Czech Radio History Part V - The Prague Spring

Occupation of the Czechoslovak Radio, August 1968

In this week's edition of our weekly special on the history of Czech Radio - marking the station's 80th anniversary - Martin Hrobsky looks at the role radio played during the Prague Spring. It was 1968 in Czechoslovakia and optimism was in the air: students, workers, and intellectuals alike were calling for change in a political and economic system that was no longer meeting the needs of the people. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia knew this, and once a number of innocent reforms were carried out, the winds of change could not be stopped.

Within a short amount of time, Alexander Dubcek, the new General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, began to loosen the party's grip on both the political and economic spheres in socialist Czechoslovakia. This reform movement, which became known as the Prague Spring, aimed to create "socialism with a human face" - an experimental merging of socialism and greater democracy. The reforms included increased freedom of speech and the press, the rehabilitation of political prisoners, and a movement towards a more market driven economy.

However, the Soviet Union, along with other Warsaw Pact countries, looked with dismay at what was happening in Czechoslovakia. They saw the Prague Spring as a threat and feared the winds of change would soon blow through their own countries.

Then came that unforgettable morning when the people of Czechoslovakia awoke to a world which was completely different to the one they went to sleep to the night before. Its 2am August 21st, 1968.

Czechoslovak Radio informed people to stay tuned to the radio as important news was soon to be broadcast.

This was the announcement that Warsaw Pact forces had crossed the Czechoslovak boarder just hours earlier. The Soviet Union, along with Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria, sent about 200,000 troops across the boarder to occupy Czechoslovakia and to quash the Prague Spring reform movement. Within one week more then 650,000 foreign troops would be on Czechoslovak soil.

What followed were mass protests in Prague and throughout Czechoslovakia against the occupation. Thousands of people took to the streets, pleading with the occupiers to turn around and go home. In many parts of Prague troops opened fire on demonstrators.

On the morning of August 21st, Czechoslovak Radio broadcast a statement by the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, condemning the invasion. Prague citizens began gathering in front of the radio building on Vinohradska Street, and there were clashes which left a number of people dead. Meanwhile, Czechoslovak Radio announcers called for the continuation of free reforms and for people to remain calm. Here are the final moments of Czechoslovak Radio on that dark morning:

The radio building was occupied by Warsaw Pact troops just minutes later. For a number of days Czechoslovak Radio ceased to broadcast from its home here on Vinohradska Street, but the free radio continued to function underground. These underground broadcasts were vital for informing people about events that were taking place during the initial stages of the occupation. These secret broadcasts were often transmitted from all over the country - constantly switching broadcasting locations and frequencies - and the occupying force had a very hard time silencing these broadcasts. The broadcasts organized peaceful protests, relayed information such as where supplies and doctors were needed, and informed the world of the situation in Czechoslovakia.

Radio Prague even continued broadcasting from secret locations in Prague. Broadcasts were ten minute long news programs in five languages, and these underground programs lasted until September 9th.

What followed the Prague Spring was a complete rolling back of reforms that had been made. In the subsequent period, known as "normalization," freedom of the press was all but extinguished and Czechoslovak Radio became a controlled media tool of the Communist Party. Radio Prague mainly served propaganda purposes during this time, broadcasting the regime's socialist message for the whole world to hear.