When Spring Ended in August

 

Fifty years ago today, 200,000 Soviet troops, with reinforcements from East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and the so-called Prague Spring came to an end.

In January of 1968, Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, was elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, succeeding Antonin Novotný. The latter had been experimenting with a new economic model for a couple of years (Czechoslovakia had been continental Europe’s most highly industrialized country until overtaken by Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and was less adapted to the post-war Soviet model), and this attempt at easing the Communist system had spurred writers, such as Milan Kundera, to demand more social flexibility as well.

The Dubček government set about achieving what the new First Secretary described as “socialism with a human face,” abolishing censorship and easing travel restrictions.

On March 30, 1968, Novotný, who was also President of the Republic, resigned the presidency and was succeeded by the war hero Ludvik Svoboda (whose last name, ironically, means “freedom” in Czech).

Any attempt to diverge from the Moscow party line was, of course, immediately condemned by the Russian leadership and for several months Dubček and Svoboda navigated tricky waters, Dubček being summoned to Moscow several times by General Secretary Brezhnev to explain himself.

The Soviets’ patience finally ran out and, on August 18, Minister of Defense General Grechko signed off on the military intervention.

In the early hours of August 21, the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague, to be met by an angry crowd of workers and students. Not benefitting from 2nd Amendment rights, the Czechs had no weapons. For that matter, the Soviet troops had no specific orders except to suppress a non-existent “counter-revolution.” For a couple of hours, the crowd interrogated the invaders, discovering that the forces seconded from other Warsaw Pact countries were totally bewildered by the situation.

Since radio was the main source of information for the local populace, the crowd moved en masse to block the doors of the Czech Broadcasting Company. The stand-off with Russian paratroopers lasted long enough for the broadcasters to set up mobile transmitting stations in available trucks. When the Russians finally forced their way into the building, they found no transmitters.

There were casualties, though far from the 2,200 dead some sources claim. Probably 100 Czechs died on this day and the following days.

International reaction to the invasion was low-key. President Johnson had his hands full with Vietnam and kicked the ball over to the UN, which as usual, was unable to act owing to the Russian veto on the Security Council.

That was the end of the Prague Spring, but young Czechs, born after World War II, had had their first taste of (limited) freedom and continued to manifest their discontent with the “normalization” (normalizace) which followed. On January 16, 1969, a 20-year-old student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in the Wenceslas Square. He died three days later and is still revered as a martyr for Czech freedom. Twenty-four other cases of self-immolation followed as the months passed and six more Czechs died for their cause.

One final anecdote: on the very same day that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, when the whole of Europe was trying to digest the terrible news from Prague, the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich walked onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall and, accompanied by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under the equally legendary Yevgeny Svetlanov, played one of Czech music’s loveliest creations, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. There were a few shouted protests as the music started, but Rostropovich played the concerto as never before. Friends of mine who attended the concert reported that tears were streaming down his face as he played.

P.S. On a personal note, six years after 1968, in the town hall of the North Bohemian Jablonec-nad-Nisou, I married one of the Czechs who had “welcomed” the Soviet tanks that fateful night. This was not the smartest thing I’ve ever done but my spouse was at least able to leave Czechoslovakia legally with a British passport (she could have left illegally but would never have been allowed to return, at least until 1990).

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  1. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude
    @GrannyDude

    Czechoslovakia was so often betrayed and abandoned by the West, and yet somehow her people maintained their faith. I’ve always wanted to visit Prague; you’ve re-fired that longing. 

    • #1
  2. Eridemus Coolidge
    Eridemus
    @Eridemus

    This past weekend a friend of mine went to a service for placing of a “star” in a war memorial to commemorate a WWII flying ace and struck up a conversation he told me about later. He met someone there  whose grandfather had managed to bring his family over to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia prior to the great Depression here. That event was devastating to them, so they returned (including the new stranger’s father). So he grew up under the iron curtain but was always being “followed” and spied on by Russian (or some kind of security) agents just because of his family’s past.

    When old enough and tired enough of that treatment, he had rigged a breathing mechanism to get across a border river at night, which failed him half-way across. Friends had earlier suggested to him that instead, he should steal a car, approach the border checkpoint slowly, then slam on the accelerator and blast his way through. He had his chance when after being held for awhile over the river offense, he could see agents again waiting for him as he was to be released, and decided to turn on them. If his story is true, he rather brutally beat up one, then the other and handcuffed them inside their own vehicle! Then he did the driving strategy and made it into Austria, later having to make another escape into Italy which didn’t come with details, and finally to the US, where he succeeded as a machinist (another story – worked for AMP until the management sold their technology to the Chinese and closed the factory). One brave guy who can talk about the cost of freedom. And maybe about the foolish people who take its fruits for granted and sell them off to line their own pockets.

    • #2
  3. Curt North Inactive
    Curt North
    @CurtNorth

    What a great post, with a surprise romantic ending even!  This is a wonderful reminder of an ugly thing (one of many) that happened during the Soviet era, these are the exact history lessons so many young people seem to be missing as they pine for socialism out of ignorance of the truth of it all.  Socialism is ugly, demoralizing, gray, and deadly.  It ends this way every time.  I’m glad you found your love and she had the fortitude to meet the tanks that night, what an awesome story.  Thanks for sharing it.  One other line jumped out at me, another lesson for the youth of today:

    “Not benefitting from 2nd Amendment rights, the Czechs had no weapons.”

    • #3
  4. fidelio102 Inactive
    fidelio102
    @fidelio102

    GrannyDude (View Comment):

    Czechoslovakia was so often betrayed and abandoned by the West, and yet somehow her people maintained their faith. I’ve always wanted to visit Prague; you’ve re-fired that longing.

    You should.  It is a beautiful and historic city.  One idea would be to combine Prague with Dresden, which contains real treasures.

    If you do, just take the train.  Direct, very comfortable, takes 2 hrs 15 mins and costs about $40.

    • #4
  5. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander
    @DannyAlexander

    My ex-wife’s father (Jewish, born in hiding in Bratislava in 1944) was doing his compulsory military service at this time and decided to make a run for it in all the confusion — I think he may have turned his Czechoslovakian army uniform inside out so that he could reduce his risk of getting shot at by the Austrians even as he was evading getting shot at from behind by Warsaw Pact soldiers.

    The whole episode exemplified one of the maxims he’d absorbed growing up under Soviet domination:  “When they give, you take; when they hit, you run.”

    (And yes, Prague is indeed beautiful — once you get away from the outskirts and all the soul-deadening Soviet-design apartment projects.)

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Danny Alexander (View Comment):
     “When they give, you take; when they hit, you run.”

    Aha! So that is how it’s supposed to be translated. 

    • #6
  7. Bob W Member
    Bob W
    @BobW

    My mother was visiting relatives when hat happened. She saw the Russian tanks coming down the street. She said it was very scary.

    But when we took a river trip from Moscow to St Petersburg in ’93 right after the collapse, we walked through Red Square and saw Stalin’s grave and a pickled Lenin. Maybe some sort of irony there.

    • #7
  8. DrR Thatcher
    DrR
    @DrR

    Thank you for the post. There is quite a bit on the matter in Russian-speaking media, but practically nothing in English-speaking one. On stylistic correction, if I may – instead of “Russian”, it would be more historically accurate to use “Soviet”.

    • #8
  9. fidelio102 Inactive
    fidelio102
    @fidelio102

    DrR (View Comment):
    On stylistic correction, if I may – instead of “Russian”, it would be more historically accurate to use “Soviet”.

    Good point.

    • #9
  10. Muleskinner Member
    Muleskinner
    @Muleskinner

    One of great aunts used to tell a story about going to Czechoslovakia that summer. Her father decided that it was probably the last time he would get a chance to go back to the old country and visit his cousins. He asked Aunt Marie to go with him, and they had a wonderful two weeks catching up with the extended family. When it was about time to come home,  Old Joe asked Aunt Marie about a suitable gift. After thinking awhile, it occurred to them that a big bag of sugar was something that would make a good gift. It could be shared, easily divided, and apparently it was a little hard to come by. They found a store on the next village where they could get something like a 30-pound bag for US dollars. The price seemed right so they bought it and headed back to the home village. Old Joe was a tough old farmer, and both he and Aunt Marie never gave a second thought about carrying 50-pound bags of cattle feed or hay bales, or anything else, so they headed out the door with the sugar. It was a couple or three miles home, but they took turns and it was pretty easy, she said.

    When they got back and presented it to the family, one of the cousins said, “Only an American would be rich enough to buy that much sugar, and too cheap to hire a car.” Joe was right though, he was probably about 70 that summer, and wouldn’t have seen a better time in the old country. 

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Muleskinner (View Comment):

    When they got back and presented it to the family, one of the cousins said, “Only an American would be rich enough to buy that much sugar, and too cheap to hire a car.” Joe was right though, he was probably about 70 that summer, and wouldn’t have seen a better time in the old country.

    That is a great story.  Thanks for telling it.

    • #11
  12. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    The Russians miss the good old days. The Czech Republic is still on their list:

     

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    The Russians miss the good old days. The Czech Republic is still on their list:

    I wonder if the pro-Kremlin media in Russia are saying the same things.  

     

     

    • #13
  14. Flagg Taylor Member
    Flagg Taylor
    @FlaggTaylor

    Thanks for this post. Nicely done!

    • #14
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