I had a picture of Alexander Dubček on my wall when I was a student studying international law. He represented the hope of many in Czechoslovakia and beyond that the communist party might evolve from within. He and the President of Czechoslovakia, Ludvik Svoboda (whose last name meant “freedom” in Czech), were for a brief moment during “the Prague Spring” the team that stood for the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, within a communist party and under a communist government.
The threat was too great for the leaders of the Soviet Union, and after a summer of feints and betrayals and illusions, they sent their tanks across the frontier into the sovereign territory of Czechoslovakia, on August 20, 1968.
29 years earlier, Adolph Hitler had sent his tanks into Prague, following the betrayal of Chamberlain at Munich which recognized the annexation of the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia settled by ethnic Germans.
In March 1938, the linking together or annexation (“Anschluss”) of Austria was consummated at the barrel of a gun. The infamous Munich Pact followed on September 30, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany. On March 15, 1939 Germany invaded and took direct control of the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, followed months later, setting off World War II.
These events, for a young international lawyer, seemed together to define the core values of the structure and body of international law and institutions, which had begun following a terrible “world war” in the 17th century, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which at the Peace of Westphalia and through the pen of Hugo Grotius gave birth to the modern system of nation states and to the basic framework of principles and norms of international law.
The devastation and suffering that took place during The Thirty Years’ War underlined the need for rules governing the relations of princes and states. Three centuries later Hitler’s Anschluss and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia defined, in a sense, the core values of international law.
Those core values, which had become clear by the 20th century, included the sanctity of the human person and the principle prohibiting the threat or use of force against the political independence or territorial integrity of any state, except in self defense.
These values were defined by their utter violation, in much the same way that Albert Camus found that moral values were created by their brutal violation by Hitler’s armies and the Gestapo before and during World War II. Camus, who as editor of the French resistance newspaper Libération was a leader in the French resistance, articulated–particularly in “The Rebel” and his novel “The Plague”—a vision of how values acquired their substance and contours not through abstract logic, but more directly through the experience of the horrors of their violation.
So today, on August 20, 2010, let us salute the courage of Dubček and Svoboda in their struggle to put “a human face” on socialism. Years later, their countryman, Václav Havel, gave expression to the dream of freedom of the Prague Spring generation in a voice that resonated through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and throughout the world. Havel became President of Czechoslovakia as a result of “the Velvet Revolution” in 1989.
I remember how in 1968, after the Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague Spring and the autonomous government of Alexander Dubček, it occurred to me that if there were ever a reform from within the Communist party led by a Soviet Dubček, there would be no Soviet tanks to crush the reform. As it turned out, I was only half right. Twenty years later, Mikhail Gorbachev, introducing glasnost and perestroika, led such a reform. Boris Yeltsin put down the reaction by overcoming tanks in 1991, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
For insight into the Prague Spring, see Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), and the 1988 American movie of the same title, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin, and Juliette Binoche.
The Trenchant Observer
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