Chapter 11 - The Humble Revolutionary
July 1968 and I was in the Times reporters’ room quietly planning a visit to a trade fair in Brno, Czechoslovakia when Moscow announced it was sending troops to quash an industrial revolution that threatened the country’s communist domination. At the same time a clampdown was imposed on the Western press and like many other news organizations The Times was racing to find ways of getting reporters into Prague, when someone remembered that I had got a visa several weeks beforehand.
Within hours I was on a flight to Prague – the business news reporter had suddenly become a foreign correspondent and heading for the frontline. On the plane I did some hurried homework and for the first time the name Alexander Dubcek became important to me.
Alexander Dubcek, the son of U.S. emigrants who had lived in Chicago in the beginning of the century, was the leader of the revolution. A few months before he was born in November 1921, his parents returned to Slovakia. At 18 he joined the Communist Party, he fought in the Slovak uprising against the Germans, during which he was twice wounded and his brother Julius was killed.
When the war was over he resumed his political career and continued to rise up the ranks of the Communist Party.
At the same time, a movement for political and economic change started to develop in Czechoslovakia, and with enormous pressure for change, the Communist Party initiated a package of reforms to decentralize the economy.
But the reforms fell short of what the economic reformers led, by among others, Dubcek, demanded and by January 1968 he was elected party leader. With his new powers, Dubcek accelerated the reforms which included the abolition of censorship, and signified the willingness of the people of Czechoslovakia to pursue a more independent and democratic path to social and economic development, and also signified a deviation from the more orthodox Soviet communist model.
These reforms of the "Prague Spring" were naturally opposed by the other communist countries which denounced Dubcek's behavior as unacceptable. He resisted demands from Moscow that the reforms should be stopped and it was during this time that I had a brief clandestine meeting with Dubcek. It was arranged by journalists who worked for CTK, the national news agency, in between his trips, trying to negotiate a peaceful solution.
For a man in such a struggle for power and his very existence, I recall Dubcek being a small, neatly dressed and surprisingly calm.
With the help of one of the CTK journalists acting as interpreter he explained to myself and three other reporters, the conversations he had been having in Moscow, how he was attempting to reassure the Soviets that they were still good communists friendly to Moscow, while arguing that the reforms were an internal matter..
When one of the reporters asked Dubcek: “Do you fear for your own safety?” he replied: “No, not really. I fear more for the future of the communist party”.
Suddenly the meeting was over and Dubcek was gone.
The next and last time I saw him was on 27 August after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and The Prague Spring had been brought to an end. Dubcek and other reformist top communists were seized, flown to Moscow and forced to surrender to Soviet demands.
Dubcek was returned to Prague six days later and gave a speech, breaking into tears as he told his people that much of what they had achieved was lost.
I witnessed the public act of a broken and humiliated man. In April 1969 Dubcek was replaced as party secretary. The following year he was expelled from the party and for the next 18 years worked as a clerk in a lumber yard in Slovakia.
But his fall from grace was not to last forever. After the collapse of communism government in November 1989, Dubcek returned to the political arena and was elected chairman of the Federal Assembly.
His exploits in The Prague Spring were acknowledged a year later when he was awarded the Sakharov Peace Prize and his book, The Soviet Invasion. This was followed by his autobiography, Hope Dies Last. Two years later he died in a car accident.
I am pleased I met Alexander Dubcek, albeit for a few fleeting minutes, when he was at his strongest; to see him again in Wenceslas Square made me angry but in the final analysis he was clearly a winner.
From this experience I took away a recognition that man’s greatest gift is his humility.