40th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia

Czech Radio building bombed by Russians in 1968

This August 21st marks 40 years since the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops, an invasion meticulously planned by the Soviet Union to crush the period of economic and political reforms known as the Prague Spring. Within hours of late August 20th and early August 21st some 2,000 tanks as well as an estimated 200,000 troops had poured in. It was the beginning of the occupation which changed the course of Czechoslovak history.

Marta Hubscherová – a former radio reporter - witnessed the arrival of the first tanks in northern Bohemia; in an interview for Radio Prague in 2004 she recalled the initial shock:

“My first information was not from the radio but from the fact that a Russian tank went along our road just in front of our house just as far away as the curtains are here! He had a problem getting up over a hill by our house, and others would pass him by, so he took a piece of our fence along with him. So, this was my introduction to what was happening here.”

The late American journalist Alan Levy – who spent many years in the Czech capital – described the early hours of August 21st as the beginning of the end: the end of Alexander Dubček’s reforms, of socialism with a human face, and of the relative freedoms to which ordinary Czechs and Slovaks in short time had grown accustomed. An excerpt from an interview with the late author from 2003:

Alan Levy in 2004, photo: CTK
“I was sleeping soundly when a friend from New York called me and said 'Have you evacuated the family?' I answered 'Why should I?' and he said 'Prague has been invaded, the airport has been seized, and the Castle is under Russian control... I got dressed and went out with my sixteen year-old niece who was staying with us and we didn't see any Russians for a while until in Pohořelec dozen tanks rolled out down the ramp out of Strahov. They were lost. They couldn't find the Castle.

“They had a tourist map and nothing else. And, they started pointing guns at the crowd and nobody would tell them. When a man with his finger on the trigger points it at you is ready to shoot - in my case he was ready to shoot at a taxi he thought might be alerting the troops - you're on borrowed time.”

Around the wolrd time was of the essence and the invasion was quickly condemned. But in the harsh realities of the Cold War, there was only limited action that the US and Western allies could take. US President Lyndon Johnson:

Lyndon Johnson
“The tragic news from Czechoslovakia shocks the conscience of the world. The Soviet Union and its allies have invaded a defenceless country to stamp out a resurgence of ordinary human freedom. It is a sad commentary on the communist mind that a sign of liberty in Czechoslovakia is deemed a fundamental threat to the security of the Soviet system.”

The fallacy, meanwhile, pressed by Moscow that Warsaw Pact troops had been “invited” onto Czech soil to help their socialist brothers crush undesired counter-revolution was rejected outright. Once again, President 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.”

Following the escalation of events, the United Nations Security Council met quickly at the urging of the US, Canada, the UK, and others, which Czechoslovak Radio reported.

At the meeting the Czechoslovak representative at the UN Jan Mužík spoke of the reform movement’s goals and appealed for solidarity:

“We appeal to parliaments of all countries and to the world public opinion and ask them to support our legitimate requirements. Mr President: at the conclusion of my speech, I would like to stress once again, as our government stated many times in recent weeks, the changes in Czechoslovakia since January, were aimed only to improve the socialist system, to bring the republic closer to the goals of real socialism, to employ all human rights & liberties which should be an integral part of any socialist system.”

Lord Caradon, Great Britain’s ambassador to the UN, responded with words of his own:

“We join with all those who love freedom and honour courage, in paying tribute to minister Muzik, to his government, and to all the leaders of his brave country who have refused to bow down before the forces of invasion and oppression.”

Prague in 1968
But a resolution condemning the intervention was not passed: ten members supported the motion, three abstained, while the USSR, with veto power, and Hungary, opposed it.

Back at home, ordinary Czechs and Slovaks (even those who had trusted in socialism with a human face) were now buffeted by feelings of shock and disbelief over the level of betrayal. Crowds gathered in the streets with flags, with many - students among them - appealing to their occupiers, pleading with them to turn back. Many tried to engage soldiers in dialogue – telling them they had made a terrible mistake. To no avail. Four days into the invasion, the BBC spoke to Czech students, including one young woman, who admitted on August 24, 1968 that getting through to invading Warsaw Pact troops was hopeless:

Praha, srpen 1968
“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. 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’.”

Since the morning of the 21st Prague and other parts of the country had also seen deadly aggression, with troops opening fire on Wenceslas Square and at the Czechoslovak Radio building. The radio had broadcast a statement by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party condemning the invasion and many came to the site’s defence. In front, several people already lay dead. In all, sources now suggest that more than 100 people were killed during the 1968 invasion while some 500 were injured. This is how the scene was recalled almost 40 years on by Czech writer Arnošt Lustig:

“It was still 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. 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 horribly, and that I considered the equal to fascists. From socialism, it went to fascism, from utopia, it went to murder.”

Following the invasion, top Czechoslovak politicians including the First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Alexander Dubček were interned. Two days later, they were spirited off to Moscow where all, except for one, František Kriegel, signed the Moscow Protocols justifying the occupation of Czechoslovakia and confirming the country’s limited sovereignty. It would be more than twenty years before the occupation would end and before the last Soviet troops finally left. The student who spoke to the BBC forty years ago, once again:

“This occupation is very bad for young people. Young people were very happy in our republic the last six months. There was such great enthusiasm, you wouldn’t believe. Many people were giving money, were giving gold to the republic to make the economy better. Many people believed that wanted to help us, that the Russians weren’t against us, that they were really our friend. No more. Now nobody will again. If the Russians write ‘We are your brothers’, nobody will now believe it. Not only for next years but maybe for the next 20 or 40 years.”

40 years on, the trauma of 1968 has receded but only slightly: Czechs and Slovaks who lived through those days – and whose lives were forever changed because them, have never been able to forget. The invasion and especially the so-called Normalisation period which followed it, tore apart families and destroyed much of the country’s moral fabric. Thousands were thrown out of work, many others were persecuted. In the coming days and months, thousands more left, choosing to escape and to emigrate rather than live under ever increasing oppression. 40 years have passed since the invasion 1968 - that defining and tragic moment in Czechoslovakia’s history – but for many the memories remain as vivid as ever.