April 18, 2018
By the time Alexander Dubcek became head of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party in January 1968, a sense of change was already in the air. In 1967, members of the writers’ union held a conference espousing their opposition to censorship, and students had marched on Prague Castle to protest conditions in dormitories. After a brutal police crackdown failed to quell the unrest, reformers like Dubcek gained the upper hand in an internal party struggle. Part policy, part accident, a period of cultural liberalisation, the so-called Prague Spring, followed.
Fifty years later, the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 is still a mainstay of European history courses, but the role that artists and writers played in the temporary thaw is overlooked—as is the impact Literarni noviny (“Literary News”), a periodical still produced today. Following the conference and additional agitation in the pages of the paper, which was the official weekly of the writers’ union, the government placed it under control of the culture ministry. The ministry closed it down, sparking opposition from the more liberal wing of the Communist Party.
Many of Czechoslovakia’s leading intellectuals up to that point had still sympathised with communism and hoped that it could be improved from within. “A lot of them were even party members,” says Tereza Spencerova, an editor at today’s incarnation ofLiterarni noviny. Unlike elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, Czechoslovak communists had taken power in part through democratic means in 1948…