The fundamental break with communism decided upon by our society which has been recently set in law, has resulted, quite understandably, in attention to the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. These events are today mainly restricted to a slackening of criticism of the half-hearted and self-contradictory program and policies of the reform communist leadership of the time. For that reason, it will not hurt us to be reminded of some of the additional elements and dimensions of those events.
Above all, it must be remembered that the personal and conceptual changes which occurred early in 1968 in the leadership of the communist party and the country were not simply a coup of top party people, nor were they just the result of ever-increasing pressure by reform communists working at the time within the structures of power. This course of events was, in its most profound sense, the result of a deepening chasm between the true opinion and will of society on the one hand, and official political ideology and practice on the other, of a social crisis which was becoming increasingly pronounced and of a distinct public yearning for change. It is no wonder, then, that our society began to take advantage of the growing freedoms created by the policies of the so-called post-January leadership. This the society did rapidly and often with an energy and a consistency that took the state leadership by surprise and often was not particularly welcomed. Newspapers began to print the truth, people gathered in independent organizations and clubs, and the free exercise of citizenship and free political thinking began to awaken and develop.
Thanks to the efforts of citizens of the most divergent political orientations, Czechoslovakia became an island of freedom and a relatively dignified state living in the gloomy gray ocean of the Brezhnev Soviet bloc, earning itself great respect around the world. The Prague Spring became for many people of both East and West a great—and sometimes, given the true state of affairs, disproportionate—source of hope and inspiration. For the West it signified that not only hopelessly manipulated slaves lived under communist overlordship, but that there was a great, if repressed, creative potential here requiring little in order to arise and begin to transform itself into democratic institutions and a democratic public consciousness. In the East, it became a call of inspiration for all forces of opposition and defiance.
A clear conception of our country's history is one of the basic conditions for building genuinely democratic self-awareness in our society. And for this reason it makes sense to point out the extent of those events which some of us—immersed in the current atmosphere—would rather forget or relegate to obscurity.
When foreign troops invaded our country on the night of the 20th to the 21st of August, 1968, and abducted its political representatives, something took place a parallel for which would be difficult to find in modern history. Within several hours our society began to unite quite unexpectedly in a peaceful and dignified demonstration in defense of the independence of the state and the civic freedoms that had been achieved. An entire civilian population stood against an enormous army armed to the teeth essentially; a population which had developed thousands
1 This Preface is based on remarks President Havel originally gave on Czechoslovak radio and television on August
20, 1993, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion.