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The Year 1968 from the Perspective of the Societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe

Conference in Bremen, Germany, on 22-23 February, 2008

 

OUTLINE OF THE CONFERENCE / CALL FOR PAPERS

I. Introduction
The events of 1968 in the societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe can only be understood against the background of destalinization. The conference will therefore begin with a lecture that presents an overview of the effects of destalinization on the political, social and economic situation of these countries from 1956 onward. The lecture will also raise questions about the setbacks for destalinization.

In order to avoid the terminology of the Cold War, I avoid the term "Soviet bloc" and resort instead to the model of Walter Markov and Manfred Kossok, as well as to the analyses undertaken by Hillel Ticktin, who characterized the political economy of the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s as an "unplanned hybrid system." In this concept, the term "transformation society" refers to a society undergoing a process of reorganization in which stable economic and political structures of domination no longer exist or do not yet exist. The terminology employed should in any case be critically reflected upon and justified.

II. The year 1968 from the Perspective of the Societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe
In what follows, the terms "opposition" and "resistance" refer to forms of behavior that question the claim to all-encompassing control formulated by the political regime or the party. Such opposition and resistance may be of an organized nature, but it does not necessarily have to be. It can be spontaneous or planned, just as it can take shape both within and outside the party apparatus. It can take either an individual or an institutional form. (An example of the latter would be opposition organized from within the Church.) The range of behavior includes critical remarks on the regime, spontaneous revolts against specific political measures and conceptually articulate, conscious resistance that works to achieve regime change in a conspiratorial and planned way.

The papers discussing the political, social and economic situation in the various countries in 1968 should examine the following issues and problems:
* The specific political and economic situation of the country in question, understood as the basis for all further analysis
* Oppositional / dissident groups and currents, including their previous histories in the various countries (political ideas and demands; forms of protest; social agents / spread of protest)
* Political successes and setbacks; the immediate and long-term consequences of the protest movements
* What information (both official and unofficial) circulated on these protests in other countries? If such information circulated, what effects did it have? Were there cases of practical cooperation?
* Were these groups and movements aware of the protest movements of the New Left in the West? Was there awareness of the content of these protest movements, its demands and the ways in which they were advanced? Was there an identification with these movements or a partial appropriation of its ideas, demands and forms of protest? Were there direct contacts?
* Conversely, how where the political and social protest movements in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe perceived by the traditional left and the New Left in the West? Was there support for these movements or were they rejected? Were contacts established and discussions or other exchanges organized? How did the traditional left and the New Left in the West react to the oppression and repression of the political and social protest movements in the countries in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe? What conclusions were drawn by the traditional left and the New Left in the West in terms of self-understanding and practical choices?
* Were the intellectual and political debates in the East followed in the West and vice versa? If yes, which debates were followed?

The purpose of this framework is to ensure that a common set of questions is raised about the events of the year 1968 in the various societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, so that the political and social protest movements can be compared and ultimately related to the social movements of the West. In what follows, I discuss some selected countries; these remarks are obviously open to further elaboration as the preparation of the conference proceeds.

II.1. The Year 1968: The Case of Poland
Poland was characterized by widespread political and social unrest in 1968. The population was dissatisfied with the economic situation, the lack of political freedom and state repression. A long-standing conflict between Vladislav Gomulka and his interior minister Mieczyslav Moczar (whose stance was extremely nationalist and anti-Semitic) came to a head. Moczar claimed, in 1967, that Gomulka's government had been "infiltrated by Jews." This occurred against the backdrop of the 1967 War in the Middle East: Moczar insinuated that Poland's Jewish residents sympathized with Israel. The government party organized so-called anti-Zionist rallies and purged the state apparatus of Jewish citizens.

A student dissident movement had been taking shape for some time. It called for greater liberties (freedom of speech and freedom of the press) and developed its own communication network, reporting on the international protests against the Vietnam War and focusing especially on the civil rights movements in the United States. Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski wrote their "Open Letter," which was read and discussed in the West. They called for a democratic socialism. The planned prohibition of a play by Adam Mickiewicz led to spontaneous, mostly student protests. The protesters were brutally beaten by worker militias. Like the government itself, the students were accused of having been infiltrated by Zionists; they were also accused of illoyalty towards the state. Nevertheless, the protests spread. The government attempted to isolate the students by means of an anti-Semitic campaign. Student speakers (many of whom later became well known dissidents) were imprisoned, and many university teachers were sacked. The Western press reported on the student protests. For the first time, the Catholic Church in Poland expressed its solidarity with the students, a decision that was not without consequences.

Before 1968, the students and intellectuals had joined the Communist Party in an attempt to democratize the political system from within. Following the events of March 1968, this was no longer seen as a viable option; only political activities organized outside of and independently of the party were perceived as viable.

II. 2. The Prague Spring
Similarly to Poland, the economic situation in the Czech Republic deteriorated increasingly during the mid-1960s, leading to growing discontent within the population. Intent on defusing the situation, the government made some concessions in the area of civil liberties: Censorship was reduced and limited freedom of movement to the West was allowed. Young people in the Czech Republic were inspired by Western youth culture; they wore jeans (texasskis), listened to Beat music and wore their hair long. A group of writers and intellectuals criticized the restrictions imposed by the regime and the lack of liberties, calling for a democratic socialism. In November of 1967, students demonstrated for better residential halls. Their demonstration was violently broken up, but the protests spread nonetheless. Outwardly, the students resembled those in Berkeley, Berlin and Paris.

In January of 1968, Alexander Dubcek succeeded Antonín Novotný as party chairman. To many people in the Czech Republic, Dubcek represented the promise of greater political liberties. In fact freedom of the press was greater in the Czech Republic at the time than in any other country in Eastern Europe – a fact that led to an intense controversy with Brezhnev during an economic conference in Dresden in March of 1968. The Soviet government took the view that Dubcek had lost political control of the country. The member countries of the Warsaw Pact began keeping a close eye on the Czech Republic. At the same time, the Czech Republic began to be perceived internationally as a country undergoing democratic reform. In April of 1968, the Communist Party issued a program of action announcing a "new model of socialist democracy." In late June and early July of 1968, a referendum was held on the question of whether the country should remain communist or become capitalist. Eighty-nine percent of the population voted in favor of a communist society. On 20 August, the member countries of the Warsaw Pact dispatched troops to the Czech Republic and violently ended all reform measures towards a democratic socialism. The effects of this intervention manifested themselves not only in the short term but also in the long term, and far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic.

II. 3. The Year 1968 in the German Democratic Republic
The policies of the GDR's Socialist Unity Party (SED) were extraordinarily ambivalent between August 1961 and August 1968. Following the construction of the Berlin Wall – an extremely repressive period – various study groups consisting of economic experts were charged with drawing up extensive economic reforms in order to confer greater independence and decision-making powers on individual factories and farms within the context of economic planning. NÖSPEL (New Economic System of Planning and Control) was the acronym given to these reform efforts, which were anaologous to those simultaneously being undertaken in Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The SED leadership faced growing problems with the younger generation from the mid-1960s onwards, leading to a directive being issued in 1966 on the reglementation of politically and socially non-conformist adolescents. Listening to Beat music was already banned in December of 1965. Artists and writers were especially subject to reglementation. In parallel with these repressive measures, a reform of the universities and the Academy of Sciences was launched. According to Anette Simon, the virus of disobedience had spread among East German students too: Their attitudes were similar to those of Western students, shaped by music like that popular in the West as well as by the anti-authoritarian stance and ideas of the time. The student movement in West Berlin and West Germany was widely discussed by this generation. The SED leadership's reaction was ambiguous: On the one hand, it welcomed and supported the campaign of the students and young people in West Germany against the emergency laws (Notstandsgesetze) projected there, as well as against the Vietnam War and the Springer company's newspapers to the point of providing material assistance; on the other hand it also criticized the Western extraparlimentary opposition as extremist and petty bourgeois. There were also contacts between the SED and its youth organization (FDJ) and the SDS, the student organization in West Germany. Independently established contacts were however not desired. Similarly to those in Poland and the Czech Republic, dissidents in the GDR were not struggling for a capitalist society; they wanted to democratize the existing system. Texts by influential theorists of the New Left were however not available, or they were denounced (as in the case of Herbert Marcuse). The utopias of a classless society or of a "Third Way" were considered dangerous and counterrevolutionary. The political developments in the Czech Republic in the spring of 1968 were observed with suspicion and criticized officially, while the population followed them sympathetically. In June of 1968 alone, more than 244,000 residents of the GDR visited the Czech Republic. Following the deployment of troops in the Czech Republic by the member countries of the Warsaw Pact, numerous protests ensued (although they were often of a tentative nature). The GDR's interior ministry had registered 1,742 "criminal acts" by 29 August, 1968. The majority of the population rejected the military intervention, although it did not believe in the possibility of a democratic socialism (unlike the GDR's intellectual critics). They had not forgotten the experiences of 1953 and 1956. 1968 had long-term political effects in the GDR as well.

II.4. Yugoslavia in 1968
Yugoslavia was a special case: The country broke with the Soviet Union in 1948 and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia developed its own socialist model, based on the idea of workers' control and an unbureaucratic socialism. This model was debated as an alternative to that of the Soviet Union the world over. The cultural and political liberties in Yugoslavia were also greater than in other transformation societies. This does not mean, however, that there was no state repression. Leszek Kolakowski summarizes the ambiguity of the situation as follows: In Yugoslavia, it was easier to publish a text criticizing the regime or the official ideology than it was in other Eastern and Southeastern countries, but it was also easier to wind up in prison for doing so.

In parallel with the socialism of workers' control, there was a broad and productive philosophical debate on Marxism in Yugoslavia. The journal Praxis, which first appeared in 1964 and was eventually banned in 1974, is emblematic of this debate. The Praxis group – whose members included G. Petrovic, M. Markovic, S. Stajonovic and. L. Tadiv, among others – organized international conferences on the island of Korcula. Philosophers, sociologists and economists from the world over debated problems of Marxist epistemology as well as ethical and aesthetic issues. The question of what constitutes a democratic socialism was at the center of their debates. Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse attended these conferences, as did Jürgen Habermas and Albrecht Wellmer.

As in other countries, the student protests of 1968 were triggered by an apparently banal event. On 2 June of 1968, students wanted to attend a sold-out concert. There was a minor tumult and the militia responded with undue harshness. This led to widespread outrage. The university in Belgrad was occupied by the students and renamed "Red Karl Marx University." Like those in other countries, these students saw themselves as the "true" Marxists and criticized their country's lack of civil liberties and social inequality. The party leadership under Tito responded to these students by means of repression only. The Praxis group was accused of having masterminded the student protests. The party organization at the Philosophy faculty in Belgrade was dissolved. The Croatian party leadership also took advantage of the situation and publicly denounced the Praxis group for having criticized Croation nationalism. Here as elsewhere, the 1968 was in some ways a catalyst for later developments.

II.5. Rumania, Hungary and the Soviet Union
Preparations for the conference will include examining the significance of the year 1968 for the transformation societies in Rumania, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

III. Intellectual Exchange Between East and West
A second focal point of the conference will be the examination of intellectual exchange between the social movements of the West and the social movements in the societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. What debates were conducted where? What were the discourses shaping political and social movements? What characterized these political and social movements and in what countries did they develop? In asking these questions, two sets of themes that were relevant of the time should be given special consideration:

First, models dealing with questions of economic organization and planning as well as with economic democracy (workers' control), such as those of Ota Sik, Fritz Behrends and others.
Second, the debates in philosophy and the social sciences on the relevance of Marxism, the workers' right to self-determination and a democratic socialism that were conducted both within the New Left of the West (New Left Review, the Frankfurt School, Italian Workerism and others) and within intellectual circles in the societes of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe (Praxis group, Eastern European "revisionism").
The purpose of this critical examination is to determine the extent and the nature of this exchange. Can one speak of a tendency towards the superation of the Cold War's mutually dependent systems of political domination by means of a "socialism with a human face" in both the East and the West? Or was it a question of vague utopias that failed to move beyond their initial formulations?

IV. Conclusion
This conference focuses on the year 1968. "1968" is understood as a global event that produced political and social protest movements the world over. On the one hand, these movements are characterized by common features in terms of the issues raised, the forms of protest and the social agents driving the protest; on the other hand, the movements also display specific features in each country that were determined by historic, social and economic differences. The conference focuses especially on the year 1968 from the perspective of the societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. For this reason, the conference will conclude with an examination of whether or not, and if so how, the political and social movements of 1968 in the societies of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe influenced the 1968 movement in the West and vice versa.

Coordination and Contact:
Angelika Ebbinghaus
Foundation for the 20th Century Social History / Stiftung für Sozialgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts
Fritz-Gansberg-Straße 14
D-28213 Bremen, Germany
Tel +49 (0) 421-2235262
Fax +49 (0) 421-2235251
E-Mail: AEbbinghaus@t-online.de or aebbinghaus@stiftung-sozialgeschichte.de
Web: www.stiftung-sozialgeschichte.de