The Czechoslovak politician Alexander Dubček (1921-1992) served briefly as head of his country's Communist party. His attempts to liberalize political life led to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army and his dismissal from office, only to be vindicated years later when the Communist regime fell.
Alexander Dubček was born on Nov. 27, 1921, the son of a cabinetmaker who had just returned from the United States. His family lived in the U.S.S.R. from 1925 to 1938, and it was there that he received his education. During World War II he was an active member of the underground resistance to the Germans in Slovakia.
After the war Dubček made his career as a functionary of the Communist party. He was elected to the Presidium of the Slovakian and then of the Czechoslovakian Communist party in 1962, and in the following year he became first secretary of the Slovakian party's Central Committee. Yet when he succeeded Antonin Novotny in January 1968 as first secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist party, he was not well known in his own country and was hardly known at all outside it.
Pressure for the relaxation of the rigid dogma prevailing in political life had been mounting in Czechoslovakia for a considerable time and had been strengthened by economic discontent. Dubček became the personification of this movement and promised to introduce "socialism with a human face." After coming to power, censorship was relaxed and plans were made for a new federal constitution, for new legislation to provide for a greater degree of civil liberty, and for a new electoral law to give greater freedom to non-Communist parties.
The Soviet government became increasingly alarmed by these developments and throughout the spring and summer of 1968 issued a series of warnings to Dubček and his colleagues. Dubček had attempted to steer a middle course between liberal and conservative extremes, and at a midsummer confrontation with the Soviet leaders he stood firm against their demands for a reversal of his policies.
It was thought that Dubček had won his point on this occasion, but on August 20 armies of the U.S.S.R. and the other Warsaw Pact countries occupied Czechoslovakia. Some historians believe that the immediate cause of the Soviet invasion was the Action Program, initiated by Dubcek the previous year. Mass demonstrations of support for Dubček kept him in power for the time being, but his liberal political program was abandoned.
Over the next 2 years Dubček was gradually removed from power. In April 1969 he resigned as first secretary of the party, to be replaced by the orthodox Dr. Gustav Husak. That September he was dismissed from the Presidium, and in January 1970 from the Central Committee. In December 1969 he was sent to Turkey as ambassador. The final blow came on June 27, 1970, when he was expelled from the Communist party, and shortly afterward he was dismissed from his ambassadorial post. From there he was confined for almost twenty years to a forestry camp in Bratislava, with little contact with the outside world and constant and intense supervision by the secret police.
Meanwhile, the attitudes that Dubček had set in motion continued under their own power. A small underground movement known as Charter 77, named after its inaugural declaration on January 1, 1977, grew to 2,000 members over the next twelve years. Influenced by the movement in neighboring Poland for greater openness and human rights, Charter 77 was created by a broad spectrum of leaders, including former Communists and religious activists. They were constantly hounded and persecuted by the Communist government, but did not relent. Police arrested ten of the group's leaders, including Vaclav Havel and Jiri Dienstbier, who became, respectively, President and Foreign Minister of the new Czechoslovak government in 1989. Charter 77 continued until 1995, when it became apparent it had fulfilled its function.
Dubček highly approved of Russian prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev's progressive policy of glasnost, and eventually its successor of perestroika. While he noted there were some fundamental differences, he believed it came from the same ethic he had tried to promote in the Prague Spring. After Gorbachev visited Czechoslovakia in 1987, the secret police started leaving Dubček alone.
On November 17, 1989, a student commemoration of a Nazi atrocity in 1939 was brutally assaulted by riot police with little provocation. The factionalized oppositions to the government became united to a single purpose by the event, and formed the Civic Forum, led by Havel. He obtained video of the riot, interviewed victims, and had thousands of copies distributed across the country that were surreptitiously played on available televisions. The people became inflamed, and larger and larger demonstrating crowds filled Wenceslas Square. This rapid yet peaceful movement came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. Just a week after the riot, Havel and Dubček appeared together to the throng, who in one voice demanded the latter's restoration.
At first, Havel, the playwright, insisted on standing in the shadow of Dubček; by the time of the federal elections in 1990, it had been decided that Dubček would become chairman of the federal parliament. Dubček then proposed Havel for the presidency, which was accepted unanimously.
In his last years, Dubček aligned himself with the ideas of European Social Democracy and especially with German chancellor Willy Brandt. In 1992, Dubček became leader of the Social Democratic party in Slovakia. By that time he was already sick, having worked virtually around the clock for over two years as chairman of the Czechoslovak assembly. A huge shock, one he did not get over, was the death of his wife, Anna, in September 1991. A year later, Dubček was in a car accident, and barely escaped immediate death. Physicians diagnosed him with with a broken spine, as well as other serious illnesses. He passed away on November 1, 1992. Shortly thereafter, Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, an event known as the Velvet Divorce.
The best biography of Dubček, and a successful attempt to relate his career to developments within Czechoslovakia as a whole, is William Shawcross, Dubček (1990). The best book on the 1968 crisis itself is Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, Czechoslovakia, 1968 (1969). The best way to see these events through the eyes of the man who lived them is in Dubček's autobiography, Hope Dies Last (1993), edited by Jiri Hochman. Valuable background is provided by Edward Taborsky, Communism in Czechoslovakia, 1948-1960 (1961). The cultural and political climate of Eastern Europe in the late 1980's is decsribed in Lighting the Night: Revolutions in Eastern Europe (1990) by William Echikson. □