Jiří Dienstbier and the role of the radio in August 1968

Jiří Dienstbier

As Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on the night from 20 to 21 August 1968, Czechoslovak Radio played an important role in keeping people informed of what was happening. The radio building was an immediate focus for the invaders, but remarkably, during the days that followed, radio journalists and engineers managed to carry on broadcasting, firstly from the building itself, and then from other secret locations around the city. One of the prominent voices on the airwaves was Jiří Dienstbier, who many years later reflected on the importance of those uncensored broadcasts at a time when the occupiers were trying to sow confusion in the country.  To mark the anniversary of the invasion, we return to Jiří Dienstbier and his memories of that time.

Soviet occupation | Photo: Post Bellum

In one of the most memorable recordings from 21 August 1968 preserved in our archives, we hear the voice of Jiří Dienstbier. At the time he was one of Czechoslovak Radio’s star reporters. The recording still makes for unnerving listening, as he appeals to people to keep away from the radio building for their own safety, and in the background we hear tanks and gunfire. Forty years later, in August 2008, Jiří Dienstbier came back to the radio, and he remembered that day.

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

“I went to bed around midnight, but in five minutes I was awakened by [colleagues from] the radio that we are occupied by the Russians. I said, ‘No, don’t joke,’ but they said, ‘Listen!’  So I listened and heard the noise of airplanes flying over Prague, so I dressed myself and ran to the radio. In half-an-hour there were about two hundred people there. So, when a group of about ten state security people came to take over the radio, we shut them in one room and tried as quickly as possible to get the declaration of the politburo against the Soviet invasion. And finally, at about half past one, Zdeněk Mlynář [the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia] was able to phone us and dictate the text condemning the invasion. And that was the beginning.”

From that moment on, the radio repeated the message that the Czechoslovak government and president had not approved the invasion at every opportunity. Radio Prague, as the radio’s international service, broadcast the message to the world outside – in English and other languages. As Jiří Dienstbier remembered forty years later, the important role of the radio as it played a cat-and-mouse game with the occupiers, should not be underestimated.

August 1968 | Photo: National Archive

“After the Russians occupied this building, we tried to find places to broadcast from. I believed our secret broadcasts would be heard in Prague and the surroundings, but then I found out it was heard in Asia, in Washington. They showed me the recordings of these broadcasts, because they were immediately retranslated by hundreds of [radio] amateurs. 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 or the government. Some local collaborators couldn’t succeed because people knew exactly what was happening.”

Jiří Dienstbier | Photo: Jan Fišera,  Czech Radio

As so often in history, the tanks prevailed, but the memory of that moment remained, along with an awareness of the truth of what had happened. A little over twenty years later, in November 1989, the communist regime collapsed, and just weeks later Jiří Dienstbier was to become Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist foreign minister. He died on 8 January 2011, but the legacy of his role at two key points in this country’s history is remembered.