Jan Puhl revisits the survivors of the Prague Spring and concludes that the legacy of the year of when both the East and the West faced revolts was diametrically opposite. Brezhnev’s hesitation gave away finally to a decisive crushing of the Prague Spring, but it also spelled an eventual autumn for the Soviet brand of socialism. It was otherwise in the West.
The contrast between East and West has hardly ever been as great as it was then. As tanks rolled into Prague and members of the reform movement were arrested, students in Western Europe were taking to the streets to leverage far-reaching changes in government and society. In Germany, for example, protesters soon found a friend in Chancellor Willy Brandt, who wanted more democracy and embarked on a program of easing relations with the East.
Since then, references to “the ’68 Generation” have had two very different meanings. For those who grew up in the East, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, 1968 means Prague, Dubcek, the tanks and the end of an illusion. For those born in the West, the same year conjures up student leader Rudi Dutschke, demonstrations and the student protest movement, as well as the terror of the extreme-left “Red Army Faction.” For those who lived in the East, ’68 was a historical failure, while for those in the West the ’68 movement, taken as a whole, was a story of success.