Photo credit: John W. Schulze
The ‘Prague Spring’ is the short, 8-month period in the history of Czechoslovakia when artists, dissidents, and activists found some breathing room. It is often credited as beginning with Alexander Dubček’s ascension to leader in January 1968, and ending in bloodshed with the Soviet-led invasion in August later that year.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of these remarkable months, this article explores lesser-known aspects of the invasion, and its legacy in the hearts and minds of the Czechs and Slovaks half a century later.
Lead-up to the Warsaw Pact invasion
When Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, became general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, he intended to bring reform to the country. The economy had been stagnating since the 1950s and he recognised that things had to change in order for Czechoslovakia to stay effective. As an illustration of this, for centuries the Czech lands had been part of the same kingdom as Austria, and were roughly as wealthy; it was only in the 1960s that Austrian [capitalist] economic growth began to outstrip the Czechs.
Dubček was a devoted communist who spent part of his childhood in the USSR. He realised that, in order for the Eastern European socialist project to thrive, its leaders had to take greater care in the happiness and desires of their populaces.
Dubček’s liberal reforms, which he dubbed “socialism with a human face”, significantly included a substantial liberalisation of the press and of free speech. This period is unique in the history of the Cold War East Bloc because its leaders took a genuine care and interest in the opinions of their people.
Unfortunately for Dubček and the Czechoslovaks, neighbouring leaders were much more wary. The communist leaders of neighbouring Poland, East Germany, and Hungary worrying that it that it could affect their stability, and all appealed in alarm to new Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who had assumed power in 1964.
Brezhnev feared that inaction would leave Moscow appearing weak and as having relinquished some of its ideological authority. After some diplomatic attempts calling Dubček to assert greater control, they decided that he could not be relied upon, and on the eve of 20 August 1968, ‘Operation Danube’ saw over 2,000 tanks, 800 aircraft, and 20,000 troops roll into Czechoslovakia from all directions. It is, to this date, the largest military operation in Europe since World War II.
The incident bears a striking resemblance to Khrushchev’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. In both cases, a client state west of the USSR was attempting to loosen Moscow’s grip on their country. However, the main difference is that the Hungarians completely repudiated Moscow’s direction, and wanted out of the Warsaw Pact.
Their strong repulsion of Russian rule was met with equally strong force: over 2,500 Hungarians (and 700 Soviets) died in the ensuing battle. In contrast the Prague Spring was markedly less bloody, only 137 Czech and Slovak civilians were killed, with another 500 seriously wounded.
Prague did not formally denounce Moscow’s leadership; there was no tearing the hammer and sickle from their flag. Unlike Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks consider themselves less prone to violent passions and upheavals – other than the violent Hussite Wars of the 15th century (a wonderful introductory video to which can be found here), these peoples’ histories are largely marked by domination by foreign powers; they have not proven effective at defending themselves.
For the citizens of Czechoslovakia, August 1968 was a reminder of the ways in which their country’s territorial integrity had been constantly sullied since their independence from Austro-Hungary in October 1918. Since then the region had seen the Polish-Czechoslovak and Hungarian-Czechoslovak wars of 1919; German invasion of 1939; Hungarian-Slovak war of 1939; and Soviet annexation of Podkarpatská Rus in June 1945.
Nevertheless millions of Czechs and Slovaks were completely caught off guard by the events of August and felt betrayed by the Russians, who had helped free their country from Nazi tyranny two decades prior (the final battle of World War II was the Soviet liberation of Prague, which the Nazis defended until May 11 1945, two days after they had formally surrendered). As one Slovak told me, “when we saw the Soviet tanks roll into our country in 1945 and 1968, we cried both times, but for different reasons.”
In terms of Cold War strategy, it should be recognised that preserving the balance of power in Europe was desirable to all, for the sake of preserving peace between the nuclear powers. Czechoslovakia held great strategic depth – if it were to have exited the Warsaw Pact and become a Western ally, East Germany and Poland would have been cut off from the southern members of the pact, making future Soviet coordination much more difficult. The Soviets would not tolerate this, so Brezhnev pulled out an old tactic in the playbook of international relations: a preventative invasion.
But for the Czechs and Slovaks, it was another sign that their country had been sacrificed on the altar of “peace in our time.” Most of the world did not react with the same horror and condemnation as they had the Soviet invasion of Hungary – largely because the USA was embroiled in its war in Vietnam, and the sentiment at the time was that it had no moral finger to wag at the Russians.
Within the Warsaw Pact, there was some dissension: Romania’s Ceausescu famously refused to send troops to participate in the invasion, and Enver Hoxha’s Albania left the alliance altogether.
Other members of the Warsaw Pact learned from Czechoslovakia’s example. Throughout the 1970s, there were no mass demonstrations or attempts at the regime change. Only in 1980, as Lech Wałęsa developed the ‘Solidarity’ resistance movement in Poland, did reformist elements crop up again behind the Iron Curtain. In the following decade, encouraged by Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost,’ dissident movements gained steam, culminating in the toppling dominoes of 1989. The communist regime of Czechoslovakia was one of the last to fall, thanks to reform efforts led by Václav Havel (1936-2011). Havel recognized that he was achieving the vision for their country that Dubček had dreamed of two decades prior.
Czech society today
In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries; the remainder of this article will address the legacy of 1968 in the Czech Republic, not the Slovak Republic. Many Czechs still hold enmity against their neighbours – especially Russia – for their violent invasion and stifling of Czechoslovak democracy.
From the author’s perspective, the lasting effect of the Warsaw Pact invasion was to confirm to the Czechs that they have no true friends abroad. Much like in 1938, their country had been taken advantage of by their neighbours. Czech wariness of their neighbours is manifest in their extreme skepticism of the European Union, and reluctance to adopt the euro (which Slovakia adopted in 2009).
Poland, Hungary, (East) Germany, and Bulgaria have undergone a thorough “westernization” in the intervening years and, along with the Czech and Slovak Republics, have all joined NATO. Living in the Czech Republic, one hears complaints about the neighbours, but they are not considered as threats to the nation in the way that Russia is.
Implicit in all criticism of Russia nowadays is the recognition of the ways the USSR stifled the Czechs’ democratic and economic development for four decades. A major news item this year is that the Czech Republic seems slated this year to become the first of the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain to allow same-sex marriages: a definitive break with the Russian-led worldview and step towards liberal Western democracies.
However, certain segments of the Czech Republic are still very fond of Russia and Russian leadership. Earlier this year, known Russophile Miloš Zeman was re-elected president by a margin of 3% (about 150,000 votes).
President Zeman has long accused of being pro-Russian and refused to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, sparking fury in Czech right-wing circles. Today’s Czech Communist Party meanwhile, in whose name the invasion was ostensibly carried out, are stressing that the 1968 invasion was not the fault of Russia.
Vojtěch Filip, the Communist party leader told The Guardian that “one hundred per cent [the history of 1968] is being falsified … the politburo of the Soviet Union at that time had only one pure Russian, and he voted against [the invasion]. [The Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev was from Ukraine. The major force of the invading armies were Ukrainian.”
The Czechs are the westernmost Slavs in Europe. As much as they may integrate themselves in western institutions, they will always be linguistically, ethnically, and culturally connected to big brother Slav in the east, Russia.
The memory of 1968 is that the interests of big brother sometimes eclipse their own, and, for better or for worse, they must embed themselves in Western institutions to escape a repeat invasion.