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Published:August 19th, 2007 03:14 EST
A Date Worth Remembering: August 20, 1968

A Date Worth Remembering: August 20, 1968

By Krzys Wasilewski

On August 20, 1968, the forces of the Warsaw Pact crossed the borders of Czechoslovakia to provide “fraternal help,” or rather, reinstate a hard-line communist regime. In a matter of two weeks, 200,000 soldiers from Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union quenched the liberal rebellion, burying the hopes of easing the Soviet grip in Central Europe for decades.

Although it lacked the geographic importance of Poland or East Germany, Czechoslovakia still remained an important place on the map of the USSR’s influence. Shortly after the end of the second world war, the Soviets managed to orchestrate a communist coup d’etat in Prague which ousted the legal government and installed Moscow-trained puppets. Whereas Stalin’s death in 1953 prompted liberalization in most of the socialist countries, hardheaded satraps continued to rule Czechoslovakia with an iron fist. Neither the workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1953 nor the similar events in Hungary and Poland in 1956 veered the political course for Czechoslovakia. It wasn’t until January 1968 that things in the country began to change.

On January 5, 1968, Alexander Dubcek– a Slovak and WW II hero– was appointed the first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the number one position in any communist country. What followed was a revolution previously unheard of in the socialist block. Having neutralized opposition within his own party, Dubcek introduced elements of free market to the country’s ossified socialist economy, lifted the censorship of the press and announced plans to turn Czechoslovakia into a dual state federation. When the gossip of free elections spread beyond its borders, Moscow decided to act.

At first, the problem was to be resolved by negotiations. Brezhnev, then the first secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, met with Dubcek in July, first sending troops to Czechoslovakia as a part of summer maneuvers. The argument of strength proved convincing enough to make Dubcek sign a declaration in which he pledged loyalty to communism and the Soviet Union. On August 3, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, along with five other Warsaw Pact members, accepted a document calling for the rooting out of all capitalist elements in the region. As soon as the Soviet forces left the country, however, Dubcek reiterated his liberal standings.

Several days after the Bratislava Conference, the Soviet leadership lost its patience. It was decided that together with other countries of the Warsaw Pact, except Romania, the Soviet Union would invade Czechoslovakia in order to restore the hard-line communists to power. On the night of August 20, more than 5,000 Soviet tanks crossed the Czechoslovakian border, supported by hundreds of thousands of soldiers from Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland.

In the eyes of the Soviet leaders, the invasion was simply an exercise of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Although the document was made public in September 1968, it had been a pillar of Moscow’s foreign policy since the end of the second world war. The doctrine gave the right for Soviets to keep their satellite governments in Central and Eastern Europe at all costs (not excluding military solutions). If anyone had had any doubts whether the Soviet Union would live up to its threats, Leonid Brezhnev warned in November 1968 that, “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.”

Despite the brutality of the invasion, the Soviets claimed they were only responding to the plea of the Czechoslovakian government. In fact, Russian newspapers published an unsigned letter, allegedly written by Czechoslovakia’s top political figures, asking their socialist partners for “support and assistance with all means at their disposal.” The entire plot was orchestrated by the Soviet embassy in Prague; the Russian ambassador had gathered the most conservative politicians of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia willing to dispose of the liberal first secretary. With the green light from Prague, Soviet tanks could roll into the country.

With the situation in Prague and Bratislava under control, the Soviets could resolve the crisis in the way they had mastered for decades. On the first day of the invasion, Dubcek was arrested and soon transported to Moscow. There, Brezhnev announced that Dubcek would remain the first secretary for the time being, on the condition that the liberal reforms would be rescinded. In April 1969, Gustav Husak, one of Moscow’s most loyal satraps, replaced Dubcek as the first secretary of Czechoslovakia, appointing him instead as ambassador to Turkey.

During two weeks of military activity 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed in a direct clash with the Warsaw Pact units. Hundreds of wounded were denied medical help as a punishment for having the temerity to publicly oppose the regime. Those who survived intact found it hard to live in a new-old reality. It is estimated that more than 300,000 citizens emigrated to the United States and elsewhere, unable to accept the Soviet domination or fearing persecution.

The tragic outcome of the invasion did not spare the Warsaw Pact members whose soldiers took an active role in ending the rebellion. Only twenty years ago, those countries had been fighting arm-in-arm against the Nazi forces. Now, the old allies were on the two opposing sides of the barricade. East Germany soldiers, dressed in uniforms resembling the notorious SS outfits from the second world war, were especially despised by Czechs and Slovaks and fell prey to many acts of sabotage. But swastikas were painted on German tanks. One of Czech caricatures from that period showed a girl greeting a Russian soldier as a liberator in 1944 and, 24 years later, the girl lying dead on the street shot by the same soldier. Even Poles, who shared a similar language and history with Czechs and Slovaks and were no less oppressed by the Soviets, could not brush aside the label of occupants. Graffiti denouncing Polish soldiers– Poles, be ashamed and Poland, we remember– appeared on dozens of walls and buildings in Prague and Bratislava. It is worth noting, however, that when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and all of its member states won freedom, none of the past disputes prevented them from exercising friendly relations with each other.

Long before the August invasion, the Socialist Block had ceased to be a unity. Contrary to what the western media presented as a solid and an unbreakable alliance of communist states, the Warsaw Pact was everything but. Most of its members bore grudges against one another which derived from the pre-WW II era. Czechs could not forgive Poland for using Hitler’s invasion on Czechoslovakia in 1938 to achieve its own goals, snatching a strategic area of the Czech territory on the north of the country. Hungary, once a powerful co-sovereign over Austria-Hungary Empire, would willingly incorporate large parts of Slovakia, which harbored a considerable number of Hungarians– a reminiscence of the imperial period. Indeed, what united all the countries was their shared opposition toward the common oppressor– the Soviet Union.

This may explain why western powers, especially the United States, did very little or nothing to help the troubled people of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Washington pundits feared that the fragile balance of power in Europe– established after the second world war and sustained by the Cold War– would be infringed upon by the slightest fracture in the system. Besides, the Johnson administration was occupied with its own war in Vietnam, which, at that time, began to expose its hideous face. Not surprisingly, Americans were more interested in the wellbeing of Shirley Temple who, along with 5,000 other American tourists, happened to be in Prague at that time. Although the New York Times, on August 21, reported that “Czechoslovakia [was] invaded by Russians and four other Warsaw Pact forces,” the top news was the latest Gallup poll, which gave the lead in the upcoming presidential election to Richard Nixon, with 45 percent over his Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey.

The August invasion was the last military action that the Soviet Union took against one of its satellite states. Neither in Poland in 1980, when the first free workers’ union was established, nor in East Germany in 1989, when a political crisis led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, did Moscow intervene.

History likes to poke fun of its pupils. On August 20, 1991, exactly 23 years after the first Soviet tanks crossed the Czechoslovakian border, the Soviet Union was transformed into a federation of free nations and disappeared from the map of the world.

Please send your comments to: krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com