Fifty years ago on the night of the 20th August 1968 Soviet tanks and troops invaded Czechoslovakia in order to strangle what had become known as ‘Prague Spring’.
Just as Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, so had seventy years ago Czechoslovakia been annexed or to be correct about these things, ceded to the Soviet Union in 1948. For the next twenty years the Czech people had no freedom of speech, a satellite Soviet socialist state that would later become a socialist republic, one that would for more than half a generation operate within a centrally planned economy dominated by the Kremlin.
Aged 19 years at the time, I well remember the Prague Spring and particularly, the unheard cries of help to the West by Czech people whose only want was freedom from Soviet domination. Four months earlier, under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek, Communist Party First Secretary, and whose aim was to offer socialism with a human face, to introduce democratic reforms into what was a rigid socialist state, to remove censorship and recognise rights of the individual, for a short time Czech people, slowly but surely, even began to believe that there was after all a future for them and that soon there might be a ‘break free’ from Russian domination.
This was 1968 of course, not 1989 and Soviet domination of any of its satellite states had never been questioned. To the Soviet Union what Dubcek was not only counter-revolutionary but tantamount to treason. On the night of the 20th August, what is said to be anything from a 100,000 to 500,000 strong force including a reported 2,000 tanks from Russia and other satellite states streamed into Prague with the intention of crushing all that got in their way. Having no weapons of their own, rather than attempt to fight the Czech chose to stand in front of Russian tanks.
Prague’s attempt to break free of Russian domination was not the first attempt by a satellite state and it would not be the last. Hungary had sought to break free back in 1956 and had been crushed in the process. It would be 1989, following what became known as the Gorbachev reforms in the Soviet Union, before ‘Solidarity’ under the leadership of Lech Walesa would see Poland break free of Soviet chains and the formation of what is now the Third Republic.
Czech calls for help from the West that had no appetite for direct conflict with Russia went unheeded and Russian tanks made for Wenceslas Square, taking control of Radio Prague on the way. With little if any resistance save for stones being thrown at Russian soldiers the Prague Spring crumbled but not before 72 Czech civilians had died along with eleven Soviet soldiers.
Interestingly, it is said by Czech people who talked with their invaders that Russian soldiers had little if any clue as to why they had been sent to Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek along with many members of his administration were quickly arrested, hit with rifle butts before being taken to Moscow and forced to sign declarations of loyalty to the Soviet regime. Although Dubcek was allowed back into Czechoslovakia as leader of its Communist Party his hands were completely tied and within a short time he was removed and exiled to posts, first as the ambassador to Turkey and then as a forestry inspector in Bratislava. He died in 1992 as a result of serious injuries sustained in a car accident at the age of 70 years.
One of the direct results of what Dubcek had tried to achieve was what became known after a speech given by the Soviet leader in November 1968 as the ‘Brezhnev Charter’. This simply reiterated the right of the ‘Warsaw Pact’ to intervene if any Soviet satellite was to compromise the hegemony of the Eastern bloc by looking to the West. What this meant in practice was the ushering in of yet another round of suppression.
The Prague Spring invasion marked the end not only socialism with a human face but also the end of what also been an arts and Cultural Revolution. It would also lead to the first known, albeit very short, demonstrations to be seen in Moscow’s Red Square with chants of ‘long live the free and independent Czechoslovakia’ and ‘Shame on the Invaders’.
Dubcek was himself replaced as leader by Gustav Husak who would remain in office until the collapse of Czechoslovakia in December 1989. Not surprisingly, Husak quickly reversed all of Dubcek’s reforms.
I am grateful to ‘History in an Hour’ for certain of the above details and for this rather amusing one in particular concerning former dissident and last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until its dissolution in 1992 and then the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003, Vaclav Havel. A member of the dissident group known as Charter 77, Havel was also a fan of the ‘Beatles’ and is reported to have said that he was not so much a Lenninist as a Lennonist!
Kofi Annan – RIP
A global statesman who was committed to peace and freedom seeking a fairer world and who with his hatred of suffering reached out with compassion and deep feeling to those oppressed or who were the unwitting victims of war, the world has this weekend mourned the death of Kofi Annan, the only Black African so far to have become Secretary-General of the United Nations.
A diplomat in all senses of the word, Kofi Annan revitalised the United Nations and pursued policies directed at establishing peace and reconciliation. A gentleman and man of peace, Kofi Annan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. He will be greatly missed by all those of a generation and particularly by those oppressed and who have in their lives witnessed so much war and so little peace.
CHW (London – 20th August 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785