Bringing to life the hopes and fears of 1968 through sound

Soviet occupation

The Czech Radio sound archives are among the richest in the world and through them we can travel in time to many moments in Czech and Czechoslovak history. This is the first of two special programmes in our series In Their Own Words that take us back to the dramatic year of 1968. The year began with hope, with the reforms of the Prague Spring, but these were brought to a bitter end by the Soviet-led invasion in August of the same year. Hundreds of archive recording bring the drama of that year to life.    

The reforms of the Prague Spring did not happen overnight. The political thaw began at the beginning of the 1960s, bringing with it as sense of openness and optimism. This was reflected in many fields of cultural life, including radio.

The satirical cabaret of Prague’s Semafor Theatre featured quite regularly on the airwaves. As the political atmosphere relaxed, the two stars of the cabaret, jazzmen and actors Jiřý Suchý and Jiří Šlitr found their way onto the cultural mainstream. Despite several risqué jokes at the expense of the regime – in the sketch featured here another famous member of the Semafor team Miroslav Horníček jokes that he will only use foreign words if he is paid in hard currency – Czechoslovak Radio was quite happy to broadcast Semafor’s New Year’s Eve show on December 31, 1967. The show includes an amusing rendering of Strangers in the Night by Jiří Šlitr, sung in deliberately dreadful English.

Five days after that show went on air, political reforms accelerated dramatically. On 5 January 1968 Alexander Dubček became First Secretary of the Communist Party, the most powerful man in the country. Dubček immediately set Czechoslovakia on a course of economic and political reform, hoping to create what he famously described as “socialism with a human face.”

The archives include a recording of Dubček opening a meeting of the party Central Committee on April 1, outlining the reforms. This extract reflects some of the paradoxes of the time. Dubček’s sincere belief in change and his real enthusiasm at public support for the reforms is evident, but at the same time he was at heart a party man, and the speech is veiled in familiar jargon about the leading role of the communist party:

“What has made this whole process so special is that above all - especially in terms of the pace of change – it has been determined by the creative and spontaneous activity of the broad mass of the people, with the communists in the vanguard. In this spirit and in accord with the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, people have acted without the slightest manipulation and without being given commands from above…. The role of the party is to recognize people’s understanding, to raise it to a higher plain, to support progressive thinking and acts …”

A few days later, on 5 April 1968, Dubček took reforms a step further. The so-called Action Programme of the Communist Party was announced, and one of its most important steps was to lift press censorship. Suddenly all sorts of new programmes appeared on Czechoslovak Radio and Television – with titles like Face to Face, Public Interest, Investigations, Where are we heading? and Facts.

But the Soviet Union was watching closely and stepped up pressure on Dubček to reverse the reforms.

Dubček and Brezhnev: The last conversation

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

More than 25 years later, in 1994, the chief archivist of the Russian Federation made available the transcript of the last telephone conversation between Dubček and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before Soviet tanks brought the reforms to a violent and abrupt end on the night from the 20 to 21 August 1968. It was exactly a week earlier, August 13. Brezhnev called Dubček from Yalta in the Crimea. He was furious that Dubček had, as he saw it, failed to keep a promise to rein in the Czechoslovak media, or as he put it, “the organs of mass communication”. Here is a short extract from a reconstruction of that conversation. It was broadcast by Radio Prague in 2003. Brezhnev addresses Dubček as Sasha, the familiar form of his first name.

Brezhnev: "But Sasha, the problem isn't in that fact that you met with journalists. We came to an agreement when we met. We agreed that all mass media, the press, radio, television, will be brought under the control of the central committee of the Communist Party and the government […] and that all anti-Soviet and anti-socialist publications will be stopped. In the Soviet Union, we are keeping our side of the deal and are not engaging in any open criticism of Czechoslovakia. But as far as the Czechoslovak organs of mass communication are concerned, they are continuing unhindered to attack the Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet Union and there have even been cases of attacks on leading figures in our party. They are calling us Stalinists and things like that. I ask you, what is that supposed to mean?"

Dubček responds with silence. As the conversation goes on, Brezhnev's tone gets more aggressive. Again he wants to know why the reformists have not yet been purged from leading positions. Dubček's justification, on the basis that decisions have to be taken collectively, is worlds away from the simple, unbending truths of real-socialism, Brezhnev-style.

Dubček: "Leonid Ilyich, this issue cannot just be solved by a directive from above, coming into effect everywhere at once. We have to wait until both Slovaks and Czechs have agreed to a suitable solution. That's why the party leadership can only solve this question by telling the government and the minister to prepare suitable arguments for a final solution to be carried out a little later."

Brezhnev: "How much later?"

Dubček: "In October, the end of October."

Brezhnev: "What can I say, Sasha? This is nothing but more deception. This is more proof that you are deceiving us. I can't put it any other way. I will speak quite bluntly: if you prove unable to solve this question, then it seems to me that your party leadership is no longer in control."

Dubček: "But this isn't deception. We are trying to fulfil the obligations to which we committed ourselves. But in a way that is possible in the current complex situation."

Brezhnev: […] “We must take issue with this and have no choice but to reassess the situation and take new, independent measures."

Dubček: "Comrade Brezhnev, take whatever measures your politburo considers fit."

Brezhnev: "If you answer me like that then I have no choice but to tell you, Sasha, that that was an ill-considered statement."

Dubček: […] "But why does everything have to be so rushed...?"

The answer to that question came a week later. On 17 August, the Kremlin took the decision to occupy Czechoslovakia. On the night from 20 to 21 August, the occupation began.

The day of the invasion on the airwaves

Jiří Dienstbier | Photo: Jarmila Johnová,  Czech Academy of Sciences

Here is Radio Moscow, on the morning of Wednesday 21 August, with an official, Soviet version of events:

“State officials of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and other allied states to give the fraternal Czechoslovak people urgent assistance, including assistance with armed forces.”

Broadcasts on Czechoslovak Radio could not have been more different. As Soviet tanks gathered outside the radio building, reporters did their best to carry on broadcasting. The radio’s Jiří Dienstbier (later to become Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist foreign minister) called on listeners not to risk their lives by gathering outside the radio building. He added that the Foreign Ministry had asked the radio to broadcast a message that the borders of Czechoslovakia have been broken illegally and against the will of the state and the party. At the same time he appealed to people not to try to resist the invaders.

Jiří Dienstbier ended with a warning that broadcasts would soon be forced off the air, as Soviet troops were massing in front of the building.

The Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda also recorded a message for the radio. His voice shook as he spoke. He too stressed that the occupation was being carried out against the will of the Czechoslovak government. He promised to do all he could to ensure that foreign troops left.

At the same time Radio Prague and other Czechoslovak radio stations tried to get the message across abroad. Here is an unidentified station in English:

“We appeal to all radio stations in Romania, Yugoslavia. Please inform about the situation in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.”

And the local station in České Budějovice appealed in German to soldiers from the East German People’s Army to turn back – in the name of international workers’ solidarity.

A cat-and-mouse game

In front of the Czechoslovak Radio building,  August 1968 | Photo: APF Czech Radio

In the days immediately after the Soviet invasion, staff at Czechoslovak Radio played a cat-and-mouse game with the occupying forces. For the first couple of days, they managed to continue broadcasting directly from the radio headquarters, despite the presence of tanks outside.

Again and again, they repeated the government and party leadership’s appeal for calm. Above all, they stressed the message from the country’s leaders that the occupation was unwanted and illegal. But the Soviets were already hard at work to silence the radio. The chairman of the Central Board for Communications Karel Hoffmann was a political hardliner and in collaboration with the invaders, gave the order that all medium wave transmitters be shut off. Thirty-five years later, in 2003, Hoffmann was the only former communist functionary to go to prison for his role in helping the Soviet invasion. Despite his efforts, broadcasts continued:

“All the transmitters which we had at our disposal have been gradually forced out of operation, and we do not even know how many of you, our listeners, can hear us. But we shall try to stay in touch with you, even though some of our phone lines are cut and since two in the morning, foreign aircraft have been circling above the Czechoslovak Radio building.”

Once the radio building was occupied, radio staff went to great lengths to keep on the air, taking risks and improvising at every step:

“Dear listeners… We must now leave you, as the army of occupation is on its way, but we hope that shortly we’ll be able to start broadcasting again from another private apartment…”

In the following days Radio Prague - which then as now served as the radio’s international service - was to play a central role:

“This is Radio Prague, Czechoslovakia, broadcasting continuously in English, French, German and Italian, as well as Czech and bringing you the latest news bulletins and reports as we receive them about the situation here in occupied Czechoslovakia.”

Radio Prague became the voice of free Czechoslovakia to the world, broadcasting through mobile transmitters, which ironically, had originally been provided by the Soviets. It could be heard loud and clear throughout Europe.

“We are transmitting in the 49-metre band on 6.055 megacycles. However, since this frequency is being jammed, please tune us in by turning slightly to the right or left of this position on your radio dial.”

Forty years later, in 2008, Jiří Dienstbier, who had taken part in the secret broadcasts, remembered just how a central a role they had played in keeping people informed.

“It was very important, because it was the only means of communication at that moment, which kept the whole nation informed. It was a guarantee of unity of the nation, because people knew that no one was collaborating here – neither the president nor the government. Some local collaborators couldn’t succeed because people knew exactly what was happening.”

Shock and disillusionment: students respond to the invasion

August 1968 | Photo: Prague City Museum

The invasion happened in the middle of summer. Prague was full of tourists and of international teams of journalists reporting on Dubček’s reforms. Both Czech and international journalists went out into the streets to gather the views of some of the tens of thousands who were in the streets to protest against the Soviet tanks.

“I am a Czech student, 22 years old. At this very moment, as I am recording, Russian tanks, prepared for any action, are standing in a big park just under my window. I don’t know whether I will ever finish my studies or meet my friends abroad again. And I could count and count, but at this moment everything somehow loses its sense. At 3 a.m., August 21 1968, I woke up to a completely different world from the one I went to sleep in.”

Young woman: “I have been speaking with many Russian soldiers. You cannot explain anything to them. They are like a wall. You ask them: ‘Why did you come?’ They said: ‘We are your brothers, we are liberators.’ I say: ‘No, that isn’t true. You can see that there is no counter-revolution, that nobody wants you, nobody needs your help.’ ‘No, I am your friend, I am your brother and I came to make freedom, I came to make order in your country.’”

Young man: “They are always saying that they want to fight against a counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia, but I think they don’t know what counter-revolution means. From January we had a new government which united the Czech nation, and now the Russians came to make another government. This is the counter-revolution!”

Young woman: “I think this occupation was very bad for young people, because young people were very happy in our republic in the months from January to August. There was so much enthusiasm that you would hardly believe it.”

Students abroad were every bit as shocked by the invasion, as we can hear in the following extract. This is part of a Deutsche Welle report from the West German capital Bonn on the day of the invasion, August 21.

Presenter: “In front of the Soviet Embassy near Bonn from early in the morning groups of students and young people assembled to demonstrate against the invasion of Czechoslovakia…. Can you tell me who is demonstrating here?”

Young man 2: “Well it’s all sorts of people, young people, students, some journalists I see round here, people from all walks of life, I would say.”

Presenter: “And why are they demonstrating?”

Young man 2: “Well, of course they are all fed up with the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia.”

Presenter: “What’s your personal reaction? What was your reaction when you heard about it this morning?”

Young man 2: “Well, I was gravely shocked when I was called at four o’clock in the morning and I think this is really the worst thing that could have happened to East-West relations and to all of us who thought that there might be a way of getting closer to the East.”

Young woman 2: “I was very, very sad, because Czechoslovakia was the hope for young people in the Eastern and the Western world, to show that democracy and socialism go together, that there was one country trying to have a policy for people, not for some power interest, just for people. It was very, very sad news this morning.”

Words, words, words: the UN Security Council and the invasion

1968,  Prague | Photo: ČT24

In the meantime, things were happening on the international diplomatic front. Within a few hours of the tanks crossing the border, the UN Security Council met for a special meeting, to discuss what to do about the invasion. Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to the UN, Jan Mužík, was unequivocal.

“We categorically request the immediate withdrawal of the armed forces of the five states of the Warsaw Treaty and full respect for the state sovereignty of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.”

But the Soviet Ambassador Yakov Malik was predictably defiant, repeating the mantra that the invasion amounted to “fraternal assistance”.

“Attempts by the forces of imperialist reaction to meddle in the internal affairs of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and to put a wedge between socialist countries will not be tolerated.”

The meeting continued the next day, August 22, when several countries proposed a resolution condemning the invasion. On one of the rare occasions in its history, the United States - through its UN Ambassador George Ball - expressed solidarity with a socialist country.

“We identify ourselves with the declarations of the presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Presidium of the National Assembly, protesting against the occupation of Czechoslovakia.”

By this time there was also growing concern for the wellbeing of the Czechoslovak leadership. The British UN Ambassador Lord Caradon spoke up, adding to the drama of the meeting:

“And on this I ask a direct question to the Soviet Ambassador. Let Ambassador Malik tell us now that the President and the First Secretary of the Communist Party and other acknowledged leaders of Czechoslovakia are free and safe. Let Ambassador Malik confirm that they will not be arrested and will not be molested. Let him confirm that they will be permitted to continue to speak and work for their people.”

The Soviet Ambassador was evasive. He replied with a question of his own, accusing the Western countries of hypocrisy: “Who drowned the villages and cities of Vietnam in blood?” He also insisted that the troops had been invited into Czechoslovakia:

“The armed forces of socialist countries, as is well known, entered the territory of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic on the request of the country’s leaders.”

The Security Council meeting continued for a third and unprecedented fourth day. At this point Czechoslovakia’s Foreign Minister, Jiří Hájek, joined the debate. He had been out of the country at the moment of the invasion, so he was able to travel to New York to deny Ambassador Malik’s claim in person.

“No such demand was ever made… This is an act of the use of force which cannot be justified by any reasons.”

I hardly need add that the Soviet Union, supported by Hungary which at the time held a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, blocked the resolution condemning the invasion. The issue was quietly dropped from the Security Council agenda.

A glass of water for Mr Dubček

Alexander Dubček | Photo: ČT24

Immediately after the invasion, Dubček and other prominent reformists in the government were interned and then swept off to Moscow. For several days their fate was unknown. During that time they were bullied into signing an agreement accepting the Soviet intervention and promising to restrain the media and “protect socialism in Czechoslovakia”. Only one politburo member, František Kriegl, refused to sign the document. After their return, Alexander Dubček went on air on August 27. This was one of those moments in history, when the meanings of the words being said tell us far less than the tone in which they are spoken.

He tried to describe and explain the situation, talking in phrases that had little meaning, and after several sentences his voice broke down completely. He apologized to listeners and then went silent. The Czechoslovak radio journalist Margita Kollarová later remembered the moment – that in many ways symbolized the tragedy of 1968 – in an interview for Radio Prague:

“There was a silence. I didn't know what to do, whether I should start saying something, to apologise to listeners, but that wouldn't have been the diplomatic thing to do, so I waited and I indicated to the people around that I needed a glass of water for Mr Dubček. They brought the water. As I put the glass on the table in front of him, the sound it made brought him back to his senses. After quite a long time he began to speak again. There were tears running down his face. It was only the second time in my life that I'd seen a man cry.”

At this moment, it must have been clear to anyone listening that there would be no turning back.