The Prague Spring: 50 Years Later – OpEd


By Krassen Stanchev*

On this date in 1968, armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia out of fear that the tiny nation might liberate itself from the yoke of Communism. A nascent liberation had begun in the cultural, religious, and social life of the country, if not its economy. By the mid-1960s, the Marxist government had failed to suppress the Church and extinguish the intellectual quest for freedom of expression, a quest that penetrated all walks of society – from pop music to the Scouting movement. A vigorous defense of religious and human rights came from priests, high literary circles, and even supported to a degree by some honest – though naïve – individuals in the ranks of the Communist Party. This would-be liberation became known as the Prague Spring. The August 20-21 invasion attempted to obstruct this embryonic thirst for freedom, deferring liberation for 21 years. Yet today, people in former Warsaw Pact nations – including young Czechs and Slovaks – seem to have forgotten the lessons of that Czechoslovak summer invasion.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 soldiers of the Warsaw Pact (WP) armies stood on high alert, massed at the border of the nation then known as Czechoslovakia, and poised to attack. A total of 27 divisions had at their disposal 6,300 tanks, 2,000 cannons, and 800 airplanes. The soldiers came from Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union. (East German forces opted to provide only logistical support.) However, this belies the army’s homogeneity. The military might was overwhelmingly Soviet. Some 85 to 90 percent of the forces deployed – as well as 100 percent of planning, logistics, communications, and leadership – were also Soviet. The role of the other armies was rather to help legitimize the military intervention and augment the propaganda. The top brass of KGB, not the generals, had final say throughout the invasion.

This was the largest military operation in Europe since the Second World War. The task was “to capture all important state institutions” and support “people’s power organs suppressing counterrevolutionary forces.” The 130,000-member Czechoslovak Army had orders to stand down – orders they gladly followed.

Autumn turns into the Prague Spring

On the surface, the formal reason for the invasion was the “Prague Spring,” a common name for a new kind of socialism dreamed up by the naïve leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia between December 1967 and January 1968. It came as a sincere reaction to the events of October 11, 1967, when power shortages in a region of Prague sparked student demonstrations. Though police dispersed the rally by force, the students continued to demonstrate. (In general, student protests in Eastern Europe, from 1945 to 1989, were always to protect individual liberty and human dignity, not to promote Communist ideas like in, e.g., 1967-1968 France.)

To calm the situation, Soviet leaders replaced the secretary of the Communist Party, Antonín Novotný, with the poet/journalist-turned-Communist boss Alexander Dubček. The Soviet-educated Dubček was an honest, good-natured, and naïve believer that mankind is basically benevolent (no observer denies these characteristics). In January 1968, he proposed his own counterpoint to Novotný’s policies, which he called “socialism with a human face.” The very title shocked Communist leaders. Brezhnev is said to have commented off-the-record to Dubček, “If your socialism has a human face, what is the face of ours?”

The program was modest and cosmetic. It promised separating the Communist Party from the executive branch of government, political equality of all parties in the People’s Front (which had ruled under Communist domination since 1948), equality between Czech and Slovaks, a federation, decriminalization of small private businesses, meritocracy in the massive government sector, abolishing censorship, and easing the freedom of association. Dubček planned to adopt an action plan making this a reality in September 1968, at the next Congress of the Communist Party. Though it was never implemented, the very promise generated a strong, grassroots liberty movement.

Religious liberty begins to dawn

After 1948, the Communist authorities attempted to impose atheism on the society. But the Czech and Slovak people were deeply religious: 76 percent of Czechs and Slovaks were Roman Catholics, and 10-11 percent were Czech Hussites, with other religious groups also represented. Part of the Communist strategy was to paint priests as fascists, to split the Church between the two nations, and contrast a coopted group of “New Catholics” (young priests who publicly advocated socialism) with bishops who were bold guardians of religious liberties and human rights.

By the early 1960s, the New Catholics had lost their public appeal. Dubček had no choice but to liberalize the nation’s religious life by ending the persecution of, and tacitly lifting the ban on, Catholic priests and other Christian clergy. Prior to 1968, the Byzantine Catholic Church was prohibited, though bureaucratic toleration extended to Orthodox Christian priests. Cardinal František Tomášek was one of the key defenders of liberty, along with Václav Havel and other intellectuals, until 1989. Soviet officials greeted this development warily, as well.

The invasion

Soviet leadership concluded that that “Zionist, revisionist, and counter-revolutionary elements” had undertaken “a major assault on socialism and began planning to invade Czechoslovakia as early as April 8, 1968. The plan was ready by mid-April. It arranged for “liquidation of Zionist and enemy forces” and recommended, as parallel line of action, eliminating all Zionist elements in the Czechoslovak Communist Party. (The chief “Zionist” organization was the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Vienna, and some of the individuals targeted were not even Jewish.) Between April and August 20, the Warsaw Pact’s armies conducted five military exercises on the borders of – and the last one, within – Czechoslovakia. After the last, in July 1968, the Red Army simply forgot to go home.

Between January and late July, the Communist leaders met eight times to discuss how to harass Dubček and his supporters, while the KGB organized (read: bribed and threatened) the opposition to his rule: The formal call for an invasion was written in Moscow. In the meantime, KGB chief Yuri Andropov, the key organizer of the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, played the key role in providing disinformation to their own military personnel.

From a military perspective, the invasion was overkill. The most organized resistance was around the building of National Radio in Prague, which continued broadcasting genuine news for about a week. (The Soviet invaders lacked the technical knowledge to stop it.) Then the radio went underground, and illegal newspapers flooded the nation.

However, the capture of airports went smoothly. Squads and one airborne infantry division captured unguarded airports and post offices. In fact, not a single shot was fired against them by any army or police officer. At most, in some big cities the locals used homemade amalgam to ignite fires, or street cars and buses to block streets. But most offered no resistance to General Vasily Margelov (who was born Markelov), who led the operation and, for his 1968 “victory,” became a “hero of the USSR.” (Monuments are still being built in his honor.) Some of the soldiers were surprised to realize they had been misinformed about the nation’s way of life, and the virtue of its women, which the KGB had contrasted to “superior Soviet life” back home.

Logistically, the invasion was next to a nightmare. Ground troops were puzzled, because maps were more than 20 years old. Towns and villages often had new names, and the locals changed or painted over the street and railway signs. The public took to the streets on August 21, built improvised barricades, stopped tanks with human chains, and refused to cooperate. The latter, besides random shooting in the air, was the most common reason for the cruel killings of innocent, unarmed individuals, teenagers and young women. There were many instances of tanks crashing shops, attacking barefoot protesters or street cars, or simply shooting against walls and militarily insignificant buildings, like museums and schools.

Czech sources report 137 Czechs and Slovaks died as a result of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and 400 between then and 1989. On the invaders side, 98 were killed, most of them in automobile or equipment accidents, including the inexperienced use of firearms. Five committed suicide in the first month of invasion. Eleven Soviet soldiers are believed to have been killed by locals. One Bulgarian soldier there was either killed in a drunken quarrel while attempting to desert, or killed by border guards while trying to flee into West Germany.

“Oak – Out, KGB Stays”

By the fall of 1968, the unarmed resistance was already fading away. But it rose anew on January 16, 1969, when 21-year-old Jan Palach set himself on fire, leaving behind a message, “I burn myself in order to wake up the people of this land.” Unfortunately, human torches started burning one after another – six young men and one young woman set themselves on fire and died in the following month. Another 26 were saved by medical intervention. Soon, the movement went international: Three perished by self-immolation in Poland, Hungary, and Latvia. The letters they left were, in substance, the same as Palach’s.

The Kremlin, furious over Dubček (whose surname may be translated into English as “Oakson”) and his inability to bring “appeasement.” The order given by Brezhnev to Soviet Marshal Andrei Grechko said: “Oak – out, KGB stays.” As a result of the Hockey Riots, Dubček was dismissed in April 1969. He served for two years as ambassador to Turkey, and then until his retirement as a clerk in the ministry of forestry. He was replaced by the KGB loyalist Gustáv Husák. Since his last name means “goose,” the Czechs and Slovaks dubbed the regime “socialism in a goose skin.” He ran the country until 1987.

Why did this happen?

The reasons for the discontent of 1968 were not immediately economic. True, power shortages were regular phenomena in ex-Communist Europe, as Ludwig von Mises predicted in 1922 – and so were shortages of all kinds. But despite the USSR’s postwar actions (the Red Army confiscated key industries as “reparations”), the economy of Czechoslovakia was the most competitive Communist economy. Their cars were far superior to those produced in the USSR or East Germany. Their shops offered better food and other products. By the end of the 1980s, the country traded only 55 percent of its output with the Soviet Union (as contrasted with Poland and Bulgaria, where the USSR accounted for more than 80 percent of international trade).

“The Evil Empire” was exporting Communism since the founding of the Comintern in 1919. In 1922, it exported the Bolshevik system to the Caucasus and financed a rebellion in Bulgaria in 1923. In 1939-1940, it occupied West Ukraine, Bessarabia, and the Baltics. And from 1944 to 1950, the Soviet system reached East Germany, China, and North Korea. These nations were held at the point of a gun – in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was more “business as usual”: deadly, nasty, and fundamentally unjust, but also typical.

Because the system could not work economically without private property and free trade, the citizen had to be trapped within it by force. For individuals, there was an Iron Curtain; for nations and ethnic groups, there was the Warsaw Pact under Soviet, and KGB, command. Some in the West viewed these invasions as an internal Soviet affair. No one would risk another war or a nuclear standoff in the 1960s because of a distant “people of whom we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia three decades earlier.

Today, the Russian Federation tries to keep the memory of this tradition alive. The president, a former KGB leader, exercises strong influence in the former Soviet countries, and less strong influence in Western Europe and elsewhere. This is the key motivation for the ongoing glorification of the Red Army and the embellishment of the activities of so-called “masters of invasions” like Margelov.

As the Prague Spring was suffocated by military force, a generation lost the hope of instant liberation. But the flashes of discontent with the Communist-Soviet rule that sparked across Eastern Europe did not cease to exist. The 1968 generation in Eastern European nations, to which I too belong, put an end to Soviet rule in 1989. Publicly commemorating the invasion of Czechoslovakia and teaching new generations about the misdeeds of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR is necessary to assure we never repeat similar crimes in the future.

About the author:
*Krassen Stanchev
is a professor in Public Choice and Macroeconomic Analysis of Politics at Sofia University in Bulgaria, where he also teaches the history of economics at the post-graduate level. He is also CEO of KC 2 Ltd. and board chairman, founder, and former executive director of IME, Bulgaria’s first independent, free-market think thank. He is a former member and committee chairman of Bulgaria’s Constitutional Assembly (1990-1991), and a principle drafter of reforms leading Bulgaria from central planning to a market economy.

This article was published by the Acton Institute.

Acton Institute

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is named after the great English historian, Lord John Acton (1834-1902). He is best known for his famous remark: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Inspired by his work on the relation between liberty and morality, the Acton Institute seeks to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing. To clarify this relationship, the Institute holds seminars and publishes various books, monographs, periodicals, and articles.

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