21. August 1968 End of the Prague Spring: When Moscow sent its tanks
The 20. August 1968 is a somewhat hazy summer day. Prague is full of tourists. Mainly young people from Europe and the USA have traveled to the Czechoslovak capital. Only eight days ago, the "New York Times" reported: "For those under 30, Prague seems to be just the place to be this summer." It’s hard to get a hotel room in the city.
At the headquarters of the Communist Party, a concrete block on the banks of the Vltava River, there is no vacation atmosphere. On the contrary. Since 2 p.m., the eleven-member Presidium of the Central Committee, the party’s highest governing body, has been meeting there to discuss the future of the experiment that made Czechoslovakia the freest country in the Eastern Bloc.
The assembled party cadres have been debating for hours about the party congress in three weeks’ time. There, the comrades are expected not only to elect a new Central Committee, but also to enshrine in law the liberal reforms that their chairman Alexander Dubcek had been pushing for months.
The atmosphere is tense. Rumors are doing the rounds: The Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries have allegedly massed troops on the Czechoslovakian border. Does Moscow want to put an end to the new freedom in the brother country by force?
GEO EPOCHE No. 88 The year 1968
Prague Spring divides Czechoslovakia
Dubcek spreads confidence. He believes that it is only a threatening gesture of the Kremlin. The CP leader does not know that some conspirators within the Presidium are planning to overthrow him: before the end of this session they intend to provoke a quarrel and call for a vote of no confidence.
But it does not come to that. The deliberations on the future party congress drag on late into the evening and are still going on when Prime Minister Oldrich CernIk is called to the presidium of the CC at 23.30 o’clock, he receives a call from the Minister of Defense: The USSR and the other Warsaw Pact countries have ordered their troops to march to the border. "The armies have crossed the borders of the Republic and are about to occupy our country", CernIk tells the others.
Video tip Eyewitnesses remember the dramatic hours
Tears well up in Dubcek’s eyes. "They are doing this to me," he exclaims, as one comrade recalls, "to me, who has devoted his whole life to cooperation with the Soviet Union! This is for me the tragedy of my life."
The biggest military offensive in Europe since the end of the Second World War begins this night.
From three points of the compass, some 300.000 soldiers with 7500 tanks, 2000 guns and 1000 airplanes enter Czechoslovakia: in the north from Poland and the GDR, in the east from the Soviet Union and in the south from Hungary. Their mission: to force the small country back under the influence of the Kremlin.
The USSR provides the majority of the invaders, Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops are also involved. The GDR did not send any soldiers: Several divisions of the People’s Army have been stopped at the last moment so as not to evoke memories of the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
Instead of voting on Dubcek, as planned by the conspirators, a majority of the assembled functionaries, under the immediate impact of the events, decide at 1.30 o’clock a statement condemning the invasion: "The Presidium of the CC of the CPC considers this act as a disregard not only of the fundamental principles of relations between socialist states, but also of the principles of international law."
The population calls on the party cadres to remain calm and not to fight back. The army receives the order to stay in the barracks.
Against such a superior force, any armed resistance seems futile and would only cause unnecessary deaths. The world is to witness a foreign power invading a peaceful country by force.
From two o’clock in the morning, about 120 Soviet Antonov transport planes land at Prague airport at minute intervals, with tanks and troops on board. The soldiers were to take control of government buildings, radio and TV station.
4.8 p.m. The windows of the Central Committee building are still lit when a Volga limousine from the Soviet Embassy drives up, accompanied by three armored cars. Soldiers surround the building. T-55 tanks roll in.
At the same time, chants can now be heard from afar: "Russians home!"Demonstrators approach the headquarters, holding in their hands the flag with the blue-white-red national colors.
When the train reaches the soldiers in front of the building, one of the tanks turns around itself. Some Czechs manage to climb on it and put a flag in the gun barrel. Suddenly shots of the Soviet guards whip through the night.
The tricolor falls to the ground, one of the young Czechs is hit. The party leaders watch the events from a window and have to watch helplessly as the man bleeds to death.
The communists take power
20 years earlier, in the spring of 1945, the Czechs welcomed the Soviet soldiers as saviors. No nation has suffered as long under German occupation as the Czechs; in no country is gratitude for liberation greater. Czech units fought side by side with the Red Army against the Germans; the Czechoslovaks are allies of the victorious coalition. This is another reason why the Red Army leaves the same year.
The Czechs, on the other hand, distrust the West. The memory of 1938 is too fresh, when the governments in London and Paris let them down. In the Munich Agreement, the two great powers had agreed to cede the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany without even listening to Prague; and when the Nazi regime annexed Bohemia and Moravia six months later, the two Western powers did not come to the rescue as promised – for fear of war against Germany.
Therefore, many locals now focus their hopes on an alliance with the USSR. In 1946, the re-established Czechoslovakia is the only nation in Eastern Europe to choose a communist government in democratic elections. It is the last free vote in the country.
Although the communists announced that they would preserve the democratic traditions of the Czechs and Slovaks, they actually took over sole power in the state in 1948.
In the now beginning Cold War, Czechoslovakia sides with Moscow. And inside, the communists ruthlessly implement the Soviet model: farms are forcibly expropriated and merged into collectives, industrial enterprises are nationalized.
To secure its power, the Czechoslovak CP acts more brutally and persistently than other communist parties against dissenters, alleged class enemies and "imperialist agents. It can affect everyone.
By 1952 alone, judges hand down 233 death sentences in show trials. In addition, by 1954, some 150,000 political prisoners were in jail.
Even after the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953, which triggers a cautious liberalization in the USSR, the tyranny in Czechoslovakia changes little. Unlike Nikita Khrushchev, the new strong man in the Kremlin, AntonIn Novotný, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, does not dare to make reforms. Stubbornly refuses any change.
When Khrushchev publicly denounces Stalin’s crimes in 1961, Novotný releases a lot of political prisoners – because it would not be advisable for the CCP to openly denounce Moscow. But the changes remain cosmetic; the organizers of the Stalinist persecutions, for example, are hardly held accountable.
But soon the weak economy will force even the hard-bitten Czech communists to discuss reforms. And this debate, once opened, can no longer be suppressed.
The reformers are concerned with economic liberalization
When the Communists came to power in 1948, Czechoslovakia was one of the most industrially advanced countries in the world. But by 1963, the economic situation is pitiful, even compared to the rest of the socialist bloc.
The bureaucratic planned economy is disastrous. The factories are inefficient, their machinery obsolete, the goods produced defective. Everywhere between Prague and Bratislava there is a lack of many things that citizens need in their everyday lives. Food is scarce, long lines form in front of the stores. The grumbling of the people is growing louder and louder.
Novotný must act. In 1964, the party leadership sets up a commission to work out a new economic model. Experts try to develop a mixture of planned economy and capitalism that gives companies more autonomy so that they can align production with actual demand. They demand a reduction of the bureaucracy and less direct influence of the party.
But Novotný is unyielding in his opposition to all innovations that limit the party’s authority. Again and again he delays the reforms, until finally only a fragmentary, ineffective variant is implemented. Instead of entrepreneurial freedoms, it again strengthens central planning.
Actually, the reformers were only concerned with economic liberalization. But many citizens understand their program as a demand for more freedom outside the economy as well, and so there are now discussions in party meetings and intellectual circles about which path socialism should take in their country at all.
At a writers’ congress in the summer of 1967, for example, the novelist Milan Kundera unceremoniously pushes aside a lecture he had agreed on with the CP and instead demands freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to storms of applause. His colleague Pavel Kohout reads out a letter by the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn condemning Soviet censorship. The party secretary for ideological issues, who was present, stormed out of the room with the words: "Now you’ve screwed up!"
The next day at the congress, LudvIk VaculIk, an author, party member and former cobbler, gives a scathing review of the CP’s nearly 20-year rule, saying it has failed to solve a single "human question" – from "primary needs like housing to finer needs that the world’s undemocratic systems cannot meet".
An unheard-of breach of taboo. Kundera criticized the party, but VaculIk questions its claim to power. When he is expelled from the Communist Party shortly thereafter and loses his job as editor of the writers’ association newspaper, which is now subject to harsh censorship, he experiences unprecedented support. Intellectuals and steelworkers donate money for him and his family.
And additional difficulties increase the pressure on Novotný. This time it is not artists or writers who are revolting. This time it is a whole people: the Slovaks.
Student demonstrations are brutally suppressed
The southeastern half of the country suffers particularly from the misery due to its economic backwardness-and is also politically disadvantaged. Although Slovaks make up about 30 percent of the population, the country’s politics are entirely oriented toward Prague. Although there is a separate Slovak communist party, it must have every decision approved by Prague. For several years now, the Slovaks have been increasingly demanding equal rights.
Novotný thinks their claims are absurd. Even more: he publicly shows his dislike for the inhabitants in the East, which goes far beyond the reservations that many Czechs feel towards the supposedly primitive peasant population. When the party leader refuses to accept gifts during a visit to Slovakia in September 1967, it is a scandal for the Slovaks.
Afterwards, it is clear that even conservative Slovak communists will no longer support Novotný. And even in the Czechoslovak CP his opponents are now gathering.
At the end of October 1967, the police brutally attacked students in Prague who were demonstrating for better conditions. Such an approach now outrages even many high-ranking party members and makes them doubt the party leader’s tough course. The mood in the CC turns against Novotný.
The Americans do not intervene
He asks Moscow for help. But Leonid Brezhnev, party leader of the CPSU since 1964, meanwhile apparently also assumes that Novotný can no longer be kept. "This is your business," he replies to the Czech.
For Novotný’s opponents, this was a signal for his downfall: on 5 October 1967, he was elected president of the party. January 1968 the head of the CP has to resign, the Central Committee elects a new First Secretary: Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the Slovak Communists (Novotný, however, remains State President).
The election of his successor is a compromise, since neither reformers nor conservatives have a majority in the CC. Dubcek is 46 years old, a gaunt man, usually only smiling tentatively, looking serious and awkward in equal measure. Many of his party comrades consider him a colorless functionary. But because he is a Slovakian, he is trusted to reconcile both parts of the country.
No contradiction is to be expected from the Kremlin: Dubcek is a convinced Communist with an impeccable biography. A worker’s son whose parents once moved to the Soviet Union to help build socialism there. Having grown up in the USSR, he is deeply attached to the country. For three years he attended the party academy in Moscow.
However, as head of the Slovak Communists in his part of the country, he has allowed the press and cultural life more freedom than was otherwise customary in Czechoslovakia. And he is convinced that the economy must be reformed.
Moreover, a few confidants know that in his view only democratization can preserve the communist societies of Eastern Europe and therefore a "socialism with a human face" must be developed.
The party leaders elect him because he seems to be the right man to implement the necessary changes with the necessary caution towards Moscow and the old communist functionaries.
On 4. March the censorship is lifted
The majority of the population accepts the change at the top of the party with equanimity. For them Dubcek is a virtual unknown from whom they do not expect any real change. And in fact little changes at first.
In the first few weeks, the new party leader does not make a single public statement about his plans. For he must proceed with caution. For the far-reaching reforms he has in mind, he would not yet have enough supporters at the top of the party.
The first thing Dubcek does is to allow the Writers’ Union magazine to reappear without restriction, thus beginning a relaxation of censorship in order to increase the pressure on the opponents of reform in the party leadership.
Journalists now reveal several misdeeds of the regime in articles. Reported on wrongful convictions, interviewed victims of Stalinism, and exposed the corruption of prominent officials. Criticism of the functionaries who stand for the repressive measures of the Novotný government grows louder and louder.
On 4. In March, the pressure becomes too great: the secretary for ideological questions, a confidant of Novotný, has to resign. On the same day the CP Presidium decides not to apply censorship any more. Thus, for everyone to see, an awakening has begun that is associated with an auspicious name: "Prague Spring".
Although the editorial offices are now drastically increasing their newspaper circulations, the papers are often sold out early in the morning. Kiosks in the capital now even offer newspapers from Western countries. Such a free press has not existed in Eastern Europe so far.
The demeanor of the officials is also changing: In the course of March, the reformers face critical questions at hundreds of events around the country. At the 20. March, politicians and intellectuals discuss economic and social change before an audience of 15,000 in Prague’s Palace of Congresses. For seven hours the radio broadcast the debate into Czechoslovak homes. The ossified society is on the move.
Dubcek now also turns to the citizens. Pictures show him smiling, surrounded by enthusiastic people. His shyness and modesty appeal especially to young people. He is ready to listen and to accept other opinions.
The public does not yet know how the new leadership envisions the country’s political and economic future in concrete terms. But the new climate and Dubcek’s winning personality are leading citizens to trust him more and more – and to believe that he is not concerned with power but with the welfare of the people.
Novotný steps back
On 22. March, Novotný, embroiled in a corruption scandal, also resigns from the presidency, reportedly for health reasons; he is succeeded by the highly respected former general LudvIk Svoboda. The next day Dubcek, accompanied by advisors, travels to Dresden for a Warsaw Pact meeting called at short notice.
At the conference, they are to talk about economic cooperation – or so Brezhnev told them. But this is a feint. The Czechoslovakians experience a tribunal. The sole topic is the events in the CSSR.
One after the other, party leaders from the USSR, the GDR, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary accuse Alexander Dubcek of no longer being in control of the situation, and corroborate this with the help of articles they have brought along from Czech and Slovak newspapers.
They call on him to crack down on anti-socialist forces and to enforce the party’s monopoly on power. For although Dubcek’s reform policy is only discernible in outline, for Brezhnev the country is already moving in the direction of a "counterrevolution".
East German and Polish leaders in particular feel threatened by Prague Spring. Walter Ulbricht and Wladyslaw Gomulka fear that the enthusiasm for reform could spread to their countries. In Poland, numerous students have already taken to the streets in early March with the slogans "Long live Czechoslovakia!" and "Poland is waiting for its Dubcek.".
The Czechoslovak delegation, unaware of the real intention of the meeting, is completely taken by surprise by the accusations. Dubcek fights back in an impromptu speech. He justifies the suspension of censorship, but at the same time assures them that nothing has changed in the country’s socialist orientation. Above all, he affirms fidelity to the Warsaw Pact’s alliance commitments.
Dubcek’s willingness to reform has its limits
The public does not learn about the criticism of the other party leaders. Back in Prague, Dubcek presses ahead with reforms despite admonitions, believing he can insist on an independent domestic policy as long as he assures Moscow of his loyalty.
On 5. April, the plenum of the CPC adopts an "action program" to be implemented within two years. It reveals Dubcek’s vision of a modern Czechoslovakia. Czechs and Slovaks should form an equal federation in the future, victims of political persecution should be rehabilitated, courts should henceforth operate independently of political power. Small and medium-sized enterprises are to be privatized. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of travel are to apply, as is the autonomy of science, culture and art.
Nevertheless, the paper also shows the limits of Dubcek’s readiness for reform. It does not want to abolish socialism, but to renew it, thus saving it. The CP should not lose its "leading role" under any circumstances – but people should trust it and follow it voluntarily. There is still no place for opposition in his thinking.
He does not question Czechoslovakia’s membership in the Warsaw Pact either. It demands only more autonomy: each state should bear "exclusive responsibility" for socialism in its own country.
The freedom granted by the CPC has long since triggered a cultural revolution: music clubs open, avant-garde theater flourishes. Travel to the West is easier. Playwright Vaclav Havel stages his play "The Memorandum" in New York.
Meanwhile, the press is increasingly open in its criticism of the USSR. The media also publish statements by Soviet dissidents. Russians can thus suddenly read opinions in Czechoslovakia that may not be printed at home.
Alexander DubCek faces a dilemma
In the power centers of the Warsaw Pact, the Prague developments set off alarm bells. For a long time Gomulka and Ulbricht have been signaling readiness for a violent solution, but Brezhnev hesitates. He still hopes Dubcek will relent.
In May, to increase the pressure on him, the five party leaders who had already sat in judgment on him in Dresden agree to hold maneuvers on the territory of Czechoslovakia as soon as possible.
Dubcek, on the other hand, is pinning all his hopes on an extraordinary party congress, which he announces for early September. There the CPC is to reaffirm his reforms – and the members are to vote out his opponents in the party leadership.
When on 20. By the time the planned Warsaw Pact military exercise begins in June, freedom of expression in the media has already taken on a life of its own. Again and again Dubcek exhorts the journalists to restraint. In vain.
The head of government is faced with a dilemma: He can hardly ignore the hostility of the other states, but neither does he want to silence the press with new censorship. If he retracts the reform, it would destroy his credibility.
The people give DubCek a clear order
On 27. June several newspapers publish a manifesto entitled "Two Thousand Words Addressed to Workers, Farmers, Civil Servants, Artists and Everyone". Among the signatories of the text written by LudvIk VaculIk are almost 70 scientists, literary figures, sportsmen and other celebrities. They demand further democratization, more co-determination, the formation of citizens’ committees, and the removal of functionaries "who have abused their power".
The appeal is an attack on the CCP’s monopoly on power, which many members of the CC presidium refuse to tolerate under any circumstances. Finally, the party leaders agree on a statement condemning the manifesto, but at the same time emphasize that they have no doubts about the good intentions of its authors. The Kremlin sees this as further proof that the CPC cadres are not doing enough in the fight against counterrevolution.
But Leo nid Brezhnev still wants to give his friend "Sasha", as he sometimes calls Dubcek, one last chance. On 19. July it proposes to him a summit meeting in the USSR. But the Czechoslovaks are not ready to go to the brother country – probably because they fear that they will not return from there. Both sides finally agree on a meeting in the Slovakian town of Ciernanad Tisou, right on the Soviet border.
No sooner has this news spread throughout Czechoslovakia than a manifesto by the writer Pavel Kohout appears in a newspaper, in which he calls on the Prague leadership to stand firm on behalf of the citizens: "Negotiate, explain, but adamantly defend the path we have taken and which we will not leave alive. We think of you. Think of us."
Kohout’s appeal is signed by more than a million people in the following three days. The people give Dubcek a clear order – and the party leader hears it. Before leaving for Cierna, he promises: "We will not give an inch."
At the same time, Warsaw Pact troops move into position on the border with Czechoslovakia and are placed on alert.
A student becomes a symbol of resistance
Cierna nad Tisou, 29. July, 9.52 p.m.: A special Soviet train with 15 saloon cars rolls into the station of the border town. It is the first (and only) time that almost the entire Moscow Politburo goes abroad together.
Members of the Kremlin leadership coolly greet the Prague comrades before they all go to the nearby Cultural House of Railway Workers. The fate of the Prague uprising was to be decided there in the following hours.
Although the meeting takes place in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet secret service controls all entrances and exits of the meeting hall, every translator’s booth and telephone line. Dubcek and his comrades-in-arms are cut off from the outside world.
Brezhnev demands a radical change of course: censorship is to be reintroduced, reformers disagreeable to the Kremlin are to be expelled from the party leadership, and a general loyal to Moscow is to become head of Czech state security. And, of course, Dubcek must henceforth prevent any criticism of the other communist states.
At first, the Czechoslovak delegation remains firm, repeats its arguments. But on the third day of the trial, Dubcek faces Brezhnev alone in a one-on-one meeting. What the two agree on has not been recorded in the minutes. However, the wording of later telephone conversations suggests that Dubcek finally promises to implement the Soviet demands in Prague as soon as possible.
He wants only one thing: to gain time. He hopes to delay the matter until the reformers take complete power in the country at the CP congress in September. For his course is still controversial in the Central Committee, and opponents within the party want to steer the country back in a pro-Soviet direction.
It still seems inconceivable to him that the Russians will stop his program of action by force and invade Czechoslovakia as they did in the 1956 uprising in Hungary. At that time, the Hungarians had declared their withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, but Dubcek had always declared his support for the alliance. He assumes that the USSR will not dare to invade in the end.
Brezhnev, on the other hand, assumes that the Czechoslovaks have accepted his demands and that he can henceforth insist on their fulfillment.
They agree on the 3. August another meeting with the five heads of government of the other brother states in the Slovak capital Bratislava. This meeting is being held for one purpose only: to demonstrate unity and to adopt a joint declaration.
At the beginning of August, the Prague reformers believe they have averted the threat of escalation with their promises and declarations of loyalty.
Dubcek has no idea that five of his comrades, including several members of the CC presidium, have secretly leaked a letter to Leonid Brezhnev on the sidelines of the Bratislava summit, which reads, among other things, "The essence of socialism is threatened in our country. Only with your help is it possible to wrest the CSSR from the imminent danger of counterrevolution."
For Brezhnev, this invitation to military intervention is more valuable than any joint declaration. If an invasion should occur after all, he wants to preserve the appearance of legality: Dubcek would not be deposed by the Soviet army, but by his own people. The plan: the conspirators are to overthrow the party leader by a vote of no confidence on the eve of a possible invasion and then officially ask the Soviet Union for support.
Dubcek, on the other hand, feels a little safer again. On the one hand, the last Soviet troops – who were in the CSSR for the military exercise – finally leave the country. On the other hand, Brezhnev and most members of the Moscow leadership leave for vacation after the meeting in Bratislava. Reassured, many Czechoslovakians also go on vacation.
But the hope for a respite will not be fulfilled.
"Comrade Brezhnev, take all the measures your Politburo thinks proper."
Because on 13. August Brezhnev calls Dubcek from his vacation spot in the Crimea and accuses him (as can be seen from the Russian transcript of the conversation) of ignoring Cierna’s decisions and failing to stop press attacks against the Soviet Union.
Dubcek appeases, saying he and his comrades were working on it. But the more insistently Brezhnev asked for exact dates, the more vague Dubcek’s answers were. Sometimes he seems downright helpless, responding to all attempts to pin him down to a specific date by saying that he could not meet the demands in two or three days and that the changes demanded would first have to be decided by the CC plenum.
To Brezhnev’s reproach that Dubcek is not keeping to the agreements made and that the Soviet Politburo must therefore take "new measures," the latter defiantly replies: "Comrade Brezhnev, take whatever measures your Politburo deems proper."
"Sasha, that is an unserious statement," replies Brezhnev. When Dubcek apologizes for his petulance and explains that he is considering resigning from his post, Brezhnev shows understanding, and they finally say a conciliatory goodbye. It is the last time the two heads of government speak to each other before the invasion.
On 21. August 1968 Soviet tanks roll into Prague
Now, in the early morning of 21. August, tank engines roared through Prague. Although the coup of the Moscow loyalists in the Central Committee has failed (because they did not dare to start a quarrel in time), although they could not request a vote of no confidence and therefore no call for help has been sent out, the Soviet news agency TASS spreads the news worldwide shortly after the invasion that the invasion is taking place at the request of Czechoslovak "party and state functionaries".
In fact, the CPC presidium at night about 1.00 o’clock vote – and in a statement strongly condemn the invasion of the troops.
Dubcek assured his comrades that he had not been forewarned by Brezhnev until the very end. The other members of the Presidium reacted indignantly and appalled. Two comrades, who the conspirators thought would have supported the vote of no confidence in Dubcek, voted with the majority in favor of the declaration under the shock of the invasion. Only four conspirators voted against. The text was telephoned to Prague Radio and read out several times over the next few hours.
Now an angry crowd gathers in the city center to resist the invaders. Since people assume that the broadcasting station is an important target of the troops, thousands flock there to defend the building. They block roads with overturned cars, buses and construction machinery, some wave the national flag. They expect the tanks. And they roll towards 7.30 a.m.
Uncertainly the tank drivers stop in front of the barricades. Young people shout and whistle at the troops, trying to stick their jackets into the slits of the tracked vehicles. Over loudspeakers, Czechoslovak Radio calls on demonstrators to be calm: "Don’t let yourselves be challenged! Armed defense is out of the question!"
The Soviet soldiers, mostly poorly educated peasant boys, are getting nervous. They are surprised by the angry reaction. They had been told by their officers that they would save a nation from counterrevolution, their tanks would be greeted with cheers. Instead they meet with indignation. Finally the occupiers fight their way to the radio building. Dozens of shots hit the radio station and surrounding houses.
Meanwhile, the national anthem plays on the radio. Afterwards, the announcer announces that they will continue broadcasting as long as it is possible, and warns, "If you hear any voices other than those of the previous announcers, do not believe them."
Instead of fleeing, students and young workers now set fire to the barricades. Also some tanks go up in flames. The soldiers shoot the first civilians. Nowhere will there be so many dead and wounded as in the struggle for radio, television and the editorial office of the party newspaper.
At nine o’clock the radio building is occupied by Soviet soldiers. Outside are burned-out buses and ammunition trucks.
These are scenes that are repeated throughout the country. Again and again unarmed people try to stop the tanks, some just sit down on the ground in front of them. Thousands of people shout the words "Occupiers, go home" to the soldiers!" to. They write "Dubcek" on the tanks, erect barricades.
Wherever combat vehicles stop, they are surrounded by protesters, who talk to the soldiers, ask them what they want in this country, and explain to them that they are taking away their freedom.
Alexander Dubcek hardly learns about all this. Still on the morning of 21. August, Soviet paratroopers and officers storm his office, where he waits for the invaders with other reformers. All must sit around a table, a fighter is posted behind each, gun pointed at the prisoner. At 2 p.m. the reformers, some of them tied up, are taken to the airport and in the evening via Poland to the Ukrainian Carpathians.
But the world sees what is happening in their country. Although Czechoslovak television is forced to stop broadcasting, ORF in Vienna manages to relay footage from the occupied country around the world.
The pictures do not show a government welcoming the troops as liberators, but unarmed people opposing the tanks.
Already on the first day of the invasion 23 Czechoslovakians are killed. In the following weeks more than 70 people die, many of them run over or shot by the soldiers’ vehicles.
In Bratislava, a Russian soldier fires from a tank into a group of angry students who insult and pelt the invaders with rocks, killing a 15-year-old nursing student. Nevertheless, as bricks continue to hit the tanks, the Russians intensify their fire. Four students die.
GEO EPOCHE no. 88 The year 1968
Some now consider DubCek a traitor
That there are not many more casualties is thanks to the largely peaceful resistance. Apparently not a single soldier of the invaders is killed by Czechoslovaks. In contrast, during the Hungarian Uprising, when the locals confronted the Soviet soldiers with rifles, about 2500 people lost their lives.
Quickly, the governments of the West condemn the invasion. US President Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, deplores the "tragic news" and calls on the Soviet Union to withdraw its invading forces. But they are not prepared to do more: The U.S. does not want to intervene militarily and considers civil resistance futile. The Czechoslovakians are alone.
Since the radio station in Prague has been occupied, provide from 23. August to throughout the country free radio stations provide the population with information.
Every ten minutes, as in a relay race, they pass the word to another station so that the small stations cannot be located. Incessantly they report on movements of Soviet troops, call for calm and non-violence.
In order to make it more difficult for the soldiers to find their way, signposts are removed, pasted over and turned to the north in the following days all over the country. "Moscow – 2000 km" is written on it. People change the nameplates on their doors. Soon most families in Prague are named Dubcek or Svoboda. And live in a street with the same name. On walls, walls and windows are emblazoned protest slogans, such as "Ivan Go Home!" or "Socialism yes – Occupation no".
And yet: after 36 hours, the invading forces have the entire country militarily under their control.
But Leonid Brezhnev and his comrades are far from a political solution: the pro-Soviet forces within the CPC have still not succeeded in establishing a government agreeable to Moscow.
Even on the third day of the occupation, the USSR has no credible explanation as to who has allegedly called on it for help and why there are now 500,000 foreign soldiers in Czechoslovakia.
Some members of the Soviet leadership are now in favor of establishing an occupation regime based on force of arms. But that would clearly show that the invasion was nothing more than the subjugation of a neighboring country. Brezhnev chooses a different path. He decides to leave Dubcek in office for the time being. Without it, he would risk Czechoslovakia sinking into bloody battles.
And not letting the reformer return home would make him even more of a martyr in the eyes of his countrymen.
Prague: Thousands of people demonstrate against the Moscow dictate
After a day and a half of imprisonment in the Ukrainian Carpathians, Alexander Dubcek and his comrades-in-arms are released on 23. August flown to Moscow, where the fate of the CSSR is now to be decided.
The talks last four days. A delegation from Prague, including President Svobo and some of Dubcek’s inner-party opponents, also takes part. Sometimes Brezhnev is present, sometimes the entire Politburo, often only individual members show up. They are not real negotiations: kidnapped and humiliated, Dubcek finds himself in a psychologically bad condition.
After an attack of weakness, he even stays in bed and no longer participates in the meetings. He offers his resignation to his party colleagues, but they refuse: They need him.
On 26. August, the Czechoslovaks finally agree to accept Moscow’s demands. Dubcek refuses for a long time. Only when his compatriots storm him does he give in, not least to prevent an uprising with many dead in his homeland. In the night hours the delegation signs the dictate.
With their blackmailed signature, Dubcek and his comrades destroy their own reform work and agree to the temporary occupation of the country. The Soviet army is not to leave until the situation has stabilized.
At dawn of the following day, the leaders of the Prague Spring land back in their homeland. For their fellow citizens the former heroes are now traitors. In Prague thousands protest against the Moscow dictate. Young people tear posters with portraits of Dubcek and Svoboda off the walls.
But the mood turns when the CP leader delivers a radio address to which millions listen. More important than their content is how Dubcek speaks: as if broken by shame and disappointment, his voice quivering, his speech punctuated by hard-held sobs and pauses that last minutes.
"In these pauses," Milan Kundera would later write, "lay the horror that had settled on the country."
Alexander Dubcek asks the people to trust him, assuring them that these are only "temporary measures". Still hopes to somehow save at least part of his reforms.
Reinhard Veser: "The Prague Spring of 1968"
Objective, knowledgeable, clear (Landeszentrale fur politische Bildung Thuringen).
Stefan Karner u. a. (ed.): "Prague Spring. The international crisis year 1968"
Weighty collection of essays by historians from a variety of countries (Bohlau).
It seems that the Soviet Union has everything under control
Things turn out differently. The "realists" and opportunists now take the lead in the party. Dubcek’s allegiance is waning. The upcoming party congress is canceled, and freedom of the press and assembly are suspended. In December, another reform ends with the reintroduction of travel restrictions. Before that, about 50,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West to escape the repression.
The only project of the reformers that actually endures is the federalization of the country. From then on, the CSSR consisted of two equal parts: a Czech and a Slovak republic. As the New Year dawns, it seems as if the Soviet Union has the country completely under control.
On 16. January 1969 the 20-year-old student Jan Palach in front of the Prague National Museum with gasoline and set himself on fire, thus demonstrating against the Soviet occupation. Burning it runs over the Wenceslas Square. He lives for three more days before succumbing to his burns.
Palach’s death shakes the CSSR. At his funeral on 25. It is estimated that half a million people take part. It becomes a day of national mourning.
Alexander Dubcek’s political end comes a few weeks later. The occasion is the ice hockey world championship in March, when the Czechoslovak team wins its two games against the USSR.
During the victory celebrations, hatred against the occupiers is unleashed. In Prague, demonstrators vandalize the office of the Soviet airline Aeroflot – and the local police let it happen without intervening.
For the Kremlin, this is finally the opportunity to depose Dubcek. On 17. In April, the reformer is forced to resign from the post of First Secretary.
His successor Gustav Husak is also a Slovak and was considered a reformer for a long time. Now, however, he cracks down: By 1970, some 500,000 people are expelled from the Communist Party for their commitment to reform, which is more than a quarter of all members.
Many intellectuals are banned from their professions and are forced to earn their living as unskilled laborers.
Milan Kundera’s books are removed from libraries and no longer published. 1975 he leaves for France.
Vaclav Havel is punished for his unrelenting criticism of the Husak regime with a ban on performances, house arrest and imprisonment.
Pavel Kohout is expelled from the party and expatriated in 1979.
Dubcek is forced to leave the Communist Party in 1970 and from then on works as a mechanic on the outskirts of Bratislava, repairing bulldozers, shovel loaders and chainsaws.
His country is now frozen in resignation, in the hopelessness against which Jan Palach had wanted to set a signal with his death. Husak’s regime will be one of the most repressive in the entire Eastern Bloc until 1989.
The hope that communism could be reformed, that it could be more democratic and free, and that it was possible to overcome the Stalinist legacy once and for all, was dashed by the Warsaw Pact rulers with their invasion of 21. August 1968 destroyed. Moscow will never again be able to credibly claim that its rule over Eastern Europe is in harmony with the wishes of the people.
And so the end of the Prague Spring is not only a Czechoslovak tragedy, but also a caesura for Communists around the world. For many, the demise of Dubcek’s vision of "socialism with a human face" also meant the end of their faith in the Kremlin.
The USSR once again exposed itself as a dictatorial state. As representatives of the imperial striving for power, which they claim to fight against.
Only under Mikhail Gorbachev, who has been in charge of Moscow since 1985, will fundamental change set in. And when the communist dictatorships collapse in 1989, this time the Soviet tanks stay in the barracks.
In November of that epochal year, citizens in Prague once again take to the streets – and eventually force the party leadership to resign. One of the leaders of this non-violent revolution is Vaclav Havel, later president of the country.
On 26. November, he speaks to an enthusiastic crowd from a balcony in Wenceslas Square. People see the playwright, who kept his distance from the Communist Party all his life, as a symbol of a renewed awakening.
But the cheers aren’t just for him, but also for a shyly smiling man at his side. Alexander Dubcek.
The article comes from GEO Epoch No. 88 "The year 1968". You can order it conveniently online in the GEO store.