1968 invasion remembered outside Czech Radio

Photo: Kristýna Maková

Wednesday marks the 45th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Soviet Union and other communist countries. The invasion shocked the nation, and ushered in a long period of political and moral decline. More than a hundred people died during the invasion, some of whom were killed in defence of Czechoslovak Radio. On Wednesday, several Czech top officials, witnesses and dozens of guests marked the anniversary outside the Czech Radio building in central Prague.

August 1968,  Prague,  photo: archive of Pavel Macháček
Czech Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok, the speaker of the lower house Miroslava Němcová, Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček and other officials on Wednesday morning honoured the victims of the invasion in front of the Czech Radio building in Prague’s Vinohradská street.

For many Czechs and Slovaks, the invasion was an abrupt end to their hopes that socialism could be merged with freedom and democracy – a dream cut short by the arrival of Soviet, Polish, East German, Hungarian and Bulgarian armies on the night of August 21.

Fifteen people were killed in the confrontation with Soviet troops outside the Czechoslovak Radio building, as they tried to prevent the occupiers from ending the station’s uncensored broadcasting and reporting on the situation. Marking the anniversary on Wednesday, Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok highlighted the radio’s role during and after the invasion.

“Radio became a symbol of resistance against the occupation of Czechoslovakia, and a symbol of the bravery of those who stood alone, with their bare hands against the tanks, fully aware that their struggle had no chance of succeeding. But their opposition had a deep significance; it showed the value of standing up to occupation and lies.”

Miroslava Němcová,  photo: Kristýna Maková
Other guests who appeared at Wednesday’s ceremony also stressed the importance of free public media in today’s society. For her part, the lower house chair, Miroslava Němcová spoke of the moral corruption that came after the invasion, and warned against the impeding return of communists to power. Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček was born 11 years after the invasion. I asked Mr Hudeček what significance the anniversary had for him.

“This day is important for all of us because many people of my age and younger don’t know what the communist era was like. They don’t remember the shortages of oranges and bananas but also more important issues – the lack of freedom, the lack of responsibility for one’s actions, and so on. I believe that marking this anniversary will help us remember all these things of the past.”

In your remarks, you also said the post-1968 period known as normalization still very much affects the society today. Do you really think its effects are so lasting?

Tomáš Hudeček,  Jiří Rusnok,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“I do. Many things have not changed since the fall of communism in 1989. Changing people’s way of thinking is so much more difficult than changing the way the streets and cities look, for example. I think the transition will take more than 20 years.”

Events marking the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia are held elsewhere in Prague and the Czech Republic – and beyond. In the Bulgarian capital Sofia, a monument to Soviet troops has been painted pink, and a slogan was added that in Czech says “Bulgaria apologizes”.