The 1968 invasion: When hope was crushed by Soviet tanks

Photo: FORTEPAN / Konok Tamás id, CC BY-SA 3.0

On August 21, 1968 the citizens of Czechoslovakia woke to learn that their country had overnight been invaded by Soviet-led troops, deployed to crush the Prague Spring reform movement. Over 100 people were killed during the invasion, which began a two-decade occupation, sparked mass emigration and dashed dreams of a freer future for a generation.

August 21,  1968,  photo: CIA,  Flickr,  Public Domain
At 1:55 a.m. on August 21, 1968 Czechoslovak Radio began broadcasting an announcement from the Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership: The country had been invaded just before midnight by five Warsaw Pact countries.

An estimated quarter of a million soldiers from notional ally states flooded into Czechoslovakia. Thousands of enemy tanks, some of which had arrived on Soviet army planes at Prague Airport, were rolling through the country.

Czechoslovak Radio in central Prague became a focal point of the invasion, with unarmed civilians gathering outside the station from the early hours to try to prevent enemy troops from taking control.

Richard Seeman was the head of Radio Prague’s Austrian section at that time.

“By the time the Soviet soldiers got here, a large crowd had already arrived. People build barricades here out of trams and buses, but when the tanks arrived they just rolled over them.

“Demonstrators surrounded the tanks. They set one of them on fire here at the crossroads and that caused an ammunition vehicle to explode, totally destroying one of these buildings.

“All the facades here were shot up.”

Seventeen people lost their lives in the fighting around the station: shot dead, crushed by military vehicles or burned to death.

A total of 137 Czechoslovaks are believed to have been killed during the invasion and around 500 seriously injured.

Photo: FORTEPAN / Konok Tamás id,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Czechoslovak Radio was taken over but, at least temporarily, brave staff carried on broadcasting from underground locations. Newspapers issued special editions, until they too were subdued.

The Czechoslovak army had been ordered to not resist and the authorities called on the population to not provoke additional violence.

Often bitterly humorous slogans calling for the Russians to go home began appearing on walls around the country. Street signs and signposts were painted over or otherwise altered to slow the invaders’ progress.

Some tried to reason with the soldiers, many of whom were young and from distant parts of the Soviet Union.

This Czech student spoke to the BBC on August 24.

“You can’t explain anything to them: they are like a wall. We asked them, Why did you come?

“They replied, We are your brothers, your liberators. We said, That isn’t true, you must see that there is no counter-revolution, we don’t need your help.

“They said, No, we are your friends, we are your friends, we are your brothers, we have come to make freedom and order in your country. But we said, Brothers and friends couldn’t come on tanks.”

The late writer Arnošt Lustig was in his early 40s, and then a member of the Communist Party, when the invasion occurred.

“I didn’t count on occupation but my wife did. Whenever she heard a car from the window she said, The Russians are here. And they finally came.

“Still it was a shock for me. I thought it had nothing to with socialism.

“I was in Italy at the time and they invited me to the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party and asked me what I thought.

Alexander Dubček | Photo: ČT24
“I said that socialism degraded into fascism and that deeds are proving it.

“I said they are occupying a brotherly country which really liked them, as Russians, as liberators, and that they betrayed this trust terribly.”

The reason for the invasion was growing disquiet in Moscow and other Eastern Bloc capitals over the Prague Spring, a process of liberalisation that began in early 1968 following the installation of Alexander Dubček as first secretary of the Communist Party.

By the morning of August 21 Dubček and other prominent advocates of “socialism with a human face” had been arrested.

They were later flown to Moscow and interrogated for days. With nowhere left to turn, all but one of them signed the “Moscow Protocol”, promising to reinstate censorship and suppress opposition groups.

Following his return to Prague, Dubček addressed the nation via the airwaves. He called for unity in the search for a way forward but was clearly a broken man.

Moscow used a “letter of invitation” from five collaborationist members of the politburo of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia – warning that socialism was in jeopardy in the country – as a pretext for the invasion.

However, this was given extremely short shrift, at home and abroad. US President Lyndon Johnson:

“The excuses offered by the Soviet Union are patently contrived. The Czechoslovakia government did not request its allies to intervene in its internal affairs and no external aggression threatened Czechoslovakia.

“The action of the Warsaw Pact allies is in flat violation of the United Nations Charter.”

August 21,  1968,  photo: Archives of the Czech Radio
Street protests calmed in Czechoslovakia after about a week. However, it took some time for the occupiers to gain total control of the situation, says Kieran Williams, author of The Prague Spring and its Aftermath.

“Things remained very unsettled through the autumn and into the winter and into the spring of 1969.

“There were still period protests around major anniversaries and in March 1969 around the hockey championships, so it was a very fluid situation for another eight to nine months.”

The occupation continued for over two decades. The Soviet army, which had not previously had bases in the country, kept thousands of soldiers in Czechoslovakia until the early 1990s.

Many Czechoslovaks took advantage of a three-month period when it was relatively easy to cross the country’s borders. According to official Communist Party records, just over 70,000 people emigrated in 1968 and 1969. Many never saw family members again.

For those who remained, the euphoria of the Prague Spring gave way to the grey years of normalisation, when relatively hardline control was counterbalanced somewhat by the increasing availability of consumer goods.

Kieran Williams,  photo: archive of Drake University
For some the hope they had experienced during the Prague Spring was something to cling onto until communism finally fell in 1989. But by then the lives of many had been deeply marred by the invasion and what followed. Kieran Williams:

“It scarred a generation that was coming of age around that point.

“The generation that was born after World War II would have been reaching adulthood around 1968, coming into their 20s. And that generation, I think, was profoundly changed by it.

“For many of them, the whole direction of their lives was affected. Things they had hoped to do with their lives could not be done.

“Thousands went into emigration, so a lot of potential talent was lost, either through people leaving the country or not being allowed to do the kind of work they wanted to do, if they stayed in the country.”