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Alexander Dubček Recollections of the Crisis: Events Surrounding the Čierna nad Tisou Negotiations
Our Source: Navratil, Jaromir.
"The Prague Spring 1968". Hungary: Central European Press, 1998, pp. 300-307
Original Source: "Alexander Dubček vzpomíná: Původní rozhovor pro 0bčanský deník o pozadí událostí roku 1968," 0bčanský deník (Prague), Part 1, August 3, 1990, p. 3 and Part 2, August 10, 1990, p. 3.
Translated by: Mark Kramer, Joy Moss and Ruth Tosek
Comment: This is an interview publicized in 0bčanský deník. It takes the reader behind the political scenes and gives us a view of the person we have gotten to know as Alexander Dubček.
Memories of Dresden and Warsaw and of meetings at Čierna nad Tisou and Bratislava in the spring and summer of 1968 are still swathed in mystery, and many questions remain. This is even more the case with regard to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of five countries, as well as the Moscow talks between our delegation and representatives of the Kremlin. We asked the person who knows most about those events-Alexander Dubček – for a testimony and some personal memories.
0bčanský deník: The threat to the renewal process from the Warsaw Pact actually began with the meeting in March 1968 – the meeting at Dresden. But a more urgent threat arose at the meeting of the five communist parties in Warsaw in July 1968, when they drafted a letter. How would you characterize the situation at that time?
Dubček: As I see it, the Warsaw Letter was a turning point. A watershed. Until then, in my view, no decision was made on intervention. Brezhnev and the others were still working to find a “fifth column” in our country, including some elements from the State Security as well as some in the army and the CPCz. They wanted to do everything they could to stir up internal unrest in our country. But intervention bad not yet been decided on. In my view, this was the logical progression of events.
And in this situation they prepared the Warsaw Letter, which was supposed to be the signal that a “fifth column” bad been found. At that time they said we were refusing to negotiate with them. That's nonsense, we didn't refuse. We said we wanted the joint meeting to be preceded by bilateral meetings. We received threatening letters from individual parties. In particular, what Ulbricht wrote me was awful. So we said that first we wanted to meet these parties individually, and then these bilateral meetings would culminate in a joint meeting.
But they insisted on holding these meetings in such rapid sequence that it took us aback. They did not accept our proposal, and decided to meet without us, without the bilateral meetings, and without having the Romanians and Yugoslavs present, contrary to what we had proposed. There is, in my view, another point to be made here, namely, that they attempted to destroy our national unity by threatening a dangerous confrontation and also by activating their supporters. They expected that in this kind of situation we would invite them ourselves.
We of course would never have done that; it was simply their way of thinking. And if Brezhnev claimed otherwise at the time, he was incorrect. I view it this way: If we had gone to the Warsaw meeting (about which we beard for the first time on the plane from Prague to Bratislava), they would, in our presence, have been able to do everything they had decided to do, and that would have been even worse.
They would have demonstrated to their fifth column in Czechoslovakia that we were giving up, or that we were in front of a tribunal similar to the new Constance, Court.
Moreover, the “Warsaw” participants, in my view, had another key trick up their sleeve to try to disrupt the situation in our country. But none of their plans came to pass. /.../
This was because they did not have as strong a position in our country as they thought they had. Events showed that our new ideas were already deeply rooted in the people, and we were able to unite the nation, as well as the army and a majority of the security forces, and even the militia (as you remember, it was they who later protected the Vysočany congress). Therefore, there was no chance they would have been taken over by a fifth column.
When I received the letter from Warsaw I immediately called Brezhnev. I told him: “l have the letter. But don't publish it. Let's hold a bilateral meeting, and then a joint one, together with Yugoslavia and Romania.” But they refused to go along. They published it. And therefore I was presented with a fait accompli.
I thought to myself. I will go about my work and see what happens. But suddenly it was as if the “11th” hour had arrived. What could be done?
It’s easy to say, “do it this way or that way,” but when you stand at the captain's helm, your brain ticks over very fast. I walked over to the secretariat, got a few people together, and said: “What should we do? Let's convene the Central Committee.” And all of them, though they were my supporters, said: “Are you so naive that you can't see that this is exactly what 'they' want – to provoke a confrontation there?” Imagine if I had retreated then, and not convened the Central Committee. Afterwards, of course, the CC, either because it had gained experience or because it was threatened by a domestic wave of discontent, agreed with our reply. There were a few people who disagreed and spoke strongly against it, like Kolder. But when the vote on the Warsaw Letter came, “their” position was rejected. That was another of “their” losses. “They” prepared their armed forces as early as the Šumava military exercises and got ready, as they are accustomed to do, for the worst-case scenario. I do not underestimate this scenario; the possibility had existed since Dresden. Nevertheless, they still were counting on some action from within, that is, an internal solution.
But the people in our country were more and more united behind the renewal process, and even the old CC took a stand against “them.” Also, the leftist movement in Europe was more and more with us. All this tied “their” hands. But “they,” in accord with their old stereotypes, believed that with constant goading and pressure on us, they would finally put together something that they could use as a pretext for intervention and for setting up a fifth column. But in practice of course that did not happen.
0bčanský deník: What led Brezhnev. to agree to the meeting in Čierna?
Dubček: If I remember correctly, one of the responses of the CPCz CC to the Warsaw Letter was that we would do everything we could to prevent a confrontation. And as I already mentioned, we wanted bilateral talks, not a “tribunal.” I was obsessed with the idea of either eliminating Warsaw or somehow circumventing it. “They,” on the contrary, wanted a meeting that would reaffirm Warsaw.
And from these different motives Čierna happened. To judge the meeting, one must see it in very close relation to what preceded it. Only then is it possible to understand it, to see what it was and why. At the meeting-as you can see from the speeches by Rigo, V. Bilák, and others, which were diametrically opposed to my position – “they” again tried to create a split within our ranks. That is why they kept yelling: “A pochemu?” “Kto opportunist?” “Kotorye pravye?” They always needed to force the pace to the point where they had everything all sewn up and which they finally also realized. At Čierna they attempted to “smuggle” something into the documents, and they were masters at that – a normal person reads only what is written, but they would read what is not written, and whatever would bind us to Warsaw.
In my speeches I adhered to a line that conformed with what the CC Plenum and the Presidium had already agreed on. But that was not the usual approach. That's why afterwards Vasil Bilák repeatedly said that I did not have my speeches approved. I said: “Why should I have had them approved? I stuck by the already-agreed line.” Bilák or others later on also accused me of not preparing for Čierna properly. They meant the railway station, etc.
I said before to the Soviets: “Why can't the meeting be held in Košice or somewhere else?” It was the Soviets' idea to hold the meeting in Čierna. They had everything prepared there. I didn't even know what the club in Čierna looked like, but they went there in all confidence. The fact that the meeting was on the border was itself a sign.
They might have thought that it would be easier to cause divisions and fragmentations among us on the border, and that they had us “in their pocket.” From the speeches of Brezhnev and others it was clear they wanted to pressure us into accepting Warsaw. I told Brezhnev that I disagreed. I said that a new document had to be adopted affirming that we would be able to resolve everything in our own way, and that we really would have leeway to act in accordance with our Action Program. “A new document,” I said, “would be worked out at a multilateral meeting.” And that meeting took place later in Bratislava.
When the Soviets realized that I was supported by the majority (Kriegel, Smrkovský, Černik, Špaček, and others), they concluded that they had to change their tactics.
This change of direction roughly corresponds with the moment when Brezhnev announced that he was ill. He was jogging around there in his pajamas, but I saw that he was not ill. They needed time – they had their phones and transmitters – to be able, if their original plan didn't work out, to consult on new measures with others from Warsaw and find a solution. After consultations, they apparently reached an agreement, and so we came to the only conclusion that was also acceptable for us.
0bčanský deník: Could you perhaps reconstruct for us the private discussion you had with Brezhnev in between the four rounds of talks in the train? Did it include some of Brezhnev's demands regarding the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia?
Dubček: The atmosphere in the car at that time was very tense, which was true of all the other discussions as well. I noticed that Brezhnev and the others were already extremely nervous during the joint meetings and during their speeches. It was apparent from their tone of voice, the expression of their eyes, and their whole demeanor. Personally I don't need much sleep, so I walked around the station and talked to the railway workers until the morning when the news came that Brezhnev was sick and could not attend the meetings. I sensed that something was not quite right, that something was going on.
In this context, I was informed that Brezhnev wanted to talk to me privately. And because he was sick it had to be in his train car. I went there, looked at him, and said to myself: “You really are sick.”
That may have been in the afternoon, I don't remember it that well. Brezhnev was in his pajamas and tried to evoke sympathy. Maybe he was trying to wring concessions or something out of me that way. He had definitely made up his mind that the meeting would be in Bratislava on 3 August, and that it would not be postponed any longer.
Because the date of the meeting was near and it would be difficult to organize and prepare everything, I did not raise the question of having others participate again. I was led to believe that an “un-Warsaw” document would be adopted. I said that this time we agreed with what we had been talking about before and that we were ready to come to the meeting.
It was also decided that I would inform the members of our Presidium, and if there were no objections, the meeting would be held despite the time pressures (there were only 2-3 days to the scheduled start).
And then another matter arose. Brezhnev obviously returned to the things he always liked to get involved with: “A chto takoe s etimi kadrami? Pochemu takoi Kriegel?” He was interested in how this issue would be resolved. I don't know whether there were other names mentioned, hut I have the feeling that he did also mention Čísař. And Pelikán, who had come under attack as early as the Dresden meeting. I told Brezhnev that these people had proven their abilities through their work. (I obviously later informed our own people about everything that was said in the train car.) We left the precise status of those people totally unresolved. As always, I declined to promise anything. I am not that naive. I had to leave myself as many open doors and as much room to manoeuvre as possible.
Soon after, Brezhnev brought up these personnel questions again, which showed that despite the new tactic they still had not given up the idea that we would speed up our own work and move ahead at full steam with certain personnel changes.
I strongly objected to making any such changes, and I actually did not make any until after the invasion, when we had to agree to make these concessions in order to minimize the consequences. For Brezhnev it was obviously a test of how far be could go on this issue, and he returned to it in Bratislava.
Therefore, I made no promises to him of any sort. But whenever “they” say something, they read it according to their old habits as “it was said.” And whenever “it was said,” it was, according to their leaders, also binding. It went automatically like this: ”It was adopted, it was agreed upon, and there will be no changes.” That was their approach.
In that sense, Čierna was like an intermediate step, which I regard, from the standpoint of what we said in the CC plenum and the Presidium, to have been a success. It was a success insofar as it moved us forward to the Bratislava meeting and what happened afterwards. You cannot treat them separately. I couldn't change the fact that what “they” described there was imperialism, etc. What was important was that the Bratislava document stated we should solve our internal problems according to what we thought was right (this was explicitly noted in the document), and it affirmed that this should be done on the basis of sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, and so forth. Even today I remember how vehemently the Germans, in particular, and perhaps others objected to this. But I insisted it was precisely these conditions – that we be permitted to solve our internal problems ourselves, that our borders were inviolable, and that our actions be based on o r sovereignty – that must be included in the declaration. Otherwise I would never have signed any such document. That was clear. I acted in accordance with this principle, and that's why in a televised speech on 4 August I said we had succeeded because we had achieved what we promised at home. I also stressed that no other documents except the declaration had been adopted, that no split had resulted, and that we bad maintained our sovereignty, and so forth.
Obviously, today anyone can reproach me and say I was naive when I believed all that. But the declaration was an international document that was valid before the whole international community, so why shouldn't I have relied on it? The rest of the world sympathized with us, but they left it up to us to solve our problems.
0bčanský deník: Let's get back to the train car. What did Brezhnev say initially?
Dubček: I may not remember it exactly. He resorted to arguments against the people I already mentioned (Kriegel, Pelikán, Čísař) and so forth. He let me know they expected that the leadership of the party – meaning me – would take certain steps against these people. Their intention, as I indicated, was to create a schism within the progressive leadership. Any action would not have been limited to just these three people, though other names were not explicitly mentioned. I could sense – and Brezhnev also made this clear – that it would be necessary to get rid of all people who were “right-wing opportunists” and “anti-socialist elements,” and so forth. They always linked Kriegel with some sort of espionage on behalf of certain sinister powers as a result of his visit to Chiang Kaishek. They tried to sow disunity among the progressive leaders with these same kinds of arguments. They tried to use all manner of influence against us so that they would provoke mistrust not only against me, but against others as well. That way they could foster a climate in which people would say “You might trust Dubček, but he's betraying us!” They needed somehow to compromise my integrity as well as that of Smrkovský, and others. They had to ensure that all of us would be rendered powerless in front of our people.
Let's not deceive ourselves. I grew up in this professional apparatus. I was active for years in the antifascist movement. I lived for years in the Soviet Union. I lived through all the changes there, from collectivisation to the trials. When I lived through this and then again in Czechoslovakia for a second time, I had already developed a defensive layer. It had deformed me by the time Khrushchev came to power. Even so, they – the Soviets – are good enough psychologists to know they could discredit me because most people assume that anyone who grew up in that apparatus and in the Soviet Union must be untrustworthy and is “their” man. I am thinking out loud here because I want to make sure everyone understands what they were trying to do. They were trying somehow to isolate me somewhere, manipulate me in some way, and make me take a step that would alienate me from the people and thus cause people to think: “What were we saying? He's just 'their' man!” This was not specified formally, but it was very serious. I sensed this was also being done in the train car, and we got into a long and repetitive debate that cannot be described in any systematic way because it was not systematic.
0bčanský deník: Did Brezhnev have some principal demands for changes in our internal policy and in connection with the mass media?
Dubček: These demands were all presented at every meeting beginning with Dresden. The same thing was done at Čierna nad Tisou. They said: “You have to do something!” Even to this day many historians have said that if we had made some concessions, we could have continued our reforms and everything would have been different. Kádár, too, said that if we had taken these warnings into consideration, the situation would have been better. But what exactly could I have done? Reimpose censorship? Get rid of those people? These were precisely the things they were seeking and demanding. I simply could not embrace the line they were trying to force on me. This was so during the whole crisis because they were trying to manipulate me into this position.
I just can't accept the hypothesis that if I had gone about making concessions, everything would have been fine. After all, we were not starting after a complete defeat, the way Kádár himself did! We were on the rise, we were moving upward. And if I had accepted a form of “Kádárization,” which emerged in 1958 from the Hungarian defeat two years earlier, it would have been incompatible with our movement. It would have been nonsense in that time before “August,” and I would have ended up the same way Gomulka did. And I didn't want something like that to happen, I couldn't let it happen. And all of this was in the air during the meeting at Čierna nad Tisou in the train ear. To have done what they wanted us to do, to have made concessions, and to have reached for their hand and maybe have shaken it – all this was what they wanted to achieve. But these very things would have caused disunity among us and a split between the leadership and the people, and the armies might have arrived here even sooner than 21 August. We tried to get an agreement, an agreement that would provide reasonable self limitations for radicalism and radicals; we tried to have them understand how far they could go and we could go in light of the external circumstances. They did not always understand, though in the end they did. But should I have used an iron hand to make them understand? If I had, I would have betrayed myself, the people – the nation, and everything we stood for. I could not have done that, it was not in my character. They were bound to be disappointed in that light.
0bčanský deník Besides insisting that those people be dismissed, did Brezhnev in the train car – or the Soviet leaders in general – demand the dissolution of KAN, the social democrats, K-231, etc.?
Dubček: In the train ear he didn't raise that again. That came up in the earlier statements, when they claimed that those groups were anti-socialist elements, right-wing organisations, and so forth. But we viewed them as organisations that supported the new political course. These were people whom we had rehabilitated and had reintroduced into social life. Soviet leaders were always citing a few marginal things, one or two things against them. But if KAN had been evaluated objectively, it would not have been deemed an anti-state, anti-social, and anti-socialist organisation, instead, it would have been seen as a group of people who bad simply found their own way to fit into the new course. And we indeed saw this as a feature of pluralism, the expression of different views, which was in accordance with our policy. But “they” set themselves against these groups and on every occasion expressed serious warnings about them. At Čierna nad Tisou we did not assume any obligations on this matter.
0bčanský deník: Did the members of the Soviet Politburo display a united front, or were they internally divided? Did some of them want some sort of concession from you to use as an argument against the “hawks” to show that military intervention was unnecessary? And where specifically did Brezhnev fit in? Did you sense a division?
Dubček: You would have to know them. You could see it only in their eyes, what they were like. I had thought initially that maybe the chairman of the trade unions, Grishin, might be a little more conciliatory. I saw how they reacted to certain things. For example, about three of them reacted heatedly when Shelest jumped into the conversation and claimed that in our country there were movements to incorporate the Transcarpathian region of the Ukraine back into the ČSSR. At the time I said that if the meetings were to continue in this way, I would break them up and not be willing to negotiate any more. They then saw that I meant it seriously, and some of them were afraid they had gone too far. But to be frank, they were brought up in such a way that even if they had bad inner doubts about what they were doing, they would never reveal those doubts or talk about them. I do not believe there were people among them saying: “Let the new socialists do what they want to do; we'll see what comes of it.” No. I think that if they were linked by anything, it was by the power they were so accustomed to having.
0bčanský deník: Was there any occasion in 1968 when Brezhnev hinted that be was acting differently from the way be thought, so that be could mollify the “hawks”? Did be mention anything along these lines? Or did Kosygin? Did no one say so? Not even as an aside, as Brezhnev later did to Šimon?
Dubček: All of this was dissimulation. I knew them very well, their psyches, their way of thinking. They were very treacherous. An actor could not have done as well as they did. I did not see anything of the sort. No hint that they wanted to do one thing, but could not do so. And what Brezhnev told Šimon in November 1968 was said only to create a better image. Nothing else. I don't believe in those things. I know that there were powerful militaristic circles in the Soviet Union, but I don't know what Brezhnev himself thought about them. You see, my own view is that they were all filmmakers whose aim was to destroy everything that was emerging in our country. I arrived at this opinion on the basis of the following consideration: Brezhnev, you'll recall, took part with the others in the conspiracy and coup against Khrushchev. And was Khrushchev’s course at that time a reformist course? It certainly was. His course was against Stalinism in the economy, in politics, and everywhere else. Whatever else it may have been, it was reformist. And Brezhnev was in the forefront of the conspiracy not only against Khrushchev, but against the reformist course as well. So why should he grant leeway for reforms to the Czechs and Slovaks? Would he, Brezhnev, grant leeway to the Czechs and Slovaks to come up with something new and to disseminate a new way of thinking to the whole world? I don't believe it for an instant. If it's true that the era from 1953, beginning with the rise of Khrushchev, to 1964 was an era of attempts to combat Stalinism and to struggle for reform, then it is equally true that the Brezhnev conspiracy was a step that put an end to this process in the Soviet Union. I would use that date to mark the start of the period of neo-Stalinism. And that's why I don't accept the notion that Brezhnev might have been having some conciliatory thoughts. What just recounted to you are facts that show just the reverse. The advent of Brezhnev’s regime heralded the advent of neo-Stalinism, and the measures taken against Czechoslovakia in 1968 were the final consolidation of the neo-Stalinist forces in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, and other countries.
0bčanský deník: What was the role of Kádár?
Dubček: It is often said that Kádár was in a difficult position because be, after all, had to protect something of what be bad accomplished in Hungary. But I would ask: How was he “protecting” it? Did be send his army? Yes, he did. Did he consent to the armed intervention? Yes, he did. The fact that he gave his consent in a more conciliatory tone hardly matters. As early as the spring there was a possible course of action which I explained to Gomulka when be and I were strolling near a playing field in Ostrava around the beginning of 1968. If he and Kádár – along with Ceauşescu, who at the time believed that every country should have the right to act on its own – had come to our defence, and if we had been part of a “Warsaw Four,” I don't know what such a grouping would have looked like. I said to Gomulka that time in Ostrava: “Why don't you support us? Look at what we did to revise the political process. Here, too, we must correct things. Why shouldn't we do this together?” In response, he said that what I was talking about was a somewhat different thing – the correction of shortcomings. In Czechoslovakia this process was already going too far. I asked him: “How far?” Is the problem that we are enacting reforms and the people fully support the new course? I asked the same question of Kádár, Brezhnev, and the others. Whether some of them were or were not conciliatory, I don't know. Maybe instinctively they were. But all of them acted identically. None of their speeches even hinted that one of them was trying to get out of the circle and express a principled position at least in this sense: “Let's hold off and not interfere there, and we'll see how things work out.”
0bčanský deník Did Brezhnev say anything in the train ear to the effect that he was pursuing some sort of international political goal that would he endangered by a serious conflict in Czechoslovakia? Perhaps a treaty with the U.S.? Did he use that sort of argument?
Dubček: No, not at all. He just said that imperialism was growing in strength and that a threat to security was expected from this trend, and so forth. This of course was totally false. It is known that when they presented the U.S. leadership with a note justifying the invasion, American armies retreated some 200 kilometres from their original positions along the western border. This also reinforces the points I discussed in the first part about whether we should have resisted militarily or not. I talked about that with people who came here – for example, with Kissinger – and also when I was in the United States I discussed it with members of Congress. I asked them: “What would you have done?” And they responded: “You helped us out as well by not having fought. Fortunately, you kept a cool head. Any other course would have posed a danger, and a danger not only for you, but one that could have meant a catastrophe for all of Europe and ultimately, perhaps, for the whole world.” Each and every one of them said this to me.
0bčanský deník: In the train car did Brezhnev threaten you with military intervention?
Dubček: No, not at all.