Bullets are whizzing in the air – the Czechoslovak people are confused and shocked. It’s the morning of 21st August 1968, and the Prague spring, the process of the 1960s to make Czechoslovakia more democratic, has just ended. The Red Army, with the significant help of the other Warsaw pact countries, have just crossed the Czechoslovak borders during the night of the 20th August.
Nobody expected it. For example, my grandmother who lived near the borders in northern Czechia thought that a war was going to begin there. No war began, but the real result of this act was that Czechoslovaks were forced to live in authoritarian totality for the next 20 years, 20 years of silent terror and brutal suppression of freedom and democracy. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the official slogan of the American newspaper ‘The Washington Post’, but in August 1968, this wasn’t true. As the Red Army crossed the border, the seed of democracy died in light, in summer, by a hand of a state which was meant to be an ally.
A brief summary of Czechoslovak history in the 20th century
Independent Czechoslovakia was formed after the end of WW1 in 1918, as a country made of the united Slavic parts (Czechia, Slovakia) of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czech national hero and former university professor of sociology, became its first president. Under his rule, Czechoslovaks lived in wealth.
One of the gravest issues of this new country was the significant minority of Germans in an area called the ‘Sudetenland’ (region alongside borders with Germany). In the era of the Czechoslovak first republic (1918-1938), there were more Germans than Slovaks in Czechoslovakia! Consequently, Masaryk came up with a daring solution, and proclaimed that there was only one nation – the nation of Czechoslovakia.
However, the situation changed in the 1930s. Hitler obtained absolute power in Germany and so he intended to do so in other European countries too. At first. he conquered Austria, then it was our turn. In 1938, a conference was organised by Germany in Munich. Representatives of Germany, Italy, France and the UK met there and, with the intention of keeping peace in Europe, they signed a treaty which today is known as The Munich Betrayal in Czechia. This document contained a paragraph which allowed Hitler to conquer the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakian sovereignty was stripped away again. Above all, France’s behaviour was seen by Czechoslovakians as a betrayal, as they had a deal of mutual cooperation and protection against Germany. Many people never forgave them and because of this treason perpetrated by the western European countries, Czechoslovakia turned to the Soviet Union after WW2.
After taking Sudetenland, Hitler didn’t hesitate to annex the rest of Czechia. Czechia – don’t worry, it’s correct. There was such a Slovak coup d’etat which brought the independence of fascist Slovakia for the WW2 period. During the war, Czechia was a part of the “Reich”, but Czechoslovaks were still actively involved in resistance. The biggest headquarters of the Czechoslovak resistance were in Russia and in London, in the UK. In fact, the successful assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the second most powerful SS soldier, was directed by the Czechoslovak exile government in London. He was murdered in Prague by Czechoslovakian parachutists in 1942. As vengeance, Adolf Hitler ordered the annihilation of two Czech villages – Ležáky and Lidice. Czechia was liberated by the ‘Red Army’ in 1945. Only a small part of it was conquered by Americans but they couldn’t continue fighting since they weren’t allowed to step over the demarcation line.
After the end of WW2, due to bad experiences with Western Europe, reunited Czechoslovakia turned to the Soviet Union and communism. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia began to rule and the harsh dictatorship took hold.
(The anthem is still same, but we sing only its first part since the second represents the Slovak national anthem)
The 1950s symbolised a decade of fear and politically motivated trials. KSČ (the communist party of Czechoslovakia) purged its enemies. For example, the Czech democratic politician Milada Horáková and general Heliodor Píka were sentenced to death for no reason. Former soldiers who served in the UK during the war were bullied and discriminated against as well. This period is usually compared to the Stalin trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Communists were also forced to provoke some fear within their own party. Hence Rudolf Slánský, second in command in KSČ, was executed too. If you are asking “why?”, the answer is simple. Totality needs two types of enemies to keep people obeying: the enemy from elsewhere (USA, UK, Canada, and so on…) and the inner enemy, because the totality wants to inspire fear within the people too (Slánský, Horáková, Píka).
The next decade signified something totally different. Political trials and terror stopped. Slovak politician Alexander Dubček became the leader of KSČ and he turned communism upside-down. Borders, which had been closed for more than ten years, were opened again. Culture from west crossed into Czechoslovakia and the planned economy was changed into a market one. Dubček didn’t want to give up the leadership of KSČ at all. He was certainly a communist. However, he saw that the future of Czechoslovakia was jeopardised by the failing communism. Many Czechs admired him and maybe still admire him. To be honest, I do not. In my opinion, he was just the best among the worst. This epoch is called the “Prague spring”. And here we are again! 1968 has just begun.
Tanks are in the streets. Nobody knows anything. It’s the end of summer in 1968 and autumn has just arrived from the countries of the Warsaw pact. Winter will last the next 20 years until the spring of democracy in 1989.
Why did Brezhnev, the current dictator of the Soviet Union, send troops to Czechoslovakia? What happened? Czechoslovakia is full of questions, but you can also find many impulsive slogans there. In brief, 1968 is a year that changed the history of Czechia and Slovakia for two decades. It was a bitter reaction to the (quite foolish and naive) attempt to democratise Czechoslovakia in the 60s.
The Soviet occupation set off a violent chain of events. As soon as Soviet, Polish, German, Hungarian stepped over the borders, Czechoslovak radio reacted immediately. Throughout the whole day, journalists who worked in radio tried to support the whole nation and advised people not to fight the foreign soldiers. However, many of the Czechoslovak people attempted to organise some sabotages to slow down the Soviet progression. Saboteurs usually switched, swapped or turned around the plates with numbers of routes or names of cities and villages. Consequently, the invading soldiers were confused and it was harder to find the right way in a country which they had never been to before.
From Prague to Moscow
When the armies captured Prague, the Czechoslovak government was kidnapped and brought to Moscow. Czechoslovakian politicians such as Alexander Dubček, Oldřich Černík, Josef Smrkovský or František Kriegel were forced to sign the so-called Moscow protocols that meant the end of reforms in Czechoslovakia. All of them did it except one. František Kriegel refused to sign this document despite the fact that the room where the Czechoslovak government was held captive was full of soldiers and any protest could end the rest of their lives. This is in part the reason why I personally don’t like Dubček. I believe that František Kriegel should be considered the real Czechoslovak hero since he wouldn’t give up his ideas and opinions despite the tangible prospect of death. All the members of the government but František Kriegel were allowed to return home. It seemed that Kriegel was going to be sent to a gulag but the Czechoslovak president Svoboda told Brezhnev that he wouldn’t leave without Kriegel. Kriegel was saved and the era of normalisation, the process of rebuilding a Communist tyranny, began.
The Reaction of the Czechoslovak nation
Although Czechs and Slovaks were disappointed with the end of the Prague Spring Reforms, their hands were bound. They couldn’t do anything about this situation since their government had actually signed a document which legalised the presence of the Soviet troops. The Red Army was a constant in Czechoslovakia until the Velvet revolution. Lots of people emigrated abroad because they didn’t want to stay in a country ruled by Moscow. Those migrants largely escaped to Canada, Australia, South Africa or the USA. Nowadays, huge Czech and Slovak minorities live in Canada or in Australia, two of the most preferred destinations for Czech refugees. One of the most significant photojournalists of the 20th century Josef Koudelka, who left Czechoslovakia in 1968, took many pictures during the 21st September.
As a symbol of protest to the public ignorance of the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia, Czech students Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc burnt themselves to death in January and February 1969. There weren’t the only ones who decided to do something like this. During the war in Vietnam, Buddhist monks lit themselves in the streets to demonstrate their objection. Palach and Zajíc were just two of more than twenty people in Central and Eastern European countries under Soviet control who decided to commit a public self-ignition. When they died, Palach and Zajíc were 20 and 18 years old.
Why is the 1968 crisis important for everybody?
In conclusion, it is evident that, even in this modern world, we can still find many places where no freedom, no regular law, no privacy exists. This is mainly the case in the Russian Federation, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Belarus or Turkey (and Hungary more recently) where it is absolutely normal that the voice of opposition is suppressed, usually by the official government. 1968 demonstrated to us that we shouldn’t be naive and overly contented with the freedom we have but our task should always be to maintain democracy. Terror may come even in times when you don’t expect it at all, even in times when you feel absolutely free. The annexation of Crimea, the Syrian civil war, Turkish coup d’etat and oppression of journalists who don’t support Erdogan, Chinese attempt to conquer Honk-Kong or Taiwan, discrimination of Uyghurs in China, murdering journalists in Russia, Hungarian fascist tendencies, North-Korean absolutism, corrupted Slovak government and death of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, former StB (state secret police – the Czechoslovak version of KGB) agent Babiš being the Czech PM, and so on… Please, be aware of political danger and try to be involved in politics more! Democracy doesn’t die only in darkness, it can also be murdered on a sunny day.