logic for the communist faithful. It brought about the collapse of the illusion that in spite of the atrocities and suffering of millions there was a healthy foundation which would save us. Even before 21 August, the majority of the population hated the communist regime, but after it, no intelligent, mature person anywhere from East Berlin to Vladivostok believed that socialism would convince rather than silence its victims. After 1968, the whole Eastern Bloc turned into a cynical apparatus of fear and power, with its leaders united only by the comradeship of a shared lie.

However, a regime or empire without faith in itself, without sincere proclaimers of its ideology or enthusiastic artists, will fall into a state of clinical death. Unfortunately, those in power can prolong this process of dying. In our case, they succeeded for twenty cruel years until 1989.

To general surprise, the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989. Despite the analyses of Sovietologists or of experts from the camps of Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II, it was and is not clear why the Soviet Empire disintegrated almost without putting up a fight. The end of the ideological illusion after the invasion of Czechoslovakia was certainly not the direct cause of the fall of the empire, but it was a basis without which the whole system would not have collapsed so suddenly and in the way it did.

In the West, a whole generation of admirers of the post-Khrushchev thaw were forced to commit intellectual suicide after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some retreated into seclusion, others transformed themselves into Euro-communists, environmentalists or feminists. Some even jumped all the way to the far-right or neo-fascism. They made a virtue out of necessity, and one can add that many became more useful than they had been during their communist past.

Social solidarity

The second important result of the invasion of Czechoslovakia was the immediate mass resistance. The first eight months of 1968 were a matter for several hundred politicians and intellectuals. On August 21, on the other hand, the whole of society resisted the Soviet troops: non-violently, courageously and with determination, in the tradition of Chelcicky, Tolstoy or Gandhi. Helped, one might add, by typically bitter humour. Those few weeks and months after the invasion have penetrated the genetic code of the political culture of Slovaks and Czechs. Society could be and was humiliated, but nothing could take away the common experience of almost religious solidarity and the feeling of resistance against the occupiers. Obviously, just like today or a hundred years ago – or a hundred years into the future – there were opportunists and cowards who quickly recovered and seized any opportunity to collaborate with the invaders.

So what, one might ask, that people in eastern and western Europe dropped their illusions about one perverse political experiment? Every society has always had and should have illusions, even if the price to pay is great. One criticism of the Prague Spring is that it was a waste of energy: there was no chance that Dubcek could have succeeded against Brezhnev and Suslov. Yet that reproach can be used for any failed but significant endeavours in history. Without illusions we would not have progressed from the caves to the moon. There would have been no religions, no French Revolution or a concept of a just democratic society. There would be no culture either, or art – a pure fruit of human imagination.

Lost hope

Personally, what is most memorable is the feeling of shared faith and solidarity of citizens facing tanks and guns on the streets of Bratislava. I have an indelible image in my mind's eye of a woman sitting down in front of a roaring tank, putting on her make-up, refusing to pay attention to the machine that could have crushed her in a second. She lost fear but also hope. Six months after the invasion a young student in Prague immolated himself, leaving a note to Czechs and Slovak not to give up the resistance against the Russians and local opportunists. He failed, but the memory of those days and months after the invasion stacked to everybodyšs mind and 1989 was natural continuation of that interrupted revolution.

Today the feeling and message of solidarity of 1968 is gone, so is the hope that a just and fair system is possible. What rules now, forty years on, is a ruthless bureaucratic democracy cushioned by a comfortable consumer lifestyle. The naive hopes of the reform Communists of the 1960s are still used as a pretext to trample any vision of a better and universally just society. On the Left, meanwhile, the battle is still waged on the ersatz battlefields of anti-globalization and environmentalism. Honourable efforts but hopeless goals. It seems that the 1960s was the last time that a sincere hope and vision, however illusory, of a better political system existed.


  • [1] As deputy premier of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Husák was a supporter Dubcek's reforms, yet went on to reverse his position as general secretary of the Czech communist party (1969-1971) and then as Czechoslovak president (1975-1989). It is controversial whether he is to be remembered as a pragmatist who saw in a period of relative affluence or as the head of a repressive security state – ed.

Published 2008-08-21

Original in Slovak
First published in sme (Slovak original)

© Samuel Abrahám
© Eurozine

Eurozine BLOG

On the Eurozine BLOG you can follow and comment on all coverage of the Kyiv conference, "Ukraine: Thinking together", including daily updates from Eurozine editors.
Thinking in times of change
There are both differences and similarities between the current events in Ukraine and the revolutions of 1989. In fact, the conference "Ukraine: Thinking Together" does have a predecessor: a meeting of eastern European intellectuals with their western counterparts that took place in Vienna in 1990. [more]

Focal points     click for more

Ukraine in focus
Ten years after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine is in the throes of yet another major struggle. Eurozine provides commentary on events as they unfold and further articles from the archive providing background to the situation in today's Ukraine. [more]

The ends of democracy
At a time when the global pull of democracy has never been stronger, the crisis of democracy has become acute. Eurozine has collected articles that make the problems of democracy so tangible that one starts to wonder if it has a future at all, as well as those that return to the very basis of the principle of democracy. [more]

Russia in global dialogue
In the two decades after the end of the Cold War, intellectual interaction between Russia and Europe has intensified. It has not, however, prompted a common conversation. The focal point "Russia in global dialogue" seeks to fuel debate on democracy, society and the legacy of empire. [more]

The EU: Broken or just broke?
Brought on by the global economic recession, the eurocrisis has been exacerbated by serious faults built into the monetary union. Contributors discuss whether the EU is not only broke, but also broken -- and if so, whether Europe's leaders are up to the task of fixing it. [more]

Time to Talk     click for more

Time to Talk, a network of European Houses of Debate, has partnered up with Eurozine to launch an online platform. Here you can watch video highlights from all TTT events, anytime, anywhere.
George Pagoulatos, Philippe Legrain
In the EU we (mis)trust: On the road to the EU elections
On 10 April, De Balie and the ECF jointly organized a public debate in Amsterdam entitled "In the EU we (mis)trust: On the road to the EU elections". Some of the questions raised: Which challenges does Europe face today? Which strategic choices need to be made? [more]

Support Eurozine     click for more

If you appreciate Eurozine's work and would like to support our contribution to the establishment of a European public sphere, see information about making a donation.

Vacancies at Eurozine     click for more

There are currently no positions available.

Editor's choice     click for more

William E Scheuerman
Civil disobedience for an age of total surveillance
The case of Edward Snowden
Earlier civil disobedients hinted at our increasingly global condition. Snowden takes it as a given. But, writes William E. Scheuerman, in lieu of an independent global legal system in which Snowden could defend his legal claims, the Obama administration should treat him with clemency. [more]

Literature     click for more

Olga Tokarczuk
A finger pointing at the moon
Our language is our literary destiny, writes Olga Tokarczuk. And "minority" languages provide a special kind of sanctuary too, inaccessible to the rest of the world. But, there again, language is at its most powerful when it reaches beyond itself and starts to create an alternative world. [more]

Piotr Kiezun, Jaroslaw Kuisz
Literary perspectives special: Witold Gombrowicz
The recent publication of the private diary of Witold Gombrowicz provides unparalleled insight into the life of one of Poland's great twentieth-century novelists and dramatists. But this is not literature. Instead: here he is, completely naked. [more]

Literary perspectives
The re-transnationalization of literary criticism
Eurozine's series of essays aims to provide an overview of diverse literary landscapes in Europe. Covered so far: Croatia, Sweden, Austria, Estonia, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Hungary. [more]

Debate series     click for more

Europe talks to Europe
Nationalism in Belgium might be different from nationalism in Ukraine, but if we want to understand the current European crisis and how to overcome it we need to take both into account. The debate series "Europe talks to Europe" is an attempt to turn European intellectual debate into a two-way street. [more]

Conferences     click for more

Eurozine emerged from an informal network dating back to 1983. Since then, European cultural magazines have met annually in European cities to exchange ideas and experiences. Around 100 journals from almost every European country are now regularly involved in these meetings.
Making a difference. Opinion, debate and activism in the public sphere
The 25th European Meeting of Cultural Journals
Oslo, 29 November - 2 December 2013
Under the heading "Making a difference. Opinion, debate and activism in the public sphere", the 2013 Eurozine conference focused on cultural and intellectual debate and the production of the public sphere. [more]

Multimedia     click for more
Multimedia section including videos of past Eurozine conferences in Vilnius (2009) and Sibiu (2007). [more]

powered by