‘Occupation 1968’ documents invasion, aftermath from soldiers’ viewpoint
The omnibus documentary film ‘Occupation 1968’ offers a rare glimpse into the invasion of Czechoslovakia from the perspective of common Warsaw Pact soldiers, as well as high-ranking Soviet officers, who took part in the military campaign that crushed the Prague Spring reform movement 50 years ago.
What emerges from scores of interviews with former soldiers and their loved ones is that when deployed to Czechoslovakia a half-century ago, if they at first believed in their mission – to fight against a sinister “counter-revolution” against socialism, backed by hostile Western countries – many did not upon their return home, despite being given an official hero’s welcome.
Former Russian officer: “I would like to raise this glass with the emblem of Russia to one thing: to the beautiful country where Czechs and Slovaks, amazing people, live. May they forgive us for obeying the orders of our leaders to enter that land. And these words burn in my heart until today: ‘Officer, I am very thankful to the Russian nation for saving me from the concentration camp. But what pains me is that you came here now uninvited.’ And for all of my life, and I am over 70, I have remembered those words.”
Former Belarussian soldier (Smolokovsky): “I can’t tell you even today for sure if it was a fight against the ‘counter-revolution’ or not. I think they had their own view, their own way, and their own principles how to build a socialist society as they understood it. Maybe it was not necessary to interfere. … I’m happy that there were no victims; that there is no blood on my hands. I was and I am prepared, maybe not physically, but at least mentally, to fight against any concrete enemy. But in that situation, I couldn’t see any enemy.”
What the soldiers would have been taught at the time was that “counter-revolution” is a core concept at the heart of Marx’s concept of class (or civil) war, and that the threat of it underpinned Lenin’s insistence on the need for violent revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Furthermore, Warsaw Pact soldiers had been told that the West was about to invade, and that theirs was a noble defensive mission. In Czechoslovakia, however, they found themselves condemned by locals as invaders, and confronted by ordinary civilians, not the armed fascists they had braced to battle.
The Czechoslovak pluralistic reform movement of 1968 that came to be known as the Prague Spring had gone far beyond any peaceful previous “democratisation” or “liberalisation” effort by a state behind the Iron Curtain. But while Dubček was working towards achieving “socialism with a human face”, he had no intention of breaking with Moscow.
Still, even today, more than a third of Russians say the Soviet Union was correct to intervene in 1968, according to polling data by the Moscow-based Levada Center released on the 50th anniversary of the 20 August 1968 invasion. Almost half of respondents said they were unsure whether military action was justified, a reflection, said Levada, of a resurgence of “Brezhnev-era propaganda and stereotypes”.
Hungarian veteran: “Our people were misled; they thought we’d believe that the West was about to invade and that’s why the Warsaw Pact’s soldiers had come. And if what Dubček wanted to do in ’68 had worked out, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The world would be a different place, because people would have greater freedom of thought and would be able to tell right from wrong. But back then, you could do only what the Communist Party allowed you to.”