The Visionary of Eastern Europe

November 10, 1992

Alexander Dubcek tried to create "socialism with a human face." He failed. He tried to wedge a place for Czechoslovak independence within the Eastern bloc. He failed. He tried to prevent a Soviet-led military occupation of Czechoslovakia. He failed.

Mr. Dubcek tried again 21 years later to guide anti-Communist reformers to a humane and moderate communism. He failed. He tried to hold his backward Slovakia in a capitalist Czech-led federation. He failed. He tried to reconcile Czechs to a loose association with an independent Slovakia.

And it was clear by his death Saturday at 70 following an automobile accident Sept. 1, that this greatest of contemporary Slovaks, this humane precursor of all that Mikhail S. Gorbachev later espoused and accomplished, this symbolic statesman of the century, had failed even at that.

A child of parents whose socialist idealism had led them first to the United States and then to Soviet Asia, the young Slovakian returned to his native land as an 18-year-old locksmith, joined the Communist Party, fought Nazi occupation as a partisan in World War II and climbed in the Communist Party afterward until he was installed at Soviet direction in early 1968 as head of the Czechoslovak party to replace a recalcitrant Stalinist.

Then came the heady days of the Prague Spring, when Mr. Dubcek as Communist boss championed the reformers, unshackled speech and press criticism, calling for the "widest possible democratization." The Brezhnev Doctrine was the Soviet dictator's rationale for saving "socialism" where endangered by sending in Soviet, Hungarian, Polish, East German and Bulgarian troops to occupy the country, whose people fought back with flowers and placards.

Mr. Dubcek was sent handcuffed to Moscow and came back broken, giving in. He was drummed from the party, sent briefly abroad and assigned as a forestry bureaucrat to Bratislava. He remained an unperson until the ferment of 1989 saw him once again on a platform, once again cheered, urging on Vlaclav Havel's "velvet revolution."

In the last election, as leader of a small democratic leftist party, Mr. Dubcek could not even win a seat in the Slovakian parliament. He could not brake the drive to secession from the Czechs, scheduled to take effect in January. As the only Slovak with international standing, he was being promoted at the time of his fatal car crash for the titular post of president of the embryonic republic. He was spared that last humiliation.

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