(for High Life magazine, January 2018)
ON A sunny afternoon half a century ago, a Prague night-shift worker was awakened by a policeman’s knock on his door. Such uninvited visits traditionally presaged trouble from the secret police. This one had a stranger purpose. Some British pop stars were about to perform on nearby Charles Bridge and needed somewhere to change.
It was 20 August 1968. For two decades, Czechoslovakia had been in the grip of one of the Soviet bloc’s dourest Communist tyrannies. Its cowed citizens were barely allowed to know about the depraved culture of the West, let alone taste it. So why were the security services now actively helping the Moody Blues?
Czechoslovaks had recently been growing used to such mysteries. All that year, piece by piece, their world had been turning upside down. A new General Secretary of the Communist party, Alexander Dubček, had been elected in January. Ever since, hitherto unimaginable things had been happening. Censorship had been abolished, political offenders had been rehabilitated, travel restrictions lifted. Slavish submission to the Party was no longer compulsory. There was even talk of free elections. Forty-six-year-old Dubček called it “socialism with a human face”. The rest of the world called it the Prague Spring.
The atmosphere was intoxicating. Dubček had vowed “to remove everything that strangles artistic and scientific creativeness”, and that was how it felt. Debate flourished. Political magazines sold in hundreds of thousands. As the playwright and future president Václav Havel later recalled, “After 20 years one was able to breathe freely.” Everyone seemed to be excited, talkative, optimistic. “I thought we would succeed in creating a new kind of society,” remembers the singer Marta Kubišová.
By summer, tourists were both entering and leaving the country. Young people danced to hits such as “Walking Back to Happiness”. And the third Wednesday of August was earmarked, remarkably, for a concert of Western music. The Moody Blues were to headline.
The Charles Bridge performance was just a warm-up, staged partly for the benefit of French television. But the band still had to prepare. The night-shift worker was turfed out of his apartment. Soon afterwards, the yearning chords of “Nights in White Satin” were swelling over the river Vltava: an improbable gift from the West’s summer of love to the East’s spring of hope.
Word spread quickly. One fan hoping to see the following night’s show was 19-year-old Boris Gaydečka, who decades later would found Prague’s famous Lávka night-club on that same stretch of river. “We loved English music, but the Moody Blues were something else. It would have been an incredible event.” But it was not to be.
That night, shortly before midnight, a huge Soviet-led army drawn from five Warsaw Pact countries crossed the Czechoslovak border. After months of menacing noises, the Kremlin had decided that Dubček’s experiment with freedom could no longer be tolerated: in the words of one official communiqué, it was “threatening the foundations of socialism”. The Moody Blues were airlifted out, along with a plane-load of British Embassy staff. Their summer concert never happened.
Armed resistance was impossible – and Dubček, before being carted off to Moscow, urged his people not to provoke a “senseless bloodbath”. But vast crowds were soon out on the streets, using non-violent resistance instead. Road-signs were tampered with; tanks had their paths blocked by human chains – and their periscopes blocked with paper; soldiers were demoralised by savagely witty multi-lingual graffiti and one-on-one harangues. “It was terrifying, but also absurd,” recalls former Olympic javelin champion Dana Zátopková, ninety-five. “Many of the soldiers didn’t even know what country they were in.” Her late husband, the multiple Olympic champion Emil Zátopek, was one of several street orators who rallied the crowds in Wenceslas Square, denouncing the Soviets as “the gangsters of the world” and urging unity and defiance.
The exhortations worked. Acting with startling unanimity, the Czechs and Slovaks ran rings round the Warsaw Pact forces for weeks. When the invaders took over the state radio, for example, clandestine radio and television broadcasts were quickly improvised – and Kubišová, who had recently recorded a song celebrating the fall of a cruel tyranny, re-recorded it, so that “A Prayer for Marta” could be used, to exhilarating effect, as an anthem of resistance.
The tanks won in the end. They usually do. By April 1969, after more than 100 civilian deaths, hardline Communism had been re-established. The champions of freedom were punished. (Kubišová suffered two soul-destroying decades of persecution – then sang “Prayer” again for 1989’s Velvet Revolution.) Yet for all the bloodshed and heartbreak, many felt that those heady months of national awakening had been worth it. The novelist Milan Kundera went further, describing the first fierce days of solidarity and defiance following the invasion as “the most beautiful week of our lives”.
This year, with pride and sorrow, Czechs and Slovaks will mark the Prague Spring’s fiftieth anniversary. The recollections of those who lived through those strange days will be worth listening to. Yet this won’t be the only national turning-point under discussion in coming months – and it might not even be the most important. It’s a quirk of Czech history that big events tend to take place in years ending in “8”. (See panel, below.) And 2018’s bumper crop of anniversaries includes the centenary of an even more significant landmark: the creation of an independent Czechoslovak nation.
Like the Prague Spring, the First Czechoslovak Republic was a noble but doomed attempt to create a better way of living. Tomáš Masaryk, its founding father, carved out the new liberal democracy from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as World War One was ending. The victorious Allies backed him, and Czechoslovakia was born on 28 October 1918. After centuries of servitude, Czechs and Slovaks found themselves in control of their own destinies. For two decades they made quite a good job of it.
Masaryk, their first and thrice re-elected president, was one of the 20th century’s more attractive statesmen: a working-class philosopher whose curiously inspiring motto was simply: “Don’t be afraid and don’t steal.” His nation was far from perfect, but his decency suffused it. Radical land reform addressed some of the worst social inequalities. New opportunities opened up (for a while) for women and the working classes; technical and creative innovation were widespread; industry flourished (cars, armaments, glass, porcelain, chemicals, shoes, beer, lace). Later, the country’s democratic institutions proved strong enough to survive the Great Depression. What they couldn’t survive was being part of a prosperous, peaceable nation in the heart of a troubled continent, with the Nazis gathering strength on the border. In 1938, Czechoslovakia’s Western allies allowed Hitler to annex the German-speaking area known as the Sudetenland, crucial to the young nation’s prosperity and defence. The First Republic became the enfeebled Second Republic, which was snuffed out the following year by full-scale invasion.
That wasn’t quite the end of the story. Democracy (of a sort) was restored briefly from 1945 to 1948, and again (in full) from 1990 to 1993. Then Czechoslovakia dissolved into its two component parts. But the Czech Republic, the most obvious successor to Masaryk’s west-facing state, is this month celebrating 25 years of uninterrupted democracy – and over the next twelve months will also mark the full centenary of the nation that gave it birth.
The “Czech 100” programme features more than 170 events within Czechoslovakia’s old boundaries; nearly a third involve Slovakia. There will be celebrations abroad, too: British highlights include a week-long series of cultural happenings in London in October; while the BBC will help Czech Radio to celebrate its own vital role in the nation’s history. Part of the purpose is to remind Westerners that the Czech Republic is one of Europe’s most sophisticated and prosperous nations, with (in 2017) a growing economy, the EU’s lowest unemployment rate, a budget surplus, low public debt, low inequality, and an industrial and scientific heritage as rich as its cultural one. “We want this to be about looking forward, not back,” says Libor Sečka, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the UK, who is particularly proud of his country’s thriving health care sector (a magnet for health-tourism) and of its world-leading nano-technology industry.
But there is much to be said for looking back, too. The recent electoral triumph of populist billionaire Andrej Babiš (“the Czech Trump”) has raised the prospect of a retreat from democratic values and a resurgence of Russian influence. Anxiety about the nation’s future political direction is widespread; even a “Czech-out” from the EU is no longer inconceivable. “Sometimes,” admits Marta Kubišová, “when watching the news on TV, I am literally raging.”
It seems a good time to remember past highs and lows; and to remind ourselves that, rather than inhabiting a “faraway country of which we know nothing” (as Neville Chamberlain almost said in 1938), the Czechs are no more peripheral to the European narrative than we are. Their capital, cherished by Mozart and Einstein as well as Kafka and Rilke, lies further west than Vienna. Czech Legionaries fought for the Allies (defying their Austro-Hungarian imperial overlords) in World War I; Czech pilots died for us in the Battle of Britain. When we contemplate the idealism of those who tried to build a kinder, gentler kind of socialism in 1968, we are thinking of people whose stories are hard to disentangle from our own.
For one Czech music impresario, that’s a message that’s still worth celebrating. His plans aren’t yet set in stone, but if you’re visiting Prague this summer, save these dates: 20-21 August. Fifty years after the Soviet-led invasion, David Gaydečka – the man behind the United Islands and Metronome festivals and nephew of the disappointed Boris mentioned earlier – has a bold plan: to “finish the concert that never happened”. His original ambition of luring back the entire Moody Blues may prove to be beyond him, but he has high hopes that Justin Hayward, as least, will be there, completing his unfinished business on the river by Charles Bridge. “I can’t promise it’s going to happen,” admits Gaydečka, who got the idea from his uncle. “But we’re working on it.”
• Richard Askwith is author of “Today We Die A Little: Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero” (Yellow Jersey).
FAMOUS EIGHTS: A CZECH LIST OF ANNIVERSARIES IN 2018
If you like national anniversaries, the Czech Republic is the only place to be in 2018. It’s a bumper year.
It’s eighty years since the Munich Agreement (29 September), in which Britain and France gave Hitler the go-ahead to annex the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, paving the way for invasion and war. (Read the new Robert Harris thriller, Munich, for the inside story.)
Next month it will be seventy years since “victorious February”, when the Communists seized power, ushering in four decades of Soviet-backed one-party rule.
The Prague Spring began and ended fifty years ago this year.
There’s also the 400th anniversary of the Defenestration of Prague to consider – a violent ejection of the Catholic emperor’s officials through a window of Prague Castle, in May 1618, which led to the catastrophic Thirty Years War.
And some would even date the first stirrings of 1989’s Velvet Revolution to a demonstration in Prague’s Škroupovo Square on 10 December 1988, during a visit by French President François Mitterrand.
It’s also 25 years since the Czech Republic was founded, following the “Velvet Divorce” from Slovakia, on 1 January 1993. But that’s just a footnote. Every Czech knows that the anniversaries that really matter relate to those “famous eights”. And the one that matters most of all in 2018 is the very foundation stone of modern Czech history: the creation, one hundred years ago in October, of an independent Czechoslovak nation.