21st August 1968 at night: people in Czechoslovakia were sleeping quietly. But they were woken up with a huge noise – airplanes, tanks. The Soviet army entered Czechoslovakia and then stayed here for 22 years. Why? Nobody invited them… Czechoslovakia was a part of a communist bloc but wanted to make its own policy. And the Soviet Union didn´t like that…
Czechoslovakia was a communist state from 1948. In February 1948 the communists staged a coup and started to govern. Czechoslovakia was a part of the Eastern (= communist) sphera after the World War II (+ Poland, Hungary, Eastern Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania). The Soviet Union became the main authority and dictated what Czech governement could or couldn´t do. Czechs couldn´t travel to abroad. Censorship existed in media and literature. Secret represive police (Státní bezpečnost) operated in Czechoslovakia. Who didn´t agree with the communist politics he/she was persecuted – wasn´t allowed to do his/her profession, his/her children weren´t allowed to study, he/she could be arrested…
In January 1968 communists elected a new government. Alexander Dubček became a new leader. He said Czechoslovakia needed reforms. Era of democratization started, we call it Pražské jaro (the Prague Spring). Censorship was stopped, freedom of the press started, borders were opened, economical reforms started, new political parties were founded… People supported these reforms and planned better future.
The Soviet Union and his boss Leonid Brežněv was afraid of the Czechoslovak reforms. Afraid of not to be respected as an authority and the whole Eastern bloc would be weaker in the Cold War. He wanted to stop changes in Czechoslovakia and said it was a contrarevolution. Czechoslovakia promised to be loyal to the Warsaw (communist military) pact and RVHP (The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance among communist states) but didn´t want to finish its reforms.
During night from 20th to 21st August 1968 invasion started: the Soviet Union and four other states – Hungary, Poland, Eastern Germany, Bulgaria – sent secretly their armies to Czechoslovakia (about 160 000 soldiers). They didn´t inform Czechoslovak president or government. At night tanks and army planes came. The soldiers ocuupied all larger towns, airports and important institutions, e.g. TV and broadcasting buildings. People in Czechoslovakia protested a lot at the beginning but tanks stood against them. 108 Czechs and Slovaks died and 104 Soviet soldiers as well. Czechoslovak president and government had to fly to Moscow and signed under pressure a document saying they accepted this invasion as a help.
Watch this video, you can see an authentic reportage from August 1968. (The song is sung by Karel Kryl, a popular singer who emigrated in 1969. It is said he wrote this song spontaneously 22nd August 1968.)
Soon, in autumn, a new government suporting the Soviet Union was established. All reforms were cancelled, borders were closed, censorship came back. About 100 000 Czechs and Slovaks emigrated quickly till the end of 1969. Many people couldn´t continue in their job because they didn´t agree with the Soviet occupation, their children couldn´t study, secret represive police kept people under surveillance… And the Soviet army (about 150 000 soldiers) stayed in Czechoslovakia till the end of 1991, just for a control…
All countries which occupied Czechoslovakia in August 1968 apologized for this in 1989–1990. We have the 50th occupation anniversary this year. It is not a happy event. But 1968 was a very important year for Czechoslovakia, in a positive and negative meaning. That´s why we need to remember what happened and why.
Today 21st August 2018 at 8:00 p.m. a big concert takes place in the Wenceslas square in Prague. Come and see…
Do you want to know more? Visit some exhibitions. The first one is in the Old Town Hall in the Old Town square. You can see 200 pictures from August 1968 taken by professionals and amateurs. Some of them are published for the first time. The second exhibition – there are photos by Josef Koudelka in Uměleckoprůmyslové muzeum in Prague (till 23rd September 2018). Josef Koudelka took snaps of important moments in August 1968, he sent them illegally to the West and media published them to let the world know what is the situation in Czechoslovakia like. You can see these pictures now.
You don´t live in Prague? Never mind. Events take place all over Czechia: exhibitions, films, concerts, lectures… Plzeň, Ostrava, Liberec, Brno, České Budějovice… You can find some of them here.
Watch also a short animated film about the Prague Spring:
Are you interested in Czech history? You can read, too:
This article in Czech version.
21 st August 2018