August 21, 1968: the hopes of a generation crushed

August 1968

On August 21 1968, people woke up to discover that the dream of freedom they were living in the late 1960s had turned into a nightmare. Thirty-nine years ago, the streets of Prague and other cities and towns in Czechoslovakia were full of the tanks and soldiers of five armies led by the Soviet Union. Today, we look back at the anniversary of what for Czechs and Slovaks was one of the formative moments of the 20th century.

August 1968
Those with their radios turned on at 1:55 am on Wednesday, August 21 1968 heard the following Czech Radio broadcast. "Dear listeners, please stay by your receivers, we will be broadcasting an extremely important announcement in a moment." What followed was a message by the Communist Party's Central Committee that was difficult to believe at first.

"To all the people of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Yesterday, on the August 20, 1968 around 2300 hours, the armies of the Soviet Union, the Polish People's Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Hungarian People's Republic and the Bulgarian People's Republic crossed the borders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic."

August 1968
This announcement, along with appeals for orderly behaviour and absolutely no resistance to the advancing troops, marked the end of an experiment known as the Prague Spring. An illusion that there could be a special, Czechoslovak road to socialism was crushed by Soviet tanks; twenty-three years earlier the Soviets had been welcomed as liberators of the country from Nazism.

What followed was a mixture of shock, anger, fear and belief that someone had made a terrible mistake. In the morning of August 21, people in Prague and other cities and towns in Czechoslovakia gathered around the tanks with invasion stripes trying to explain to the puzzled soldiers that no counter-revolution was taking place in Czechoslovakia. They were trying to convince the troops to go back, and leave their Czechoslovak friend alone. The young and bewildered Soviet soldiers did not, and could not, listen, and often fired at the crowd. The following recording shows what the situation was like in front of the Czech Radio building in Vinohradska Street in central Prague.

"We won't help anything in the current situation by building barricades or doing anything that would lead to clashes which make no sense at the moment. It would only cause bloodshed. I am asking you again. Keep calm, disband, it makes not sense right now in front of the radio building. Thank you."

Looking back at the events of 1968 today, it is difficult to believe that no representatives of the state or the Communist Party ever realized the danger, that they thought they could play with fire and never get burnt. In June, military manoeuvres of allied armies took place in Czechoslovakia. Later that month, a petition authored by the writer Ludvik Vaculik and entitled the 2000 Words was published in some newspapers; the document in effect called for the establishment of a pluralistic democracy. After Czechoslovak communist leaders failed to attend a meeting of five communist parties in Warsaw in July, the situation was becoming critical. Forty years later, writer Arnost Lustig recalls that the invasion did indeed come as a shock.

"I did not count on occupation but my wife did. Whenever she heard a car outside the window, she said 'Russians are here', and they finally came. But 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."

Immediately after the invasion, top Czechoslovak politicians including the First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Alexander Dubcek were interned. Two days later, they were shipped to Moscow where all of them, with the exception of Frantisek Kriegel - signed the Moscow Protocols confirming the occupation of Czechoslovakia and its limited sovereignty.

During the invasion, 72 Czech and Slovak citizens were killed and hundreds of them were wounded. It took another twenty years before, using Dubcek's terms, the extraordinary and temporary measures were done away with, and before Soviet troops left. Meanwhile, an estimated 300,000 people had left the country, thousands had lost their jobs and their lives were ruined. A bitter end to a dream of freedom.