1968: Prague Spring III
Program InformationSeries: A Moment in Time
Year Produced: 2008
In early August 1968 it seemed as though the Czechs had pulled it off. Following a long series of so-called “staff maneuvers,” and in response to pressure from Czechoslovakian leaders, Soviet troops had withdrawn from the country. Czechs began to breathe a little easier. Their euphoria did not last for long.
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Introduction: A Moment in Time, 1968: A special series on the 40th anniversary of a year of upheaval, in a world seemingly out of control.
Content: In early August 1968 it seemed as though the Czechs had pulled it off. Following a long series of so-called “staff maneuvers,” and in response to pressure from Czechoslovakian leaders, Soviet troops had withdrawn from the country. Czechs began to breathe a little easier. Their attempt to reform communism, in the words of Czech Party leader Alexander Dubcek, “to put a human face on socialism” no longer seemed under threat. Their euphoria did not last for long.
On August 20th the presidium of the Czech Communist Party was meeting late into the night. During the proceedings, an aide rushed in and informed Dubcek that Warsaw Pact forces - Hungarians, Bulgarians, Poles and East Germans - had invaded and were at the gates of Prague. Moscow was relying on what they thought was a substantial anti-Dubcek faction in the government to whom they could turn over the country, so that they could claim that the invasion was by invitation.
Upon reaching Prague, however, the Soviets found this not to be the case. Although top officials were arrested with no struggle, Czech citizens resisted en masse, placing themselves and their cars in front of the advancing tanks. Twenty-three Czechs were killed on the first day. Underground radio stations competed with Soviet propaganda. Film footage of the invasion was smuggled out of the country to the West, and the world soon bristled with anti-Soviet sentiment. Of the 88 Communist Parties in the world, only 10 supported the invasion.
Though Czech President Svoboda’s first loyalty had always been to the USSR, but even he refused to give into Soviet demands and threats until Moscow agreed to a bilateral negotiation with the imprisoned Czech leaders, including Dubcek. During negotiations, a weak, sometimes incoherent and probably drugged Dubcek stubbornly continued to defend his reforms and denounce the invasion. Verbally abused by Svoboda, however, his resistance finally collapsed. Both sides signed the Moscow Protocol, which directed the troops to leave Czechoslovakia, but only as that country made progress toward “normalization”.
A tired Dubcek returned to Prague, where he began to roll back many of his reforms. He was eventually demoted, removed from the party and banished to Bratislava, where he became a forestry inspector. The “Prague Spring” had been a noble experiment, but its promise would await two decades and the collapse of the Soviet Empire before being kept.
At the University of Richmond, I'm Dan Roberts.