An invading army’s tanks on the streets of Prague, that jewel of European capital cities. A peaceful political reform movement crushed. A nation’s leaders flown under duress to Moscow and forced to repudiate their humane ideals. Fifty years ago in Czechoslovakia, August was anything but a quiet summer month.

On the night of August 20 1968, almost half a million Warsaw Pact troops over-ran Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring— an attempt by its reform-minded communist leaders, led by Alexander Dubcek, to bring liberal change to their country. Some troops were from Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland. But most were from the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin line was that the invaders were rendering “fraternal assistance” to an ally in the “socialist camp” at risk of succumbing to counter-revolution. But as young Russian soldiers seized control of Prague and Bratislava, they were stunned to hear jeers and cries of protest from ordinary Czechs and Slovaks chanting, “Ivan, go home”.

For many younger citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which went their separate ways in 1993, the tumultuous events of the eight-month-long Prague Spring belong to some distant, barely recognisable era. The subject is taught in history lessons at school, but arguably it registers less with Czechs and Slovaks than the contemporaneous Vietnam war does for Americans or the quasi-revolutionary événements of May 1968 for the French.

The Prague Spring seems far off because the geopolitical setting in which it took place is long gone. In 1968 the cold war divided Europe in two. Its eastern half languished under communism — a repressive, dreary system of government imported from Moscow in the 1940s and not to be cast aside for another 21 years. Nowadays, the reborn Czech and Slovak states are independent, increasingly prosperous democracies and members of Nato and the EU.

Yet there are still lessons to be learnt from the Prague Spring. The first is that doctrinaire ideologies and political practices, whether they be 1960s-style communism or the intolerant dogmas of today’s radical right and left, contain the seeds of their own downfall. They propose inadequate solutions to the complex problems of modern societies. They bully critics, deride experts and degrade reason. In so doing, they generate economic inefficiency, social tension and political discontent.

The second lesson is that the human thirst for political rights, justice and national freedom is unquenchable. This was on display throughout the communist era: East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, Gdansk in 1980 and across the Baltic states in 1988-91. The patriotism of Czechs and Slovaks is more civic than nationalist in nature. But the recovery of independence is one of their most cherished gains of 1989.

The third lesson is that political struggle need not be conducted, as in much of today’s world, in the language of the gutter and with the manners of the yahoo. In 1968, Dubcek wore a permanent smile on his face and celebrated the dignity of the individual. He can be faulted for a naive faith that communism was reformable. But he had the last laugh when he returned to a hero’s welcome on Wenceslas Square after the triumph of the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

These three lessons matter because of the remaking of the west’s political landscape over the past decade. Liberalism is in retreat, the rule of law is under threat and national populism is on the rise. Transatlantic discord undermines Nato. The EU is short of unity, political willpower and good ideas. In some capitals, the reins of power rest in the hands of secretive, manipulative strongmen or abusive, vainglorious demagogues.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia are not immune to the miasma spreading across central Europe and the wider western world. Czech democracy is vibrant but fragmented. In last October’s elections a Russian-aligned far-right party entered parliament for the first time with 10.6 per cent of the vote. Milos Zeman, the Czech president, is more friendly with Moscow than with Brussels. Andrej Babis, prime minister, is a billionaire businessman whose populist style and entanglements with the law are reminiscent of US president Donald Trump or Italy’s former leader Silvio Berlusconi.

In Slovakia, the public displays the most pronounced pro-Russian tendencies of anywhere in central Europe. But it was the murders in February of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée that exposed something rotten in the state. The crime sparked public protests and the resignations of Robert Fico, prime minister, and his interior minister. Mr Fico did not leave office without borrowing a leaf from the book of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s premier, dropping dark hints about the supposedly malign influence on Slovakia of George Soros, the Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist.

Along with Hungary and Poland, the Czechs and Slovaks belong to the Visegrad Four, a loose regional group. In western European capitals this foursome is suspected of caring far too little for the EU’s values. For the Czechs and Slovaks, this is a dangerous trend. Given their states’ small size and geographical location, it should be a fundamental national interest of both not to drift from the European mainstream. That, after all, was an ideal at the heart of the Prague Spring.

Get alerts on Hlavní město Praha when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article