“It still impacts Czech opinion on Russia”: The 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia

1968, Prague

The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia was one of the most important and traumatic events in modern Czech history. The launch of the intervention was delayed several times, but it ultimately took place on the night of August 20–21, 1968. It would end Czechoslovakia’s experiment of “Socialism with a human face” and cause lasting damage to the Czech-Russian relationship. Memories of the invasion were reignited this year, amid Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

“There were tens, perhaps hundreds of Soviet planes that were landing at Prague’s Ruzyně Airport one after another. Very soon we started hearing shooting as well.”

“We were in Prague, me and my parents. One could hear planes flying over the city. At first, we didn’t know what was going on, but then we turned on the radio and there was news about the invasion which had just begun.”

Oldřich Tůma was 17 years old and full of hope for liberal reform in his home country when Soviet forces, together with the armies of three other Warsaw Pact states, invaded Czechoslovakia at the turn of midnight on August 21, 1968.

“There were tens, perhaps hundreds of Soviet planes that were landing at Prague’s Ruzyně Airport, one after another. Very soon we started hearing shooting as well. It started in different parts of Prague, because people gathered around various important places in the city, such as the Czechoslovak Radio building and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. There were conflicts between the people and the Soviet soldiers. It was something very emotional and something that you never forget.”

Oldřich Tůma  | Photo: Marián Vojtek,  Czech Radio

The invasion, he says, cost him 20 years of his life as the subsequent two decades of normalisation solidified the power of Communist Party hardliners and swept away the dreams of many of his generation.

Today, Tůma is a historian at the Contemporary History Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He has published many papers as well as a book focused on the Communist period, including the events surrounding 1968. The work of Tůma and other historians has helped shed more light on the events that led up to that fateful summer.

“It is necessary to understand that it had two levels – the political and the military. On the military level, they started to plan the invasion relatively early, around the end of March or the beginning of April 1968. This was done to concentrate the troops, to prepare plans and so on. The political decision, on the other hand, really took a long time. Brezhnev and the other Soviet leaders really understood that the invasion could have different consequences. The final decision to intervene militarily was taken only in mid-August, so only days before it took place.”

“Brezhnev and the other Soviet leaders really understood that the invasion could have different consequences. The final decision to intervene militarily was taken only in mid-August, so only days before it took place.”

Tůma’s colleague Dr. Daniel Povolný specialises in military history. He has devoted many years of his life to studying the Czechoslovak People’s Army, the state’s Communist-era armed forces, as well as the wider Warsaw Pact operational planning and execution of “Operation Danube”, as the invasion was codenamed.

“Based off the information that I have managed to gather, I believe that the date was moved three times. The first attempt was planned to take place between May 9 and May 10, 1968, when at least seven Soviet and two Polish divisions were concentrated on our border under the guise of a military exercise.

“Then there was the Šumava military exercise that took place from June 20 to 30, I think that was the second attempt. Finally, there seems to have also been a third attempt at the end of July.”

Daniel Povolný | Photo: Jiří Šeda,  Český rozhlas

Povolný says that there were several reasons why the invasion hadn’t taken place in May. For one, the Soviet Politburo was not united on how to solve the situation in Czechoslovakia. It was split into hawks (those who wanted the military solution as soon as possible) and doves (those who said that there was still a possibility to get the Czechoslovak side to agree to what the Soviets wanted through political and military-political pressure).

Furthermore, there was also the factor of the conservative Czechoslovak Communists who, in the subsequent normalisation period, would be referred to as the “healthy” faction within the Czechoslovak Communist Party and were associated with letters sent to the Soviets asking them to invade.

These Communist hardliners were opposed to the liberalising wing of the party centred around Alexander Dubček. And it was the prospect of their impending removal from the leadership of the party that also played a partial role in the Soviet Politburo’s decision to give in to the hawks and launch the invasion in August of 1968, says Povolný.

Alexander Dubček | Photo: ČT24

“On July 27, all of the divisions that would take part in the August invasion were already amassed on the border, but the negotiations in Čierna nad Tisou [from July 29 to August 1] halted the third attempt. The Soviets said that agreements had been signed in Čierna relating to how the Czechoslovak side would proceed further.

When the Soviets felt that the Czechoslovak side did not fulfil these agreements, they reached the conclusion that all attempts at a political solution had been expended. They also felt that there was no time left, because the Slovak Communist Party congress was nearing and it was expected that the conservative members of the party would lose their positions there.

“Furthermore, an extraordinary congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party had been called for the start of September, and it was expected that an analogous situation would also arise there. So, the manoeuvring room of the dove faction became so constrained that they had no choice but to give an order for the army to take over Czechoslovakia.”

Photo: National Archive

Operation Danube was thus launched during the night from August 20 to 21. Around a quarter of a million troops from the armies of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary moved into their allies territory, to the shock and surprise of not just the Czechoslovak civilian population, but the army as well, says Dr Tůma.

“Czechoslovakia was a part of the Warsaw Pact and its armies. The Czechoslovak People’s Army was facing west. Its best divisions were positioned along the border with West Germany. In a way the Czechoslovak People’s Army was under the leadership of Soviet generals. These had all the necessary information about the situation in Czechoslovakia. From a military point of view it was absolutely hopeless and no one was thinking of military resisting.”

“The army was from the beginning conceived as an integral part of the Warsaw Pact, one that could be successfully deployed in combat against the Western Powers. And now, a situation arose in which the Army’s own allies attacked it basically from the rear.”

It was an event that historian Daniel Povolný called the worst day in the history of the Czechoslovak People’s Army.

“The army was from the beginning conceived as an integral part of the Warsaw Pact, one that could be successfully deployed in combat against the Western Powers. And now, a situation arose in which the army’s own allies attacked it, basically from the rear.

“The Czechoslovak Army was deployed in such a way as to protect against an attack from the West. The scenario for most Warsaw Pact military exercises, including the one codenamed Šumava, was that an unexpected Western attack would take place and that our army would be on the defensive before counterattacking and chasing the NATO forces back across the border. Our army was being prepared for that, not for a situation in which it would be secretly attacked by friendly forces.

“That was why I called it the worst day of the Czechoslovak People’s Army, even though it could be said that the worst day for the army was when it ceased to exist. But, without a doubt, I would say that most officers saw August 21 as the worst day, as an attack unexpectedly came not from the West but from the East.”

Photo: Josef Koudelka,  National Gallery

When its allies invaded the country on the night of August 20, Czechoslovak officers faced not only an unexpected military scenario, but also confusion within the high command.

The Soviet plan counted on the conservative faction within the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party initiating a schism during the party congress, ousting Dubček, seizing power for itself, and officially inviting the Warsaw Pact forces to “save” socialism in Czechoslovakia, says Povolný.

Martin Dzúr | Photo: Peter Zelizňák,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“This plan failed, but some of the actors, such as the Czechoslovak Minister of National Defence, General Martin Dzúr, and part of the Soviet command on our territory, did not know that it had failed.

“On the night from August 20 to 21, they took Dzúr to the residence of the Soviet military attaché and told him that an invasion was taking place with the permission of Czechoslovak legal organs. They expected that the situation was developing as it had been agreed to with the Czechoslovak Communist politicians and had no idea that the plan would fail.”

A curious situation thus came about. Dzúr gave the Czechoslovak Army orders that were based on what the Soviets had told him. He thought that everything was going according to plan, because he had just spoken to Czechoslovakia’s prime minister Oldřich Černík on the phone. Černík told Dzúr that he had voted with the majority of the leadership of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Oldřich Černík  | Photo: National Archive

“However, Černík did not tell Dzúr that he had voted for the leadership resolution that condemned the invasion as an ‘occupation’. And so, when it became apparent that the invasion was not the brotherly help that the Soviets spoke of, Dzúr and the whole leadership of the army were afraid that the soldiers would not follow orders, so they told them to stay in their barracks and do everything to help the arriving Warsaw Pact forces.”

The Czechoslovak People’s Army, on paper one of the Warsaw Pact’s most powerful satellite forces, was thus completely paralyzed and rendered useless during the single event of the country’s 41-year-long communist history when it actually faced an invasion.

Nevertheless, it may have been for the better, says Dr Povolný.

“If it posed any sort of active and armed resistance, the civilian population would likely have been more or less massacred in many places without a significant Czechoslovak troop presence.”

“I don’t want to say that we didn’t have anybody in the east, but certainly not enough forces to stop or at least slow down the invasion from, for example, Poland. Second, if we started resisting, that would just confirm to the Soviets that a Western-led counter-revolution was taking place in Czechoslovakia.

“Also, the people who would resist would understandably be subjected to fire from the occupation forces. If it posed any sort of active and armed resistance, the civilian population would likely have been more or less massacred in many places without a significant Czechoslovak troop presence.”

Povolný says that the only thing that was allegedly being considered in the summer of 1968 was the possibility of Czechoslovaks resisting the invaders in areas with large agglomerations.

“This is because, at least from the time of the Second World War, cities had become very hard to occupy. So, maybe these could become a centre of some more long-term resistance. Otherwise, given the large numerical superiority of the occupying forces, we would most likely have been defeated very quickly.”

Photo: National Archive

Another disadvantage was that there would not have been anyone to help Czechoslovakia defend itself. The country had been invaded by its own allies and, although the West had looked towards Czechoslovakia’s attempts at building “socialism with a human face” sympathetically, historian Oldřich Tůma says that it was certainly not willing to risk a third world war during a time when the United States were themselves bogged down in a foreign conflict.

“There was a lot of interest in what was happening and the mass media really covered the developments in Czechoslovakia from about March 1968 with a kind of support.

“This was the time of détente and the West was interested in cooperation with the Soviet Union.”

“However, Western governments, especially in the United States, were, let’s say, divided. The US was entirely involved in the war in Vietnam. That was the most important thing. They didn’t wish to rewrite their relations with the Soviet Union, so I think that while they expected that something like a military intervention was likely to happen in Czechoslovakia, at the same time they hoped that it wouldn’t.

This was the time of détente and the West was interested in cooperation with the Soviet Union. Also the United States hoped that perhaps the Soviet Union could help end the war in Vietnam.”

Photo: National Archive

Where resistance did materialise was among large segments of Czechoslovakia’s civilian population, with the country’s mass media also playing an active role against the invasion, says Tůma.

“It was unusual that Czechoslovak Radio and Television were able to broadcast freely for a whole week after the intervention, despite the presence of around half a million troops. The Czechoslovak people repeatedly gathered in the streets. There was a general strike against the invasion, on municipal and regional levels the Czechoslovak administration didn’t wish to negotiate with foreign soldiers and so on. So it was a relatively strong resistance and I think that the Soviets were surprised; they didn’t expect something like that.”

Despite the initial surge in civil activism and, it should also be said, notable acts of disobedience among certain individuals in the country’s intelligence services and political class, dissent gradually died down in the months after the summer of 1968. Not even the self-immolation of student Jan Palach in early 1969, done in protest at the apparent turn to apathy within the Czechoslovak population, was able to reverse the sense of hopelessness in society as Soviet troops remained permanently in the country and the party initiated a wide-ranging purge of so-called reactionary elements within its ranks.

“Czechs didn’t have any dark experiences with Russia as a state before then in their history.”

What did change fundamentally, however, was the positive view of Russia that much of the Czechoslovak population held until the launch of Operation Danube, says Oldřich Tůma.

“Czechs didn’t have any dark experiences with Russia as a state before then in their history. On the other hand, at least from the 19th century, there was a growing Russophilism among Czech national revivalists. They considered Russia to be a great Slavic nation which they admired culturally, back in the 19th century. And, in a way, they considered the Russians to be their brothers, or cousins that could help the Czechs in their conflicts with the Germans. So there were a lot of friendly emotions towards Russia.”

Photo: National Archive

This feeling of friendship from the Czech side was further strengthened during the events of 1945, when the Red Army was seen as having liberated most of pre-war Czechoslovak territory from Nazi occupation.

“For the majority of Czechs and Slovaks the Soviet Union was the liberator. Therefore, while I wouldn’t say love, there were a lot of positive sympathies for the Soviet Union and Russia.

“During the first 20 years of the Communist regime this started to change a little bit due to official Communist policy to repeatedly stating things such as that the country will be with the Soviet Union forever and that the USSR is the best in everything and so on. Nevertheless, for most Czechs and Slovaks, the night of August 21 really was a shock and it really changed this positive attitude towards Russia and the Soviet Union.

“It happened two generations ago, but it still has an impact on Czech opinion about Russia.”

“I think that we can see the consequences of this even today in the context of the war in Ukraine and the policy of the Czech government to support Ukraine, as well as in the widespread support of the Czech population towards Ukraine. It happened two generations ago, but it still has an impact on Czech opinion about Russia.”

Dr Tůma says that he does see some parallels between the Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s aggression in 2022. However, he also highlights that the general context of both events is substantially different.

Photo: National Archive

“The Soviet led intervention in Czechoslovakia was mainly done for the survival of the Communist regime in the country as it was before 1968. It was not that much about geopolitics. Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is led by a geopolitical calculations and the attempt to show the world that Russia still is a great power. In 1968 no one doubted that the USSR was a great power. So there are still some similarities, but I think that the reason why they decided to launch the invasions is different.”

It should also be noted that Ukraine’s landmass is substantially larger than that controlled by Czechoslovakia in 1968 and both countries maintained very different diplomatic relations with their aggressor before the respective invasions were launched.

Prokop Tomek | Photo: Jana Přinosilová,  Czech Radio

Nevertheless, historian Prokop Tomek from the Military History Institute in Prague says that there are parallels between the narratives which the respective invaders used as justification.

“It is true that there is a parallel here. In the case of Czechoslovakia in 1968 it was said that the country was facing a counterrevolution. In Ukraine the narrative was that there were fascists there. Both were absurd accusations and excuses.

“Then there is also another parallel and that is the propaganda war and the fake news that we are witnessing today. This was also present in 1968 Czechoslovakia.”

“The propaganda war and the fake news that we are witnessing today. This was also present in 1968 Czechoslovakia.”

Tomek says that the flow of radio stations broadcasting in Czech to Czechoslovakia increased substantially around the time of the invasion. The broadcasts came from the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany. Foreign broadcasting was also being jammed on a large scale, according to the historian.

Asked about whether the invasion of Czechoslovakia was ultimately the right choice for the Soviet leadership, Ondřej Tůma says that it certainly succeeded in postponing the wave of changes that would ultimately take place two decades later. However, he says that geopolitically the invasion was not necessary.

Photo: Prague City Museum

“As far as foreign policy matters were concerned, it didn’t change anything. The Czechoslovak leadership under Alexander Dubcek didn’t want to change anything. The liberalised and partly democratised Czechoslovakia of the Prague Spring wished to remain a very firm ally of the Soviet Union and a member of the Warsaw Pact. So there was in fact no danger of a change of the strategic or military position along the Iron Curtain.”

According to the most recent historical research, 137 Czechs and Slovaks died during the invasion. A further 100,000 to 150,000 emigrated from the country in the immediate period after the Soviet-led intervention. Many of them would go on to forge new lives and successful careers in the West, but at the cost of not being able to see members of their family on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Today, more than half a century after the invasion, the event is still commemorated annually. The crushing of the Prague Spring movement is also a subject matter that has seen extensive adoption in Czech culture. Several films that cover the communist era, including the cult classic Cosy Dens or the musical Rebels, are set on the backdrop of the events of 1968. Meanwhile, many songs from the period are still played regularly on the radio.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Kateřina Ayzpurvit , Vojtěch Pohanka
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