On This Day

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Libor Hajsky/CTK/AP
Czech youngsters holding Czechoslovakian flags stand atop of an overturned truck as other Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in downtown Prague, Aug. 21, 1968.

On This Day: Soviets Invade Czechoslovakia After Prague Spring

August 21, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies sent 200,000 troops into Czechoslovakia to wipe out the democratic reforms of Alexander Dubcek.

Soviets Invade

Since the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia had been under Communist control and part of the Soviet bloc. In 1968, Alexander Dubcek and Ludvik Svoboda replaced Stalinist president Antonin Novotny and instituted a series of liberal reforms.

During the so-called Prague Spring, Dubcek introduced “socialism with a human face” and implemented new personal and economic freedoms. Culture flourished as writers, poets, musicians and filmmakers celebrated the newfound freedom. “For eight memorable months,” wrote Time magazine, “Czechoslovakia was one of the most exciting and hopeful places in the world.”

Communist Party leaders in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries—East Germany and Poland particularly—worried that the Prague Spring reforms could spread and threaten Communist rule.

On the morning of Aug. 21, Czechoslovaks woke up to see Soviet tanks in the streets. Overnight, the Soviet Union and four of its Warsaw Pact allies had launched an invasion with 200,000-250,000 troops, 2,000 tanks and a number of aircrafts to put down Dubcek and end Prague Spring.

Knowing that his military could not resist the powerful Soviet army, Dubcek ordered passive resistance. Youths marched in the streets, chanting in support of Dubcek and ordering the invaders out. Some sprayed graffiti, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and climbed Soviet tanks.

Employees of Radio Prague barricaded themselves inside the station even as Soviet troops fired at them. Radio stations across the country operated secretly and encouraged their listeners to continue their resistance.

Eventually, the Soviets took control of the country. Dubcek and other reformist leaders were arrested and forced to sign the Moscow Protocol, which brought about a gradual repeal of the Prague Spring reforms during a period of normalization.

“It was an historical breaking point with a depressing fallout,” writes Der Spiegel. “And it was then, in the summer of 1968 … that a powerful illusion died out—the illusion that the communist system could gradually develop into a new kind of liberal democracy.”

Background: Prague Spring

Czechoslovakia had a developed and prosperous economy before coming under Soviet control after World War II. In 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) took full control of the country and began nationalizing all economic sectors. By the early 1960s, the economy was stagnant and it was clear that Soviet economic policies were ineffective. Many, including economist Ota Sik, called for economic reforms.

President and First Secretary Antonin Novotny lost support as the economy struggled. In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek was chosen to replace Novotny as first secretary of the KSC. He immediately focused on the economy, instituting several free market reforms. He would later approve several measures that increased freedom of speech, press and assembly.

“Having permitted his people to sample even this small dose of freedom, Dubcek quickly lost control of his own movement,” writes Matt Gurney in the National Post. “Newly legalized political activity flourished, spurred on by an uncensored media. Dubcek’s cautious reforms away from totalitarianism became a popular movement driven in large part by Czechoslovakian youths possessed of the sense of purpose as their peers in the West.”

The burgeoning revolution scared Communist leaders in the Soviet Bloc and infuriated Moscow. In an Aug. 13 telephone conversation, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev accused Dubcek of “outright deceit.”

Dubcek tried to assure Soviet leaders that Soviet-style communism was not threatened in Czechoslovakia. Despite these assurances, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw allies decided they could not take any chances and invaded.

“The Czechoslovak politicians nonetheless found themselves under dual pressures,” writes Jan Richter in The Prague Post. “At home they had to cope with demands for further reforms, and they also had to deal with the growing demand from Moscow to stop and even reverse the reform process. In the end, they lost on both sides.”

Later Developments: The Velvet Revolution

In the late 1980s, communism in the Soviet Union was in collapse. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted perestroika, a series of economic reforms, and glasnost, a policy of openness. He instructed Soviet Bloc countries to do the same, but Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak and his successor Milos Jakes were slow to institute reform.

In 1988, mass anti-Communist demonstrations took place throughout Czechoslovakia. On Aug. 21—the 20-year anniversary of the invasion—10,000 people marched in the streets of Prague chanting “Freedom!” and “Russians go home!”

Communism was quickly losing its strength and support when, on Nov. 17, 1989, Communist police violently cracked down on student protesters. It galvanized the anti-Communist movement and by December the Communist Party collapsed. Husak and Jakes resigned, ending Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

Dubcek was elected speaker of the federal assembly—a largely ceremonial position—on Dec. 28 and playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president on Dec. 29. The following June, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

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