August 21, 1968: Soviet tanks crush the dreams of the Prague Spring

Soviet occupation

Fifty-five years ago, on the night of August 20-21, 1968, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia began, marking a definitive end to the hopes that the series of liberalising and democratic reforms that had taken place in the country in the 1960s, known as the Prague Spring, had brought with them.

Alexander Dubček  (left),  Leonid Brezhnev  (right) | Photo: Czech Television

The Prague Spring brought sweeping changes to the cultural and social life of Czechoslovakia, including the ending of censorship in June 1968 and open discussions about the political show trials of the 1950s. Some Western media outlets wrote that the developments in Czechoslovakia proved that socialism and democracy were compatible with each other.

Moscow, on the other hand, followed the developments with disquiet. The Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, allegedly said that free speech and democratisation of the media were a threat to the leading role of the Communist party in the country.

Alexander Dubček at the Communist Party Congress in 1968 | Photo: Czech Television

The last attempt by the Soviets to convince the Czechoslovak government to initiate counter-reforms was the meeting between Soviet leader Brezhnev and Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček in the Slovak town of Čierna nad Tisou at the end of July 1968. After this was over, the Soviet leadership became convinced that diplomatic means had failed, and decided it was time for military intervention.

1968,  Prague | Photo: ČT24

The time for the start of the invasion was scheduled for 11pm on 20 August, but the first soldiers crossed the border just under two hours earlier between the German town of Bärenstein and the northeastern Bohemian town of Vejprty. The Northern Group of Soviet troops with one Polish unit and the Southern Group of Soviet troops with one Hungarian motorised rifle division and one Bulgarian regiment began to occupy the formerly free country of Czechoslovakia.

The subsequent wave of opposition, resistance and demonstrations from the Czech people could do nothing to stop the period of "normalisation" that followed. The Dubček government gradually lost its position in the state and party leadership and Gustáv Husák’s faction, which was willing to cooperate with the Soviets, came to power.

In April 1969, Husák became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The country returned to being an obedient member of the socialist bloc, and remained that way until 1989.

Gustáv Husák | Photo: archive of Czech Radio