1968 was a turbulent year, with its student uprisings in Paris, the assassinations of Rev. King and Robert Kennedy, and anti-war demonstrations in the U.S., including those outside the Democratic convention in Chicago. But the story of Czechoslovakia in that year is unique in its blend of hope, a spirit of freedom, renewal and youth, as well as eventual tragedy, defeat and bitterness.
Following years of disappointing economic performance, and increased national tensions between Slovaks and Czechs, Slovak politician Alexander Dubček replaced Antonín Novotný as Czechoslovak Communist Party first secretary in early January 1968. Dubček, a relative unknown, soon initiated a program of “Socialism with a Human Face.” Censorship was relaxed, a move welcomed by the Czech and Slovak public, especially intellectuals and artists. 25 June saw the release of all political prisoners and the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinism. On the following day, 26 June, the National Assembly passed a law abolishing censorship; this was followed the very next day by the publication of “The Two Thousand Words,” a manifesto of support for Dubček’s liberalizing efforts, penned by leading author Ludvík Vaculík and signed by 70 leading writers, artists, and other public figures. Numerous similar declarations were made by other academics and intellectuals.
Yet storm clouds were gathering. Warsaw Pact maneuvers were held on Czechoslovak territory in June as an apparent warning by Brezhnev; when the exercises were concluded on 2 July, the Kremlin refused to withdraw all its troops. In late July, the Soviet leader called for a meeting with Dubček, and the two met in a small railway station in an East Slovak border town. This was followed a few days later, on 4 August by the Bratislava Declaration, in which Dubček seemed to have backed down to his “superior” on matters of press censorship. Brezhnev nevertheless berated Dubček one more time over criticism of the Party in the press, as revealed in a telephone transcript (finally released fifteen years ago). In that extended conversation, Brezhnev is both threatening and condescending to the president of his satellite state.
Invasion and resistance
During the night of 20-21 August, partly in response to an “invitation” from Czechoslovak Communist Party hard-liners, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev sent in approximately 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops from Hungary, Poland, Rumania, and the Soviet Union, along with 2,000 tanks. Dubček was arrested and sent to Moscow. While the Soviet leader allowed Dubček to return and to remain in power for several months, the period of liberalization was over. In September, the “Brezhnev Doctrine” was declared, namely, that the Soviet Union had the right to invade other socialist countries if it felt threatened.
The world tends to remember the invasion most starkly for the images of the invasion, of Soviet tanks lining Wenceslaus Square while throngs of unarmed, flag-waving civilians attempted to stand them off. The focal point of the resistance was at the top of the square, at the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslaus, the patron saint of Bohemia to whom many Czechs, though not particularly religious, look for inspiration. To assert their national sovereignty, protestors marched through the streets chanting “Dubček – Svoboda,” the latter being the president of the country elected in March, whose name means “freedom” in Czech.
Another prominent scene is the defense of the radio station by the Czech civilians. Trucks, buses, and trolley cars were amassed at the approach to the building, and gasoline was set ablaze to thwart the troops’ advance. Still the tanks prevailed.
In the ensuing weeks, one of the Czechoslovaks’ most cunning tricks was to switch road signs to confuse invaders. They also used satirical messages such as “Last performance of Circus Brezhnev. Do not irritate his animals! Do not feed them, either!” Other messages were aimed at demoralizing the occupying soldiers: (in Russian) Natasha is sleeping with Kolya—signed, Your mother. The most common graffiti of the invasion period was РУССКИЕ ДОМОЙ! or “Russians Go Home!”
Often, the Czechs and Slovaks attempted to engage Russian soldiers in conversation, rather like Vietnam-era protestors confronting rifle barrels with daisies. Thanks to Slavic-language affinity and nearly 20 years of a Russian language requirement in education, communication wasn’t so difficult. But occupying soldiers were shocked at the objection they faced, having been sold on the notion they were engaging in a form of liberation, "brotherly assistance."
TOMORROW: reflections on the aftermath of the invasion.