Yesterday (November 27) was the birth date of two persons who, in different ways, were icons of my teenage years and who defined a lot of 1968 for me. But, as I said, they were very different: the first was Alexander Dubcek, the second Jimi Hendrix.
Dubcek was a Czech politician, a Communist activist during the German occupation 1939-1945, and subsequently a rising star in the Slovak Communist Party. In January 1968, after what was in effect a coup against the Czech Communist leader Antonin Novotny, Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and thus the de facto national leader. He initiated a number of (for the time, in an Eastern bloc Communist state) radical reforms, including the right of association and assembly, and the abolition of censorship. He called this ’socialism with a human face’, and worldwide his reforms became known as the ‘Prague Spring’. But by the summer of that year the Soviet Union had become alarmed at the impact on the Eastern bloc of the Czech reforms, and after fruitless attempts to get Dubcek to roll them back, the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia during the night of August 20, and within days the Dubcek experiments were brought to an end. Dubcek himself remained in office for a short while, but by 1969 he was removed, first to the purely ceremonial job of parliamentary president, and then to the role of Czech ambassador to Turkey. In 1970 he was stripped of all remaining posts and his membership of the Communist party, and for the years that followed he was a supervisor in a Slovak forestry administration.
When 20 years ago the Communist party fell, Dubcek returned briefly to public life, again as parliamentary president, until he died in what some regarded as suspicious circumstances in 1992.
But during that brief period in 1968, for my generation Dubcek represented the possibility and promise of freedom under a reformed socialist system. When the Russian tanks rolled in, for many that became the moment when it became clear that Soviet Communism could not encompass a liberal attitude to personal rights and freedoms.
Jimi Hendrix was born (as Johnny Allen Hendrix) in Seattle in 1942. He showed a strong musical interest and talent from an early age. Having played with several bands in the early 1960s, he moved to London in 1966 where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He has immediate success with the band in the UK, and in 1967 he also exploded on the US music scene. In 1968 he released the album Electric Ladyland, which included the iconic songs ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Voodoo Child’. More than anything else, this album defines the music of 1968 for me. Of course Hendrix became famous for (occasionally) playing the guitar with his teeth, and he is regarded by many as the greatest guitarist ever. He died in 1970.
I don’t know whether Alexander Dubcek and Jimi Hendrix were aware of each other’s existence; and I suspect that many younger people today don’t know Dubcek at all and may not have heard that much of Hendrix. But for me both live on as symbols of 1968 as a year of hope.