Layers of an anniversary

Das Rundfunkgebäude in Prag, 1968

This past week marked the 38th anniversary of a key event in 20th century Czech & Slovak history: the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. I'm too young to have witnessed the event, but still it's part of my consciousness and a milestone that changed the lives of many people I know.

August 1968
As has happened every year since the Velvet Revolution, on August 21st we here at Czech Radio marked the events of those late August days of 1968 with a memorial ceremony, to honour both the civilians who died in the street fighting to defend the free word, and the journalists who risked their lives continuing to broadcast from secret locations as Soviet soldiers raided the radio building, shooting with no respect for freedom of the press. I can't begin to imagine how intense those hours inside this old building were, and the wreaths outside Vinohradska 12 are simply a small tribute to those we can not forget. The names of the fifteen men who died in front of Czechoslovak Radio on 21 August 1968 are on a plaque at the entrance of the building: Jan Baborovsky, Milan Kadlec, Jiri Kladka, Jaroslav Novak, Bedrich Repa, to name just a few.

They are the ones whose names are attached to place and cause, though there are many others who deserve to be remembered too. From time-to-time, when I pass by Prague's Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the bottom of Petrin Hill in Mala Strana, there are flowers. That was the case on Monday evening too—on the day of the anniversary of 21 August 1968. I placed a bouquet there as well. As I sat on a bench beside the memorial, several people stopped to read the numbers etched at the base of the 2002 sculpture created by Olbram Zoubek: 240 people were killed by the communist authorities between 1948 and 1989, over 26 000 were imprisoned, and another 200 000 were arrested and interrogated on suspicion of 'crimes' against the state. And that was just in Czechoslovakia.

So I sat there and thought about what happened in this place, in the country I write about, a place with so much living history. My thoughts were interrupted by a middle-aged couple walking their dog; they are complete strangers to me, but what they said struck a chord. Their conversation included some general remarks about Olbram Zoubek's talents as a sculptor, but then the man was keen to dismiss the memorial because, as he said, "today it serves to honour mainly those who suffered after 1968, but were themselves once enthusiastic young communists." He was referring to a large portion of the 1970s and 1980s Czech and Slovak dissident community. Of course the man was partly right, but his remarks were also a distorted simplification.

Memorial to the Victims of Communism
The Memorial to the Victims of Communism honours all of the communist regime's victims, all of the people who landed in a secret police interrogation room, in labour camps, prison cells, and also those who fled across the border knowing that they could not exist under an authoritarian system. The first wave of these people left after February 1948. As for those who stayed, at least some from the generation this anonymous Prague resident referred to may have been young members of the Communist Party in the 1950s or 1960s, but after 1968 their ideals were shattered and they did more to resist the system than many others. I think of a historian who went into exile in Germany and sacrificed his own professional career to ensure that what the communist censors banned would not be lost forever; of authors who used their own royalties to fund Czech & Slovak publishing houses in exile; and of numerous people—young and old—who stayed awake long nights printing underground editions of Lidove Noviny so there would be alternate news sources inside Czechoslovakia. They are just some of many who once sung the praises of the communist party. Back when they were young, and perhaps foolish.

Only I doubt I succeeded in convincing the man with the dog. He told me about the horrors his own family suffered in the 1950s, and these were left overshadowed on the anniversary of 1968.