1968 – Invasion
In 1968, the armies of the Soviet Union, along with several other countries of the Eastern bloc, occupied Czechoslovakia. This invasion is one of the examples of how the Soviet Union controlled and limited the autonomy of the communist countries.
Occupying troops brought the liberalisation process in Czechoslovakia to a halt, and for the next 20 years became the force behind the local pragmatic, conservative, and vassal communist government. The traumatic experience of a military invasion, the permanent presence of the occupying forces, and the disappointment following the collapse of the liberal reforms marked the local inhabitants’ permanent historical memory.
The occupation of Czechoslovakia began with an invasion by more than half a million soldiers on 21 August 1968. The highest party and state representatives were arrested and taken to the USSR. In Czechoslovakia, the invasion stunned the population and inspired spontaneous nonviolent resistance (see Stay Tuned). Emotional and ironic signs expressing opposition to the occupation and support for the reform party leadership appeared on the streets, and shocked people gathered in the squares and tried to talk with the tank crews. Around 60 people were killed during the invasion, plus more than 100 local residents and dozens of members of the occupying forces by the end of 1968. Especially in Prague, but in other cities as well, there were clashes between unarmed residents and aggressive, disoriented foreign troops (see Almost Hopeless).
Leading up to the invasion, the conflict between the reformist section of the Communist Party (supported by the public) and the conservative politicians (together with the Soviet Union) about political reforms, sparked in January 1968, began to escalate during the summer (see Negotiations). As a result, the Soviet leadership, headed by Leonid Brezhnev, then conspired with their Czechoslovak colleagues to create an “invitation letter” that would call for military assistance against the so-called counterrevolution, which according to them was what was taking place in Czechoslovakia. The failure of pro-Soviet fanatics to enforce a resolution calling for help in the Communist Party leadership showed that further developments would not entirely follow the Moscow party line. The letter calling on “friendly powers” for “fraternal assistance”, i.e. the occupation of Czechoslovakia, became a pretext for a large-scale military operation, which amounted to 600,000 soldiers occupying the territories of the Republic on the night of 20 – 21 August 1968. These soldiers were from the armies of the USSR, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, i.e. the willing states of the former Warsaw military pact, while the forces of the German Democratic Republic were ready to provide support. Invaders occupied military targets and strategic points without resistance from the Czechoslovak army, which surrendered to the occupiers. The occupation was thus the first application of the Brezhnev Doctrine and defined the narrow sovereignty of the countries of the “socialist camp”.
For a large part of society, the overnight occupation and the dramatic events that followed were an important life experience and generational milestone (see Our Occupation). During the Normalisation period, the interpretation of Prague Spring and the occupation was highly ideologised and citizens’ memories were repressed. By contrast, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the occupation became a tragic milestone in the official memory (see Slovak Tank Man). Czechoslovak intellectuals, in particular, experienced the invasion as an epochal turning point. But the fact is that the occupation attracted considerable attention even in Western Europe and the USA due to its scope, among other things; it was the biggest military manoeuvre in Europe since the Second World War. Furthermore, the communist movement throughout non-communist Europe gradually responded by departing from the single, Soviet-controlled communist movement, since they perceived the occupation as a clearly imperialist and political act.
Slovak Tank Man
- Koudelka, Josef. Invasion Prague 68. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.
- Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
- Mlynář, Zdeněk. Nightfrost in Prague: The end of humane socialism. New York: Karz Publishers, 1980.
- Skilling, Gordon H. Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University, 1976.
- Williams, Kieran. The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.