For almost a year, an exhibition with the photos taken by Josef Koudelka in August 1968 at Prague has itinerated through Romania, showing the days when the Soviets and their allies from the Warsaw Pact militarily occupied Czechoslovakia. That was the end of the ‘Prague spring,’ a brief period of relative democratisation of Czechoslovakian socialism and an opportunity of hope for the political evolution of the world.
In Romania, the regime gained on that occasion an unexpected popularity, through an even stronger parting with the Russian influence (which had been overwhelming for a decade and a half), through some cultural effervescence (after years of repression, censorship and stagnation specific to proletcultism) and especially by refusing to participate in the invasion.
Koudelka’s photographs, made with a professional eye, were anonymously published in the West and, beyond their document value, imposed a specific iconography.
Tanks and soldiers with machine guns in an environment of a refined urbanity. Unarmed people moving from the enthusiasm of provocation to the fury of being unable, from the disarray of the too easy defeat to the hysteric indifference – on the other side. Youths with Beatles coiffures among recruits reminding of World War Two. Girls with the allure of Brigitte Bardot watching tank crews with their heads barely out of the turret. Coquette women crying, old men with clerk’s briefcases throwing bricks at tanks and youths proudly waving flags. Building facades ravaged by bullets, bodies and empty boulevards. Scooters peacefully passing near tank columns and burning streets. Swastikas and Soviet stars together. All these say a lot about the epoch of the last half of century. A different type of conflict between political violence and civic spirit.
“War is only the continuation of politics by other means,” Clausewitz said, and Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague illustrate very well the political history of half of Europe. In Czechoslovakia followed for two decades what was called the ‘normalisation’, an euphemism meant to define the conformism of subordination to an imperialistic dictate. This is what succinctly and eloquently suggested a sign painted on a wall, with an arrow toward Moscow and the distance written on it: 1,800 km. A serious distance between two worlds united artificially and implicitly an invocation in favour of the right to difference. Another occasional writing on a wall equated the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with the American one of Vietnam. Thus we are transposed to the heart of a deeply contradictory epoch.
A question is inevitable: what had in common, in that explosive year ’68, the Czechs surrounding the Soviet tanks and the French students setting fire to the streets of Paris in the name of Mao and communist extremism? What had in common the American ‘pacifists’ and the Romanians who acclaimed Ceausescu in his tirade in favour of the ‘national way’ to socialism? The world was then captive to the ideological polarisation maintained by the cold war. How many Czechs and Slovaks did really want a ‘socialism with a human face,’ how many wanted just breaking up from the Russian dictate and how many wanted to take gradual distance from communism? In any case, the Prague of that August also represented the hope for a non-military opposition, the way of civic refusal, a form of what was called ‘anti-politics.’ An attitude that transformed into a strategy of undermining an authoritarian, but unpopular policy. It was the beginning for many in the east, but also in the west, of the disenchantment of ideological illusions. And of searching another humanism, in a new civic culture, based on a different perspective of the purposes of politics.
The ‘City’ eventually won in this symbolic confrontation with the ‘War.’ The refinement of human relations – who have as superior form the urban cohabitation – top the detriment of totalitarian pretentions of force. We are accustomed to the image of street rallies, often conflicting with the law enforcement forces. Clausewitz was right, violence is the constitutive of politics and the dialectical relation with the forms of social violence is often tragic. However, the difference is made by the circumscribing of violence, by assuring a significant civic space, legitimised beyond the usual political mechanisms. That expresses the rejection of excessive politicisation. The rejection of politics as religion.