Czechs mark 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia

Gedenkakt vor dem Gebäude des Tschechischen Rundfunks (Foto: Archiv des Tschechischen Rundfunks - Radio Prag)

This Friday marks the 47th anniversary of invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led troops in 1968, which crushed the short-lived Prague Spring reform movement and brought in political and moral decline which lasted until the late 1980’s. On Friday, the event was commemorated at a traditional ceremony in front of the Czech Radio building, which bore witness to one of the most brutal clashes between civilian protesters and the occupying forces.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, chairman of the Senate Milan Štěch and other officials and witnesses of the 1968 events gathered at the entrance to the Czech Radio building in the centre of Prague to lay wreaths and pay honour to the victims of the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops.

More than a hundred Czechoslovaks were killed in the invasion, after an estimated 500,000 soldiers from the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria invaded the country in the early hours of August 21, 1968 in order to supress the Prague Spring reform movement.

Fifteen of them died in front of the Czech Radio building, as they tried to prevent the occupiers from ending the uncensored broadcasting. One of the people who were inside the building at that time was 90-year-old Věra Homolová, who worked as a reporter for the radio’s international service:

“On August 21, at four in the morning, I got a phone call from my boss, who told me that there was an invasion. I immediately rushed to the radio building and soon after I got in, the shooting started. We had to crawl down the corridors because there were bullets flying everywhere.

In front of Czech Radio building, August 21, 1968, photo: archive of Pavel Macháček
“I left the building through a back door and went to the Tesla building in Strašnice, where there was a transmitter. There we would receive news from the radio building and I would translate it into English and broadcast it.”

Among those who came to mark the events of 1968 was Jiří Stanislav, a member of the Union of Czechoslovak Legionaries, who was in Ostrava at the time of time of the invasion:

“Some people predicted that it could happen, but no one really believed that they would be capable of doing such a horrible thing. We were assured by the president, by Dubček and others not to worry, but suddenly they were here.

“It was horrible all over the country, not only in Prague. I was in the main square in Ostrava and the soldiers arrived there from the Polish border. The anger of the local people was incredible.

“The coal miners who just finished their shifts, people who worked in the industry, they all went to the streets and protested. There was shooting there as well, but Prague was really receiving the big blow. This is something they can never wash their hands of, ever.”

In his address, the chairman of the Senate Milan Štěch said that while the 1968 invasion might seem increasingly more like distant history, its message was still relevant today, when only recently the world had witnessed Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka recalled the brave acts of students Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc who set themselves on fire in protest against the invasion, as well as the representatives of the Prague Spring who continued to fight for freedom and democracy. After the ceremony, Mr Sobotka told me what he saw as one of the most important legacies of the event:

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I think the year 1968 is not only about a certain uprising of society in reaction to the occupation against occupation, but it is also about what came afterwards, the Normalisation period, the resignation, about people losing interest in what was happening in the society and withdrawing into their privacy, and I think this is always a great risk for those who want to manipulate society.”

Events marking the 47th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia are being held elsewhere in the country, including a concert on Prague’s Wenceslas Square and an exhibition of photos capturing the events of 1968.