The End of the Prague Spring and the Collapse of World Communism

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Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Forty years ago this week, the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century sat down and wrote an eight-line verse:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.

W.H. Auden did not give this telling piece of brilliant doggerel a grandiose name. (He had, after all, called his finest poem “September 1, 1939,” simply after the day on which it was composed.) But just as anyone with a sense of history will know what is intended by that date, so it is that those eight lines, titled “August 1968,” evoke all the drama and tragedy of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. Czechoslovakia no longer exists. The Soviet Union, which tried by force to keep the second entity as a part of the first one, likewise no longer exists. Yet few events in memory can be as real and “concrete”—to borrow a favorite term of Marxist propaganda—as the struggle that once took place in these far-from-ethereal regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

On that day, I was in Cuba at a leftist student summer camp. The news, which wasn’t a complete surprise, came to the island very early in the morning. The Cuban Communist Party had been officially neutral regarding the Russian and Czechoslovak parties, so there was no “line.” It was announced that Fidel Castro would therefore produce a line in a speech to be delivered that night. Thus one could spend a whole day in a Communist state that had no official position on the main news item. Most Cubans were, one found, instinctively pro-Czech and anti-superpower. At noon came the information, which altered some people’s opinion, that Ho Chi Minh had endorsed the Russian action. The Chinese Communists, on the other hand, denounced it as analogous to Hitler’s intervention in Prague in 1939. Over the next few days, the world’s Communist leaderships gave their verdicts. The Italian Communists: against. The Greeks (languishing under fascist dictatorship): split. The Portuguese (likewise languishing): in favor. The South Africans: strongly in favor. (That hurt.) The Spanish: quite strongly against. The American Communists: Why even ask? In favor, as usual, and of everything. And so it went on. What became clear, however, was that there was no longer something that could be called the world Communist movement. It was utterly, irretrievably, hopelessly split. The main spring had broken. And the Prague Spring had broken it.

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