Then Czechoslovak Radio boss recalls August 1968

August 1968, photo: Leszek Sawicki

On the 49th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, then Czechoslovak Radio chief Karel Lanský recalls that fateful time.

August 1968,  photo: Leszek Sawicki
On August 21, 1968 Soviet tanks and troops from other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, crushing the country’s Prague Spring reform movement and beginning two decades of occupation. Among those recalling those momentous events on Monday has been the then head of Czechoslovak Radio, which briefly served as a rallying point for the nation at that time.

A Czechoslovak Radio announcer broke the news to the nation at 1:55 am with the following words:

"At around 11 pm on August 20 1968 troops of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact states entered the country without the awareness of Czechoslovak officials."

The acting director of Czechoslovak Radio at that time was Karel Lanský. Now frail and in his 90s, Mr. Lanský spoke to me after a memorial ceremony at today’s station on Monday commemorating the start of the Soviet-led invasion.

He still has clear recollections of that momentous time.

“August 21 is a key day for me. I was alerted to what was going on when I got a call at 1 in the morning saying that a plane had landed at Ruzyně airport in Prague carrying around 200 NKVD men.”

August 1968,  photo: ČT24
At around 7:40 am, Czechoslovak Radio, which was already having its transmitters knocked out and lines of communication cut, relayed the following information:

“Hundreds of people are coming to the station from the top of Wenceslas Square. What we can see out of the windows is that dozens of people are fleeing up Vinohradská St. All we know is what we’re hearing from listeners phoning in.”

By this time the invaders had arrived at the Radio building, which became the site of some of the bloodiest conflicts as unarmed citizens confronted Soviet soldiers.

Czechoslovak Radio was also a beacon for the nation during the Prague Uprising in the dying days of the war – and Karel Lanský says the station always acts as a magnet in trying times.

“Any time people learn that something is going on their first steps lead here. That goes for the whole country. People came also from outside Prague on August 21 and 22 and said, What do you need? They brought us salami!”

Unlike in 1945, there was no positive ending for the Czechoslovaks in 1968, with the crushing of the Prague Spring reform movement just the start of two decades of occupation.

As for Mr. Lanský, I was curious if he was among the many kicked out of the Radio with the advent of the hard-line post-invasion regime.

August 1968,  photo: ČT24
“I threw myself out in 1970. In 1970 I simply returned my party membership. By that time I didn’t want anything to do with the Radio and had become a building labourer.”

However, Mr. Lanský did not lose all interest in Czechoslovak Radio. He later co-authored the book Tanks Against the Radio with one of the station’s most famous pre-1968 journalists, the future foreign minister Jiří Dientstbier.

He was also a witness against Karel Hoffman, who was sentenced to prison in the 1990s for halting Czechoslovak Radio’s broadcasts in August 1968 as minister of culture.