The abnormality of normalization

26-02-2009

On the airwaves, 1968 ended very much as it had begun. For New Year’s Eve, Czechoslovak Radio chose the same format as the year before, with the light-hearted musical cabaret of the Semafor Theatre. But behind the scenes, the Soviet-led occupation in August had changed everything. The Soviets were only too pleased for the radio to give the impression of normality. A gradual, almost imperceptible drift back to hard-line communism was beginning. The process came to be known cynically as “normalization”, a word that was first used by Alexander Dubček himself on August 27 1968. He had just returned from his forced five-day stay in Moscow, where he had been bullied into accepting the presence of foreign troops.

Petr PithartPetr Pithart “The normalization of the situation is a basic requirement for us to be able to focus our efforts once again on continuing along the path to change, in which you and we have believed, and if I am not mistaken, in which you still believe.”

At first there really was an illusion that reforms might be preserved. At Czechoslovak Radio, the damage from the Soviet tanks was repaired and staff went back to work. Even the reintroduction of censorship was initially only very tentative, and in the autumn of 1968 the radio broadcast several programmes that very openly discussed the implications of the invasion. One of the most interesting, on October 10, reflected on the huge numbers of intellectuals fleeing the country. One of the speakers was Petr Pithart, who 22 years later was to become the first post-communist Czech prime minister. While stressing everybody’s basic right to choose where they live, he appealed to the country’s elite not to abandon ship.

“It’s precisely in situations like this that we most need these people, not because they are irreplaceable, but because their names are associated with a certain trust and faith in the values they represented and wrote about in their articles. I’m beginning to have fears that this faith could very rapidly dissolve if many or most of those who enjoy people’s respect decide to go abroad or not to come back to Czechoslovakia.”

Petr Pithart’s fears were understandable. As the process of normalization continued, a sense of disillusionment and powerlessness spread rapidly. This was what provoked the young history student Jan Palach to take desperate measures. But more of that in next week’s From the Archives.

26-02-2009