The Prague Spring Fifty Years On: Meaning, Legacy, Future Prospects

September 20, 2018 to September 21, 2018
9/20/18 7:30 pm

Sponsored by the Government Department, The Center for Arts and Humanities and the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs

What: A conference probing the legacy of the Prague Spring of 1968, fleshing out its lessons for important domestic and international issues today, and producing a volume of essays.

When: September 20-21, 2018

Where: The Smith and Robins Rooms of the Roberts Building, Ostrove Auditorium and the Atrium of the Diamond Building

Who: An invited group of internationally recognized politicians, academics, activists, and cultural figures.

Why: An opportunity for students, scholars, policy makers, and activists to come together and use a major historical event as a gateway to discuss important current domestic and international political issues. An opportunity for international scholars and policy makers to discover Colby College and Maine. An opportunity for Colby College to gain exposure in Central Europe.


In early 1968, after two decades of totalitarian dictatorship under Soviet domination, the Czechoslovak state and society experienced a remarkable period of political and economic liberalization that became known as the Prague Spring. Under public pressure, control of the ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) passed to reformist members led by Alexander Dubček, who began partially decentralizing the economy and administrative authority and relaxing restrictions on the media, speech, and travel. This process took place in the broader context of an extraordinary flowering of the arts, including film, music, literature, and theatre, all of which acted as its catalysts. The Prague Spring abruptly ended in August 1968, when Czechoslovakia was invaded by its Warsaw Pact allies led by the Soviet Union, its reformist leaders were deposed, and pro-Soviet hardliners were reinstalled. The processes of political and economic liberalization and cultural renaissance were reversed, ushering in a period of “normalization” and stasis under Soviet military occupation that would last until the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989.

Conference Purposes

Taking place on the fiftieth anniversary of the event, the conference has the following purposes, which will directly inform its addresses, presentations, and discussion sessions:

(1) To revive the memory of the Prague Spring at a time when the majority of its witnesses are dead, its youngest participants are entering their seventies, and the event is fading into obscurity.

(2) To scrutinize the historiography and competing interpretations of the Prague Spring. The event is traditionally remembered as a movement toward liberal democracy and market capitalism, but this narrative glosses over the event’s self-understanding as an experiment in democratic socialism. The conference will reflect on the politics of the event’s representation.

(3) To discuss the role of art as a vehicle of political dissent and emancipation at a time when this role is being increasingly neutralized by the entertainment industry, which absorbs even the most subversive artistic expressions and makes them serve the logic of capitalist market exchange.

(4) To discuss the role of university students and higher education in stimulating social and political transformation at a time of prohibitive college tuition levels, which threaten to turn universities into “pay to play” institutions reproducing standing patterns of exclusion and inequality.

(5) To discuss Russian expansionism and the current political and security situation in Central and Eastern Europe. Although American statesmen vehemently denounced the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, no effort was made to rescue the Prague Spring from its tragic fate. Was this policy sound? What are the lessons for U.S. and NATO strategy in eastern Ukraine, the Baltics, and other pro-Western countries threatened by Moscow today?

(6) To discuss democratic socialism and its future prospects in the wake of its historic defeat during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Is democratic socialism a viable alternative to liberal capitalism? What are the similarities and differences between the program of the Prague Spring and the platform of Senator Bernie Sanders? What, if anything, can American democratic socialism learn from the Prague Spring?

Core Participants

Petr Pavel

Czech army general. Decorated veteran of the Bosnian War for his service in the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Current Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Legion of Merit recipient (2018).

Petr Pithart

Czech politician, lawyer, and political scientist. Prague Spring participant and anti-communist dissident. Former Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia (1990-92).

Iveta Coufalová

Czech historian, essayist, and journalist. Editor-in-Chief of Dějiny a současnost (History and the Present) and expert on the historiography of the Prague Spring.

Paul Goldsmith

American photographer. Eyewitness of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, owner of a unique collection of prints documenting the event.

Mark Kramer

Director of Cold War studies at Harvard Univeristy’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasion Studies. Author of numerous works on the Prague Spring and its significance.


Thursday, September 20
Ongoing – Photo Exhibit by Paul Goldsmith in the Diamond Atrium

7:30pm – Keynote Address by Petr Pithart: “The Prague Spring—or the Bratislava Spring? Fourteen Theses on the Meaning of the Event,” (Ostrove Auditorium, Diamond Building)

Friday, September 21
Ongoing – Photo Exhibit by Paul Goldsmith in the Diamond Atrium

9:15-10:15am – Petr Pithart on the Prague Spring 50 Years On: Where We Stand Today (Roberts, 1st floor)

10:30-11:30am – Panel Discussion on the Politics of Remembering the Prague Spring (Roberts, 1st floor)

1:15-2pm – Paul Goldsmith on Photographing the August 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia (Roberts, 1st floor)

2:15-3:15pm – Iveta Coufalová on the Prague Spring and Czech Historiography (Roberts, 1st floor)

3:30-4:30pm – Petr Pavel on August 1968 and Russian Expansionism Today (Roberts, 1st floor)

7:30pm – documentary screening of Invasion 1968: The Russian View (dir. Josef Pazderka, 2017), introduced by Petr Pithart (Bixler, Given Auditorium)

The Prague Spring Fifty Years On: Meaning, Legacy, Future Prospects
Posted August 22 at 9:28 am
Contact Government Department
Category Academic Events
Posted By Julia Bruno