„Zaolzie 1938, Czechoslovakia 1968, Iraq 2003″ said a placard at an anti-war demonstration in 2003. Zaolzie was a contested territory that Poland occupied in 1938, having partitioned Czechoslovakia hand in hand with Hitler. The placard reminded shameful chapters in Polish military history in an effort to convince that the war in Iraq was also doomed to bring shame.
But who needed convincing? The war was not popular with the masses. It was politicians and journalists, left and right, who supported it. The Gazeta Wyborcza, back then the most influential medium in Poland and part of the war propaganda machine, allowed no space for dissent. Ironically, the newspaper had been founded by members of the Polish ’68 generation who spent most of their lives fighting for the freedom of speech and democratic legitimacy. What could possibly go wrong?
The official mythology has it that the suppression of the Prague Spring put an end to any faith one could have in a democratic socialism. Central European intellectuals abandoned quixotic ideas of a “better world” and began to look up to the West, adopting human rights and liberal values of the actually existing capitalism as the benchmark of normality. The more intensive contacts with their Western friends they had, the more provincial and imitative their thinking was…
To put long story short, we do not need to look far to see that liberal values, let alone human rights, become lifeless when not anchored in a utopian vision of a better world. The hopes of the Prague Spring were first crashed, then abandoned. But they can still teach us more than the false lessons that have been drawn from it for decades.