The man appointed to succeed Novotný as leader of the Czechoslovak communist party in January 1968 was the one person to whom nobody was violently opposed: Alexander Dubček.
Dubček had been a member of the Czechoslovak party praesidium since 1962 and he now became the first Slovak ever to hold the senior post in the party. He was a pragmatic party apparatchik rather than an intellectual. He was not a naturally dominant personality, and was always more a follower than a leader. This made him the ideal man for his times. And so did other aspects of his character and his beliefs. At the party school in Moscow in 1955-8 he, like his fellow student Mikhail Gorbachev, had been much impressed by Khrushchev’s speech to the twentieth congress and equally impressed when he returned to Bratislava by how little effect that speech had had on his own party. In 1961, when already a member of the Slovak central committee, he had encapsulated his moderate but contemporary views thus: The revolutionary aims of society can only be realised when the mass of the people support them. But this support and its resulting impetus…must be organised and led by the communist party.’ 1 As first secretary of the Slovak party after April 1963, Dubček had not been on close terms with Novotný—that would have been personally distasteful and politically dangerous; but nor did he associate too closely with the Slovak dissidents—that would have brought down upon his head the wrath of Prague. Instead he sought genuine popular support as the basis of his power: and in general he found it. As a journalist had noted in 1962 when Dubček courageously attended the funeral of Karol Šmidke, a disgraced communist: ‘This man Dubček is remarkable for his innocent honesty. He may reach the top of the party, but he is much more likely to find himself in prison. His ingenuousness is ridiculous, but astonishing and refreshing.’ 2
His few months as party leader in 1968 certainly produced astonishing and refreshing changes in Czechoslovakia, though the depth of these changes was not immediately apparent. Dubček himself was anxious to show his loyalty to the communist movement and went to Moscow at the end of January to 326