Europe Marks 50 Years since Crushing of Prague Spring by Soviet, Warsaw Pact Tanks in 1968
On Tuesday, August 21, 2018, Europe marks the 50th year since the Prague Spring, the liberalization in the former Czechoslovakia, was brutally crushed by the tank divisions of the Soviet Union and other communist Warsaw Pact states.
Over 200,000 troops (up to 650,000 according to some estimates) and at least 2,000 tanks from the Soviet Union and part of its Eastern European satellites invaded Czechoslovakia in the night of August 20 – August 21, 1968, to suppress the political, economic, and cultural liberalization started in the then Czechoslovakia by the then technically communist leadership of the country.
The reforms begun by the first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Alexader Dubcek with the proclaimed aim of creating “socialism with a human face” threatened to weaken Moscow’s grasp over the entire communist bloc.
Public demands of greater freedom and the end of censorship reigned supreme in Prague in the months and weeks before the brutal Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion with some 30 divisions that resulted in about 100 deaths of Czechoslovak citizens, several hundred wounded, and an exodus of up to 300,000, according to the highest estimates, who fled to the West.
Czechoslovakia’s communist leader Dubcek’s 10-year plan for “socialism with a human face” – as opposed to the Stalinist atrocities of the post-World War II period – was announced in April 1968, and envisaged a multiparty electoral system, greater freedom of speech, and religion, end of travel bans, and economic reforms.
In June 1968, Dubcek’s government did something unimaginable for the Soviet-run communist bloc – it officially ended government censorship of the media.
The regimes of the other communist states reacted in July in a communique declaring that Czechoslovakia’s liberalization reforms “threatens the common vital interests of other socialist countries”, in others words, the stability of these very regimes stablished by the Soviet Union as puppet governments across Eastern Europe after the end of World War II.
Soviet leader at the time, Leonid Brezhnev, attempt to numb the momentum of the Prague Spring by meeting with Dubcek in July in Cierna nad Tisou.
Dubcek, however, defended his reforms while also pledging allegiance to the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact and the Comecon, the communist bloc’s economic alliance.
The ensuing invasion of Czechoslovakia by the forces of the USSR and the communist regimes of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the former East Germany (Romania and Albania refused to participate) was carried out under the pretext of helping the communist regime in Prague against a “counter-revolution”, and was the largest military mobilization in Europe after World War II.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia reacted by issuing a statement calling on the country’s citizen “not resist the advancing armies, because the defence of our state borders is now impossible”.
However, ordinary Czechoslovak citizens staged spontaneous demonstrations against the invasion that subsequently resulted in clashes with the occupying force.
The first clashes erupted in front of the Radio Prague building where the victims of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion have been remembered at formal ceremonies since the end of the communist regime in 1989.
The leading reformers of the Czechoslovak leadership at the time – Dubcek, Prime Minister Oldrich Cernik, Jozef Smrkovsky, Frantisek Kriegel, President Ludvik Svoboda, Deputy Prime Minister Gustav Husak and others were arrested and taken to Moscow.
They were returned after several days, having agreed to the stationing of Soviet troops along the Czechoslovak border and reinstating censorship of the media under an agreement known as the Moscow Protocol.
The 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring epitomized the so called Brezhnev Doctrine under which Moscow proclaimed its right to intervene in countries where communist regimes might be under threat.
On January 16, 1969, Charles University student Jan Palach set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square to protest against the continuing Soviet occupation, and died three days. His sacrifice made him a national hero, and led to a new wave of demonstrations and civil disobedience against the Soviet invasion.
More unrest broke out in March 1969 after Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet Union team in two matches at the World Ice Hockey Championships.
Dubcek was forced to resign as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in April 1969, as he lost Moscow’s confidence that he could contain the discontent with communist rule.
He was replaced by Husak who retained the leadership until the Velvet Revolution at the end of 1989 which overthrew Soviet rule.
(Banner image: Wikipedia)