1968 Prague Spring Panel: Q & A with Grad History Alum Sean Brennan, PhD

Villanova Russian Area Studies hosts "The Brief Life of Socialism with a Human Face: The 1968 Prague Spring"

Sean Brennan, PhD, ’03 MA, Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton

VILLANOVA, Pa. – On November 7 in Falvey Library, Villanova University Russian Area Studies hosted a panel of experts who spoke about the 1968 Prague Spring. Villanova Associate Professor of History and Director of the History Graduate Program Lynne Hartnett, PhD, served as moderator, and the panel included Villanova alumnus Sean Brennan, PhD, ’03 MA, Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton, and Benjamin Nathans, PhD, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Brennan received his PhD in history at the University of Notre Dame after earning his MA in history at Villanova. He specializes in 20th century Russian, German and Central European history. He took some time to talk about the panel and his own academic journey.

Why does the Prague Spring hold such significance in European and world history?

In December 1967, Alexander Dubcek was elected as the new leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, and he tried to implement a series of reforms including providing greater freedom of speech, a free press, easing restrictions on art and literature, as well as economic reforms and creating a more federalized system of government that would give local authorities more power and hold the political police accountable to the courts.

The Prague Spring is much different than the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which was a nationwide revolt against the communist government and Soviet control. Hungary declared that they were re-establishing a multi-party democracy and leaving the Warsaw Pact, and, of course, were crushed by Soviet forces. Dubcek had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact, and was, in fact, a committed socialist. Unlike the Hungarians, East Germans, and the Poles, who hated the Russians, the Czechs did not, seeing them as the country that guaranteed their independence and territorial integrity and the Czech army was a huge component of the Warsaw Pact army. Instead, Dubcek believed that the socialist system could not rely on oppression alone, that he had to open up the economy and enact democratic reforms for it to survive.

The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was not happy. By the end of August, hundreds of thousands of troops from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact armies invaded. Dubcek was forced to resign, and all of his reforms were swept away. Brezhnev believed that press censorship was essential because if people had more freedom of speech, then they would begin calling for more political parties—which is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev enacted similar reforms in the mid-1980s.

I would argue that the Prague Spring was the most significant event in Europe in 1968 because the dream of democratic socialism—moving away from authoritarian rule—dies in 1968. It was the last genuine attempt at reform. The system, in the view of most who lived under it cannot be fixed, only endured.

How did you end up at Villanova for your master’s studies?

As an undergraduate, I attended Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Mo. I applied to a number of history PhD programs, but I did not get into any of my top choices. My advisor and I decided that I should apply to a good MA program to put myself in a better position to be admitted to a doctoral program. I wanted to learn Russian, which I couldn’t do at Rockhurst.  It came down to two schools, Villanova and Truman State University and I decided I would rather live in Philadelphia than Kirksville, Mo.!

But you had never been to Philadelphia?

I had never lived in a big northeastern city! I was born in Kentucky, and we moved around a lot because my dad was in the military, but I had never lived in the Northeast, although I had visited Boston and New York a number of times. I drove by myself from Missouri, stopping in Kentucky to see my girlfriend (now my wife), on the way. I had found a roommate to share a third-story apartment in Wayne, and when I got there he asked if I wanted to go to a Phillies game. I said “Why not?” Kansas City is fairly sizeable, but it’s not Philadelphia. So, I am in town less than an hour and now taking the SEPTA train into Center City on the way to the game. I thought to myself, “OK, here we go.”

How did Villanova prepare you for your doctoral studies?

I learned to deal with primary sources, how to really write a research paper. Villanova knocked the youthful arrogance out of me that I was the always the most knowledgeable student in the room. As an undergrad I was one of the few who wanted to pursue a PhD—I imagined myself one day as a serious scholar. It was a lot different at Villanova where everyone is at the same level! I would say graduate school is as different from college as college is from high school. At Villanova, I had some great mentors – Adele Lindenmyer [Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences], Marc Gallicchio [History Department Chair], Jeffery Johnson [Professor of History]. They helped me realize that I can do this. I tell my students at Scranton that if they are interested in graduate school, that they should look two hours down the road at Villanova.

How did you navigate to your particular specializations in history?

I took German in high school and minored in it in Rockhurst, creating my interest in German and Austrian history. Since reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Orwell’s 1984 in a two week period, I have been fascinated by the tumultuous history of Russia and all of the countries in between Moscow and Berlin. Tragic, terrible things happen, but Eastern European societies always move on.

How did you end up on this panel? Do you know Dr. Hartnett?

I actually met Lynne Hartnett on the way to a Slavic studies conference in 2010. We sat across the aisle from each other on the plane from Philadelphia to Los Angeles! But for this panel, I was recommended by Mike Westrate [Director of the Center for Research and Fellowships at Villanova]. Mike and I were in the PhD program at Notre Dame together, and we keep in touch.

What can we expect from the panel?

First, I want to say that being invited to come back to Villanova is as great an honor as one can hope to have for a former student. I think the panel will be outstanding. In Lynne Hartnett, Benjamin Nathans and myself, you will hear very diverse perspectives about one of the most pertinent world events post-1945 era.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.