1968 in Czechoslovakia
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Introduction to 1968
The why of the events happening in 1968 has been debated over the past years. Several individual building blocks came together that year. One is that Europe had to do with an unusual surge in births after WW2, creating a large age demographic that were teenagers by the time 1960 came knocking. Second was the new awareness that for the parents the happiness of their children was important to others. Also the lowering of the threshold for a higher (public) education (Universities became accesable for much larger group) played a part. Technical innovations also were of influence. TV formed a window to the World previous generations did not have. TV also brought events like the Vietnam War and public events like the Civil Rights March to the living room. Cheap recordplayers offered the opportunity for musical artists to reach out to an enormous audience. Add that to growing unemployment and economical difficulties and you’ll have the ingredients for revolution

What was it all about in Czechoslovakia

In the early 1960s, Czechoslovakia underwent an economic downturn. The Soviet model of industrialization applied poorly to Czechoslovakia which was already quite industrialized before World War II and the Soviet model mainly took into account less developed economies. Things started brewing when the Czech writer's union sympathized with radical socialists and openly expressed support of reformation. The opposition grew and Slovak born Alexander Dubček replaced Antonín Novotný as First Secretary on 5 January 1968. Here starts a historic event that would become known as Pražské jaro (or Prague Spring). Dubček started reform attempts granting additional rights to the citizens in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. Obviously mother Russia and it’s leader Brezhnev wasn’t to keen on the route Czechoslovakia was taking, especially since underground movements in the surrounding countries (Hungary, Poland, DDR) were getting inspired by it. At a 23 March meeting in Dresden, leaders of "Warsaw Five" (USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany) questioned a Czechoslovak delegation over the planned reforms, suggesting any talk of "democratization" was a veiled critique of other policies. A second meeting in August in Bratislava led to a declaration affirming unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against "bourgeois" ideology and all "anti-socialist" forces. To cut things short, this gave enough reason for Brezhnev to invade the CSSR in the night of August 20. By next morning Prague was occupied and Dubček arrested. A period of local non-violent protest and international outrage followed but eventually the situation did not change. The most dramatic event took place on 19 January 1969 when student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest against the renewed suppression of free speech. The generalized resistance caused the Soviet Union to abandon its original plan to oust the First Secretary. Dubček but force him to sign the Moscow Protocol and hand power to Gustáv Husák.

The impact in music

Music in Czechoslovakia was released by state label Supraphon that grossed in jazz and folk music. Music for teenagers was made by the Golden Kids (in which Helena Zagarova and Marta Kubisova), Karel Gott celebrated international triumphs with schlager styled material and Hana Hegarova made her own version of chanson. The temporary openess also enabled Western acts to perform in Prague. In the midst of growing political tension the Beach Boys performed at Lucerna Hall. They dedicated the song 'Breaking away' to the Prague Spring. The Russian invasion led to the establishment of a local rock movement. Most notable act was the Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) formed by Milan "Mejla" Hlavsa. Inspired by the music of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground they mixed folk, jazz, rock and anything they got their hands on. The PPU openly went against the grain of the Communist regime and due to its non-conformism often suffered serious problems such as arrests. The band sung in English and Czech of which ‘Na sosnové větvi’ and ‘Růže a mrtví’ (both written by Czech poet Jiří Kolář) became anthems. Other acts like Karel Kryl, Luboš Fišer's (Requiem68) and Karel Husa's (Music for Prague, 1968) refer to the events of 1968. Of these three Kryl was the most controversial. His 1969 album 'Bratříčku zavírej vrátka' (Close the Gate, Little Brother), described his disgust about the occupation, his views on life under communist rule, and his perception of the crude inhumanity and stupidity of the regime. It was banned and removed from shelves shortly after. Faced with certain imprisonment, Kryl left Czechoslovakia in 1969 to live in exile in West Germany. The PPU stayed and, due to its non-conformism attitude, had a hard time to perform let alone record an album. Eventually in 1974, the band recorded their first "studio" album based on texts by Egon Bondy called ‘Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned’, which was smuggled out and released in France in 1978. In the Slovakian part of the country the beatgroup Prudy was established in Bartislava in 68. After only one album organist Marián Varga left the band and established progrock combo Collegium Musicum. This instrumental band reworked the music of typical Slovak and Czech (classical) composers as a protest to dominance by the USSR. Maybe because they worked without text they succeeded in becoming the mayor rockact in Slovakia laying the foundations for Opus to operate untill 1989. Internationally the Prague Spring also formed an inspiration for musicians. Israeli singer Arik Einstein recorded ‘Prague’ in the memory of Jan Palach and "They Can't Stop The Spring", a song by Irish songwriter John Waters, represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007 memorizing the events.


What happened next?

The only change Dubček initialized that took hold even after 1968 was the decision to create two seperate federal systems, one for the Czech Republic and one for Slovakia. It may seem somewhat irrelevant but it was probably this decission that opened the opportunity for Ivan Stanislav to pursue the Supraphon board to establish a seperate Slovakian musiclabel (Opus) (also read our feature on statelabels for more info). The first release on the label was the debut of  Collegium Musicum and during the following 20 years Opus was able to release pop and rock albums (in the local language) while on the Czech side Supraphon was being much more resitant to this ‘western perversion’.

On the Czech side singers and songwriters like Vlasta Třešnák, Jaroslav Hutka, Sváťa Karásek and Marta Kubisova found themselves marginalized. In 1976, the PPU was arrested, put on trial and convicted of "organized disturbance of the peace" and sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 8 to 18 months. They would not perform again untill 1989 but their arrest also lead playwright Václav Havel and others to write Charta 77. The original manifest was smuggled out of the country and published in several western newspapers (including Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Times or New York Times) and transmitted to Czechoslovakia by Czechoslovak-banned radio broadcasters like Radio Free Europe or Voice of America. Several means of retaliation were used against the signers, including dismissal from work, forced exile, loss of citizenship, and imprisonment.

An official group of artists and writers was mobilized for an "anti-charter" movement which included singer Karel Gott as well as comedy writer Jan Werich who later claimed he had no idea of what he was doing whilst signing the anti-charter. Singer (and Charta 77 supporter) Marta Kubisova lost all means of performing. Her album ‘Lampa’ was shelfed and not released untill 1989 (on the cover she is displayed at a desk with the Charta 77 manifest in front of her). In 1987, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that his liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika owed a great deal to Dubček's "socialism with a human face". In 1989 the Velvet Revolution took place meaning the end of the Communist state. Karel Kryl's protest song 'Děkuji' (Thank you) became an iconic themesong during the riots prior to the fall. (The song is also featured in the documentary at the Prague Communism Musuem). A musical triumph took place when Frank Zappa himself came to Prague to perform with Eighties rockband Prazsky Vyber. Karel Kryl also returned to Prague in high anticipation of the change that would take place. Dubček was elected the Speaker of the Federal Assembly, a position he held until his death in 1992. Kryl died not many years later deeply disappointed about the results of the Velvet Revolution.