Czechs to mark anniversary of Soviet-led invasion, with Liberec in the spotlight

Warsaw pact troops on Vinohradská st., August 1968

This Saturday, Czechs and Slovaks will commemorate the anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968, sent to crush the Prague Spring – the raft of reforms that Communist Party secretary Alexander Dubček had famously hoped would lead to “socialism with a human face”.

On the night of August 20-21, 1968, some 200,000 soldiers from five Warsaw Pact armies crossed into Czechoslovakia. Those with their radios turned on in the wee hours heard the following – broadcast:

“To all the people of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Yesterday, on the August 20, 1968 around 23:00 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.”

Some 137 Czechoslovakian civilians were killed and 500 seriously wounded during the occupation.

Prague is the setting of the most dramatic and iconic footage that followed that tragic day, and indeed where the most victims of the Soviet-led invasion lost their lives while protesting the invasion.

August 1968 in Liberec | Photo: Václav Toužimský,  Czech Centres

But lesser known abroad is that the people of northern Bohemian city of Liberec, in particular, also suffered many casualties – nine, in total.

It was also in Liberec where the dissident playwright Václav Havel, learned that Soviet-led forces had arrived to crush the Prague Spring. On that very afternoon, after speaking to Dubček, he wrote and broadcast – clandestinely – the first of many commentaries.

Václav Havel | Photo: Czech Television

In it, Havel appealed to his fellow citizens to engage in peaceful protests while finding ways to resist the occupation – and seek justice – pleading with them to “demand collaborators be prosecuted for treason”.

This weekend in Liberec, as throughout the Czech Republic, people will lay flowers outside memorial to victims of the Warsaw Pact invasion. After will be by a concert of songs by Karel Kryl, perhaps the greatest Czech protest singer ever, who in 1969 was forced into exile.

August 1968 - Liberec (CZ)

But today, on Friday, the local library will be screening a documentary prepared by the Memory of the Nation (Paměť národa) project, which for decades has collected testimony from witnesses to major events in modern Czech history, including those who fought against Communism or fell victim to the regime.

'Forced to Occupy' | Photo: Paměť Národa

That documentary, Forced to Occupy, focuses on the memories of soldiers from Poland, one of the invading Warsaw Pact countries, and maps a lesser-known aspect of the occupation, namely how the Kremlin coerced Warsaw Pact countries into invading Czechoslovakia.

Michaela Pavlátová is the spokesperson for Post Bellum, which administers the Memory of the Nation oral history collection.

“We recorded witnesses on the Polish side, and we also managed to get soldiers who played an active role in the invasion, who came to Liberec on tanks at that time.”

August 1968 in Liberec | Photo: Czech Television

Many historians believe that the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia not only turned the occupied nation against the Moscow but caused the worldwide Communist movement itself to fracture, ultimately leading to the revolutions of 1989 and dissolution of the USSR in 1991. It was not until that summer, two decades later, that the last of the Soviet troops left Czech soil for good.