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Romania 1968: The Spring of Our Hopes

Vladimir Tismaneanu, professor, University of Maryland.

I was born on July 4, 1951 into a revolutionary family. Both my parents fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. My father, Leonte Tismaneanu (nee Tisminetsky), lost his right arm in the battle on the River Ebro when he was 24. My mother, Hermina Tismaneanu (nee Marcusohn), a medical school student, was a nurse in the International Hospital. They were Stalinist internationalists, intensely and honestly believing in Soviet anti-fascism.

After the defeat of the Spanish Republic, they went, via France, to the USSR as political refugees. My two sisters were born there—Victoria in Kuybyshev (now Samara), in November 1941, Rodica in Moscow, in April 1944. My family returned to Romania in February 1948. My mother, who in the meantime had graduated from Moscow Medical School No. 2, taught pediatrics at the Institute of Medicine in Bucharest. My father became a communist ideologue. While in Spain, my mother had worked together with numerous doctors and nurses, including the Czech communist physician Frantisek Kriegel (1908–1979), chairman of the National Front and member of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, and the German nurse aid Erika Glaser, later Wallach (1922–1993). My mother’s sister, Cristina Luca (nee Bianca Marcushon in 1916), was a member of the French resistance and headed the intelligence unit of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans–main-d'oeuvre immigree (FTP–MOI ), where she became friends with Artur London (1915–1986), one of the three survivors in the 1952 Slansky show trial.

When the Prague Spring occurred I was enthused, like many of my generation, attracted by the very idea of a “socialism with a human face,” by the idea that totalitarianism is not eternal and that freedom could be achieved in a regime like the one we had in Romania. French and Italian communist newspapers were circulating in Bucharest and other Romanian cities, and many of us were listening to Radio Free Europe’s intense coverage of political and cultural dynamics in Czechoslovakia. Officially, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu supported the Prague Spring, and during his visit to Czechoslovakia in early August he proclaimed emphatically this pro-Dubcek stance.

But then in August 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia took place, followed by the restoration of the paralyzing order of Soviet-style ideological despotism, the “normalisation” imposed from and by the Kremlin: repression against those who had been supporters of Alexander Dubcek’s democratizing project; Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Prague in January, 1969; Ceausescu’s handling of a so-called national scare (in fact an unreal one) of a Soviet intervention in order to boost his own obscene cult of personality; the gradual fascization of Romanian communism, and so on. After all these, it became impossible for me to embrace the communist illusion any longer.

With 1968 and what followed came my own apostasy. In fact, as Adam Michnik often emphasized, the crushing of the Prague Spring symbolized the end of the revisionist illusions about reforms from the top down. This was also spelled out in conversations I held over the years with such major figures of the Prague Spring such as Jiri Dienstbier, Antonin J. Liehm, and Ivan Svitak. Both Liehm (a political refugee in France) and Svitak (an exile in the US, teaching at California State University in Chico) participated in a conference I organized in 1987 in New York titled, “Will the Communist States Survive? The View from Within.” At that moment I was already a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a regular (in fact weekly) contributor to RFE’s Romanian service. A main topic explored at that conference (later it came out as a volume co-edited by me and China-expert Judith Shapiro), was the crucial role of political disenchantment in the self-destruction of Leninist regimes. This is the way I see the legacy of the Prague Spring: It was an intellectual breakthrough rooted in moral outrage, a search for a different version of socialism. In fact, discreetly and cautiously, the Czechoslovak reformers were renewing Imre Nagy’s quest for a socialism which doesn’t forget man.

1968 was a time when many people saw Ceausescu as an open-minded Marxist, a nationalist communist, or even a supporter of socialism with a human face. I was there, in Bucharest, and had a peculiar family background doubled by a huge thirst for grasping what was going on. Ceausescu himself had flirted with this image and many Romanian intellectuals and technocrats believed in his demagogy, while foreign observers deemed him to be an East European David, confronting the big and scary Soviet Goliath. This was the narrative in 1968. It needs to be remembered in order to avoid simplistic, one-dimensional historical judgments. Ironically, the post-1968 invasion neo-Stalinist freeze within the Soviet Bloc offered Ceausescu the perverse rationale for building a monopolistic dictatorship and a personality cult second to none within European communism.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author of numerous books, including Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism (University of California Press, 2003); The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2012); and, together with Marius Stan, Romania Confronts Its Communist Past: Democracy, Memory, and Moral Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is a frequent contributor to Radio Europa Libera, RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.

The views expressed in this piece are Mr. Tismaneanu's own.