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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).