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Forty Years Ago, The Tanks Rolled Into Czechoslovakia

Troops of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968.
Troops of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968.

PRAGUE -- Viewed from Prague, the images of Russian tanks streaming into Georgia earlier this month carried inevitable echoes.

Many commentators and politicians around the world have made comparisions to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

"Russia needs to leave Georgia at once," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a visit to Tbilisi on August 15. "This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government."

And the parallels certainly haven’t been lost on the Czechs.

Czech Radio journalist Jan Bednar says it’s hard not to recall that August in Prague 40 years ago, when looking at the nightly news. But the similarities only go so far.

"The big difference, which can't be overlooked, is that the United States and the European Union are intervening in the tensions between Georgia and Russia," Bednar says. "In 1968, you couldn't say that about Czechoslovakia. Washington and all of Western Europe accepted the situation as it was. And they accepted the idea that Czechoslovakia belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence."

The Czechs and the Slovaks had to face the Soviet-led onslaught on their own.

Rumbling Of Tanks

In the early morning hours of August 21, 1968, it wasn’t television that broke the news. There was no CNN.

People awoke at 2 a.m. to the rumbling of tanks and an announcement broadcast by Czechoslovak State Radio from Prague.

"Yesterday, on August 20th, 1968, at around 11 p.m., forces from the Soviet Union, the Polish People's Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Hungarian People's Republic, and the Bulgarian People's Republic crossed the state border of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic," it said.

"This happened without the knowledge of the [Czechoslovak] president, the head of the National Assembly, or the prime minister and the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and its official bodies."

For months preceding the invasion, the Czechoslovak Communist Party, led by Alexander Dubcek, had carried out a reform program aimed at eliminating the regime’s most repressive features and creating “socialism with a human face.”

It soon became known as the Prague Spring. And it quickly gathered momentum.

By the summer of 1968, censorship had been lifted. Open discussion in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals flourished.

Some even questioned the very foundation of the communist regime.

The freewheeling debate made Czechoslovakia’s communist neighbors -- and above all the Soviet Politburo -- very nervous.

By August, Moscow’s patience had run out.

Impromptu Studios

Once they entered the Czechoslovak capital, Soviet soldiers quickly found their way to radio headquarters and took over the studios.

What they didn’t know was that many staffers had managed to flee, taking equipment with them to private apartments around the city, where they set up impromptu studios and continued broadcasting.

"In these small studios, there were people from Czechoslovak radio, and they were broadcasting for a number of days underground," recalls Pavel Pechacek, who was a producer at Czechoslovak State Radio. "They were getting news from all over Prague. People destroyed the names of the streets on the walls of Prague. It was difficult for the Soviets to know where they exactly were. And that brodcasting continued for a number of days."

1968 Invasion of Prague
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Pechacek also recalls the unusual scenes that unfolded on the streets of Prague over the following days. Before they rolled into Czechoslovakia, Soviet soldiers had been told that a counterrevolution was in progress. Some even thought World War III had started.

Instead, they found crowds of unarmed civilians, many bewildered, many upset. Some Czechs climbed right up onto their tanks and demanded to know: “Why are you here?”

"I remember the most famous athlete, Emil Zatopek. He was going from one tank to another tank. And he was discussing the situation with the Soviet soldiers," Pechacek says. "Some of them didn't feel well. You could see it. They expected people with weapons, fighting. And now they could see just regular people who were trying to persuade them that there was nothing going on against the Soviet Union or that someone here in Czechoslovakia wanted to start a third World War. It was fascinating. It was fascinating what people were doing. And there was unbelievable courage."

'Just Following Orders'

In one Prague street debate, a Czech woman, speaking in Russia, argued with a Soviet soldier.

"It's a big mistake that your newspapers and magazines don't write the truth!" she scolded. "If they wrote the truth, you wouldn't need to come here. There is no counterrevolution here, as your papers write!"

"I'm just following orders," the soldier replied.

But soon, the atmosphere turned ugly. Dubcek and the entire senior leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party had been seized and flown to Moscow. Kept under virtual arrest, they soon capitulated to Soviet demands and signed the so-called Moscow Protocols, which legitimized the Soviet occupation and annulled all the reforms of the Prague Spring.

Only one Central Committee member, Frantisek Kriegel, refused.

In the end, according to the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, 108 people were killed and almost 500 injured during the invasion.

Over the next several months, millions of Czechs and Slovaks were asked to sign statements welcoming the “brotherly” assistance extended to them by Moscow.

"Everybody in the country was asked this wonderful question: Do you agree or disagree with the brotherly help of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries? And you knew quite well what that meant," Dolezalova says. "You could say, 'Well, I thought that they shouldn't be doing it, but I was wrong and I now agree with invasion.' And you could keep your job. In case you were a party member, you were still a party member.

"If you said no, you lost your job," Dolezalova continues. "Not only you, but your kids eventually could not enroll into university. And you were either expelled from the Communist Party or crossed out. If you were crossed out, you still had a chance eventually to rejoin the party. But if you were expelled, that was the end. Both my parents were expelled from the Communist Party."

Dolezalova, despite her university degree, was unemployable. She became a cleaning lady.

'Normalization' Begins

Pavel Pechacek, like 200,000 of his compatriots, emigrated to the West and went on to head the Czech Service at Radio Free Europe.

In 1969, Dubcek was replaced by Gustav Husak. Dubcek was eventually expelled from the party and became an employee of the Forestry Service.

The period that came to be known as “normalization” had begun. It lasted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that swept the communist regime from power.

The dreams of an entire generation were put on hold.

Jan Bednar says that for many people in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the events of 40 years ago left a big scar, although that, too, is slowly healing with the passage of time.

"For most people in the Czech Republic," Bednar says, "it remains to this day a big trauma. It's a big problem which most people had to cope with. But these are mostly people who come of age during the Husak normalization. For the younger generation, [the events of 1968] are truly a chapter in history which they can learn from or not. But it's not a personal issue for them. There's a big generational difference."