August 21, 1968 was the day when the armies of five communist countries invaded Czechoslovakia. This event is known as the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Featured picture attribution: The Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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It was the night of August 20, 1968 when many people’s hopes for more freedom in communist Czechoslovakia were terminated by the entry of foreign army tanks. When the radio station announced the entrance of the Warsaw Pact armies in the early hours on August 21, little did the Czechoslovaks know that what seemed as a start of a new more free era was at an end for more than 20 years to come.
Nowadays, this event is sometimes incorrectly called “Russian Army Invasion”. It was, in fact, the invasion of 5 armies, one of them being the Soviet army whose most numerous members were soldiers of Russian and Ukrainian nationality.
What preceded the Warsaw Pact Invasion
It was February of 1968 and the country was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the day when the Communist Party came to power after the WWII. Alexander Dubček, the 1st Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia at that time, who said that the socialism in Czechoslovakia should evolve into the so called “Socialism with a human face” (Socialismus s lidskou tváří in Czech). And this is how the “Prague Spring” started. Series of changes were introduced to have more press and speech freedom, more economic freedom (relative freedom, this was still a communist/socialist country) and also, after a very long time there were actually thought of the possibility of having more than one party in the government.
However excited many people were, there were also large numbers of those who weren’t happy about the changes. It comes as no surprise, that the latter ones came in larger numbers from the political circles. Although Czechoslovakia wasn’t a Soviet country, it was a part of the Eastern block so it did form a part of the union of the East-European countries (not meaning this union as an official entity but rather a group of countries who “took orders” from the same place and whose politics and economy were coordinated to a certain degree) of which the Soviet Union was the strongest player. And I guess no union lets its members go easily. Too much freedom for Czechs and Slovaks would mean less fulfilling of the common economic and political plans of the Eastern block and eventually Czechoslovakia joining the NATO which is something the socialists couldn’t allow.
The Bratislava Declaration was the outcome of a conference held on August 3 as a response to Prague Spring. The representatives of the Communist parties of the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia declared their countries’ fidelity to Marxism–Leninism and proletarian internationalism. The Soviet Union also expressed its intention to intervene in any of the Warsaw Pact countries which they should establish pluralist political system.
Warsaw Pact was a treaty signed in 1955 by several Central and East-European Countries. Its resulting defensive alliance was the Warsaw Treaty Organization, or WTO.
The invading armies belonged to five countries – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany and Hungary. Even though the anniversary of the invasion is August 21, the act itself started well before the midnight on August 20. At 21:40 on August 20, 1968 the German soldiers once again set foot on Czech soil without invitation as the East-German army was the first one to enter. Less than hour and half later the Hungarians attacked from the opposite side by entering Eastern Slovakia, followed by the Soviet army and Poland invaded Silesia and northern Slovakia.
At first, news of the invasion came from private citizens and in the early hours of August 21 the Czechoslovak Radio gave the official news informing also about the massacre of Czechoslovak citizens by the foreign troops in Prague. The invaders established their own radio station called Vltava and broadcasting from Wilsdruff at Dresden in broken Czech and Slovak they defended the invasion.
Two days later, a conference between Leonid Brezhnev (a Ukrainian national and at that time the highest representative of the Soviet Union) and the Czech politicians was held. It’s necessary to say that the Czech representatives were held against their will and all of their suggestions were rejected. The conference resulted in the so-called Moscow Protocol and two months later a contract was signed in order to formalize the “temporary stay of the Soviet army in Czechoslovakia”. The temporary stay resulted in over 20 years of Soviet occupation.
It would be too simplifying to say that people reacted according to their political beliefs. While we can certainly say that people who were against socialism and communism refused to welcome the foreign armies, we cannot say that all the socialists did. There were plenty of those who were firm believers in socialism but also wanted the mentioned Socialism with a human face and didn’t believe the invasion was the way to go. And then there were those who welcomed the armies of the Warsaw Pact as saviors. After the invasion and after the Soviet Union tightened its grip on Czechoslovakia, the latter were often those who were promoted in their jobs and received other compensations.
And there were people who couldn’t imagine their lives under even more dictatorship of the Soviets and they used the night of August 20 to escape. The most convenient way was though Austria (just the refugee camp in Traiskirchen was the transit camp of more than 100.000 Czechoslovaks in 1968!) as attacks came from all the other sides. Families were torn apart and many never saw their parents or siblings again as coming back was impossible for the next twenty years.
Among those who weren’t able to return to their homeland were even such celebrities like movie director Miloš Forman or actor Jan Tříska.
Supporters of the invasion
Fidel Castro was a loud supporter of the invasion of Czechoslovakia and he voiced his support in the name of Cuba. North Korea and Vietnam also supported the attack. Yugoslavia offered material help to the invading armies.
Austria, although the first country the Czechoslovaks fled to, wasn’t officially too happy to help. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria ordered the Austrian ambassador to stop giving visa to the Czechoslovak citizens. The ambassador Rudolf Kirchschläger refused to ignore the order. Thousands of Czechs and Slovaks fled to Austria where they were accommodated in large halls such as school gyms from where they gradually found their way into other countries or learnt German and started a new life in Austria.
The USA and Great Britain didn’t respond to the attack because they had bilateral contracts with the Soviet Union which would be threatened. Great Britain had economic relations with the invading countries.
Romania, although a socialist country, refused to participate in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
West Germany, France and Italy didn’t respond to the attack but their people did and there were huge students’ protests against the invasion which led the countries to invest into their national defense and in some cases also re-evaluate their economic relationship with the Soviet Union.
Countries against the invasion
It might be surprising that the president of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong strongly opposed the invasion but at that time the USSR and China weren’t on good terms. In fact, their relationship was so bad that it resulted in an armed conflict in 1969.
To protest the invasion, Albania left the Warsaw Pact. Several of the West-European countries expressed their disagreement with the invasion. And there were even individual protests against the invasion in the invading countries, although that didn’t change their official attitude.
In 1989, the four countries and the Soviet Union condemned the invasion, some even apologized. Interestingly, after the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia condemned the attack as an independent post-Soviet country. However, there are still Russian politicians, news channels and other entities who try to defend the invasion of Czechoslovakia, calling it a “brotherly help”.
The troops of four invading countries left Czechoslovakia on November 4, 1968, the Soviet army stayed until 1991. Last soldiers of the occupant army left on July 21, 1991 – almost 2 years after the Velvet Revolution.
Invasion of Czechoslovakia in Popular Culture
The tragic destiny of families, lovers and friends separated from one day to another, often forever, inspired a large number of artworks. I would like to mention several movies that, in my opinion, capture well what was happening and especially, how it affected the life of common people.
Pelíšky / Cozy Dens (1999)
If you should watch one movie about the events of August of 1968, it would be this one, which, at this point, is already a legendary movie. It follows the life of several families and their everyday struggles in the year leading up to the invasion and immediately after. You will see a progressive socialist who is broken down by the invasion, as well as a hardcore leninist who benefits from the invasion. There’s a family who has to separate forever, a communist work-camp survivor whose PTSD makes his whole family miserable and also many everyday situations which might seem unreal but the generation of our parents will go “Yes! That’s exactly what we were doing back then!”
WATCH THE MOVIE: Amazon Prime
Hořící keř / Burning Bush (2013)
This highly acclaimed movie tells the story of a young lawyer who decides to sue high Communist Party officials to defend the honor of Jan Palach, a student who burnt himself in protest against the Soviet occupation.
WATCH THE MOVIE: Amazon Prime
Rebelové / Rebels (2001)
This is a movie-musical that revolves about young lovers who live their normal lives in communist Czechoslovakia but meeting each other as well as the invasion change their lives forever.
It’s a documentary about the events of August of 1968.