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21-2-2020, 03:27 UTC

Events leading up to the Warsaw Pact intervention of August 1968

In modern Czech history August 1968 represents a tragic watershed which will be remembered for generations to come. This month, thirty-five years ago, Warsaw Pact troops, led by the Soviet Union, crossed Czechoslovakia's borders in order to crush the democratic process which had started in the country earlier that year and which has become known as the Prague spring.
After the horrors of the 1950s, during which the Soviet political model had been forcibly installed in Czechoslovakia, including staged political trials, death sentences and imprisonment, the 1960s started with signs of relaxation. The country was still headed by the Communist Party, but its leadership, encouraged by the changed political climate in the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev, and the exposure of the Stalinist purges, took steps which would have been previously unthinkable. The victims of the persecution of the 50s were being rehabilitated, albeit inconsistently, and often only the victims from the communist ranks. The tens of thousands of non-communists who were released from prisons as part of the 1960 amnesty had to wait much longer for their rehabilitation.
Antonin NovotnyAntonin Novotny
The same half-hearted attitude was applied to resolving the economic crisis in Czechoslovakia, which culminated in the 1963 collapse of the third centrally-run five-year economic plan. Only at this point did Antonin Novotny, who was both the Communist Party leader and the Czechoslovak President, agree to create a special team of economists which would lead the country out of the crisis. The group of experts, headed by the economist Ota Sik, analysed the situation and kicked off economic reforms to reintroduce some elements of the market. Little by little, the reform movement started spreading through all aspects of Czechoslovak society. And while the Prague Spring is often described as a power struggle between the reformist and conservative wings within the Communist Party, this interpretation is limiting, as it leaves out a large group of non-communist Czech intelligentsia who had been actively working towards reform since long before 1968.
Following the rehabilitation of political victims of the purges of the 50s, more and more questions were being asked about how the staged political trials of the time could have happened. The silence surrounding them was discrediting the country's leading force - the Communist Party. So, as well as the group of economists mentioned above, a team of historians, political scientists, philosophers and lawyers was put together to look into the events, led by Zdenek Mlynar.
At the same time, scientific and technical progress in the outside world penetrated the Iron Curtain and independent scientific research began to re-emerge. This had been unthinkable under the conditions of the 50s.
Finally we shouldn't forget the boom in journalism and the arts - literature, film and theatre - which made it still clearer that Czechoslovakia was slowly freeing itself from the grip of the Communist Party. Rock'n'roll and big-beat music replaced the falsely cheerful songs from the fifties about the joys of working at a metal lathe eight hours a day; and the country's youth clearly preferring long hair and jeans to the party ideal of polyester trousers and a red tie. The once frightened population was more and more bold in criticising the shortcomings of the socialist regime, no longer worried that the police might drag them out of bed in the middle of the night and dispatch them to a labour camp in uranium mines or elsewhere.
However, these processes in Czechoslovak society didn't pass unnoticed by Czechoslovakia's partners in the Warsaw alliance. In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev as the head of the Soviet Union, and his new hard-line Soviet leadership watched the developments in Czechoslovakia with a growing concern. A document revealed a few years ago shows that the Kremlin classified Czechoslovakia as the least ideologically reliable element of the Warsaw pact at that time.
Meanwhile, the victory of Israel over the Arab countries in the Six-Day War in 1967 worsened relations between the superpowers - the USA and the Soviet Union - as the communist bloc supported the Arab states, and the conflict in Vietnam just added fuel to the fire. Both sides desperately needed some agreement to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and so their cold-war relationship developed into some sort of "gentlemen's agreement" of not interfering in each other's zones of interest. Only a year later, Czechoslovakia was to feel the impact of this silent arrangement between the powers.
In summer 1967 at the IV. Congress of Czechoslovak Writers, the leading Czech writers such as Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Ludvik Vaculik and Pavel Kohout criticised the entire era of "building socialism" in Czechoslovakia. They accused the communist leadership of material and moral devastation of society, as well as responsibility for the persecutions of the 50s. They even called into question its "leading role" in the country. It was at that time that the desire to build bridges back to Western Europe was openly expressed for the first time since the end of the 2nd World War.
On October 31, a student demonstration called the 'Strahov Events' was brutally suppressed by the police. The rest of the world talked about it as the first student revolt in the Soviet bloc, and the wave of unrest and student meetings which followed, only added to the already charged atmosphere in the country. The Communist Party session which was taking place in October 1967, immediately after the Congress of Czechoslovak writers, had to deal with the criticism expressed at the congress, and show its awareness of - as they put it - 'the deep political crisis within the society, including the Communist party itself'. It was for the first time since the communist take-over in 1948, that members of the Communist Party dared to criticise the party leadership and express their own opinions. Antonin Novotny, whose role as the Communist Party leader was threatened by different opinions in the Party's central committee, decided of his own accord and without informing his comrades, to invite the best comrade of them all, Leonid Brezhnev, to personally resolve the party dispute. Brezhnev arrived in the first week of December 1967, only to make his famous brief statement: 'Eto vashe delo', 'It's your business.' Whether he meant this rather generous statement seriously is hard to divine. But Antonin Novotny lost his chair as the Communist Party leader and, in January 1968, was replaced by Alexander Dubcek.
Alexander Dubcek, photo: CTKAlexander Dubcek, photo: CTK
From then on, things started moving fast. When he came to power, Dubcek was forty-seven and a relatively unknown politician. It was particularly his informal behaviour and friendly smile, which won him his popularity and made people disregard a certain lack of political concept. On the one hand, Dubcek trusted in people who later let him down, like the infamous communist Vasil Bilak or the next president Husak, but on the other hand, he knew how to use his media image to get rid of his party opponents. For a long time, his unaffected behaviour totally confused the Kremlin, and his enthusiasm infected many other party representatives. Although most certainly had no plans to end communist rule or introduce full political pluralism, in a sudden surge of conscience and morale party activists did perceptibly begin to run public affairs better.
These reform Communists rallied around Aklexander Dubcek and his famous call for "socialism with a human face" Whether or not these partial reforms would have eventually succeeded in delivering the country out of its fifties' trauma, we will never know, as the Warsaw armies thwarted the experiment in its early stages.
But let's not overtake events. We are still in the early months of 1968, coined by the media as the 'Prague Spring'. In the surge of enthusiasm at the dynamic changes and the new political direction, no-one seemed to be too concerned about what was brewing outside Czechoslovakia, in the rest of the communist bloc. After all, why should they worry? They were not talking of changing the system, or anything like that, so what objections could the Soviets possibly have? Well, object they did, and not only the Soviets, but the communist leadership of the neighbouring Soviet-bloc countries as well. While Dubcek's focus was on resolving immediate issues in his country, the communist governments outside Czechoslovakia became worried about the long-term consequences of the reforms. This socialist experiment could eventually lead to the abolition of the one-party system, which could then infect the other countries of the Soviet bloc.
But there weren't just the ideological worries. There was the military aspect, too. The Soviets felt that their defence lines had to be particularly strong in Central Europe. As early as February 1968 - only one month after Dubcek had been elected as head of the Communist Party - the Northern Units of the Warsaw pact, deployed in Eastern Germany, received sealed envelopes with orders to move closer to the Czechoslovak border and, according to some sources, the invasion plan was drawn up as early as April. The country's politicians were of course unaware of this. Between March and August, Brezhnev tried to exert political pressure on Czechoslovakia - at meetings in Dresden, Warsaw (where the Czechoslovak communist party refused to turn up), and last of all - just before the occupation - in the Slovak town of Cierna Nad Tisou, followed a few days later by Bratislava.
Along with the diplomatic efforts to convince the Czechoslovak leadership to stop the reform movement, the threat of military intervention was being used right from the beginning, albeit in a disguised way and therefore naively ignored by the leading Czechoslovak officials, who were intoxicated with the Prague Spring. In early May, to commemorate the end of the 2nd World War, the Soviet marshals tried to send a tank division from Poland to Czechoslovakia, supposedly to 'celebrate' the liberaton. They also brought forward the date for the Sumava military manoeuvres, from September to June. These manoeuvres were the practical exercises for the invasion, which foreign observers didn't fail to realise, but which the Czechoslovak leadership couldn't believe was possible.
Vasil Bilak and Frantisek Kriegel in 1968, photo: CTKVasil Bilak and Frantisek Kriegel in 1968, photo: CTK
At the end of March, Antonin Novotny resigned as the president and was replaced by Ludvik Svoboda, who soon appointed a new Communist government, which in April announced the so called Action Plan. Although it was supposed to embrace the recent changes in Czechoslovak society, the Action Plan still counted on the leading role of the Communist Party. To the nation which by this time had got used to reading uncensored newspapers and speaking openly, the ideas in the Action Plan were too restrictive, and it was clear that things were getting out of the communists' control.
The rest of the communist block countries attacked the Czechoslovak reform in the press, most viciously Bulgaria and Eastern Germany, whose communist leaderships repeatedly declared their determination to put a stop to the political changes in Czechoslovakia. Isolated cases of disapproval with the reforms appeared even within the country, such as at the June meeting of the infamous People's Militias, the covert appeal by 99 workers of the Praga factory calling to the Soviet Union for help, or the speech of the communist Vasil Bilak - who will always be remembered for attaching his signature to the letter officially asking the Warsaw armies for help in "freeing" Czechoslovakia from the grip of the "counter-revolution".
Members of the Junak youth organisation, 1968, photo: CTKMembers of the Junak youth organisation, 1968, photo: CTK
During the month of May, following the Communist plenary session, even the sceptics in society were seized by enthusiasm. Workers' committees were being established in factories and the traditional youth organisations Junak and Sokol emerged again, which were previously forbidden for promoting other ideals than those of communism. New organisations were being founded and the church and religious groups were coming out of seclusion. The Club of Committed Non-Party Members, otherwise KAN, and the Klub 231, which united the former political prisoners of the communist regime, were the early germs of plural democracy. The media were practically uncensored, every new day bringing new articles disclosing the crimes of the Communist Party during the fifties. Some of those implicated in the crimes committed suicide under the weight of the media revelations.
Ludvik Vaculik, 1968, photo: CTKLudvik Vaculik, 1968, photo: CTK
On June 27, on the eve of the regional Communist conferences, the 2000 Words Statement was published by several newspapers. This document, written by the writer Ludvik Vaculik and subsequently signed by the country's leading figures from all spheres of social life, demanded that the reform process must continue regardless of the Communist Party and if necessary, even against its interests. This was the last straw for Big Brother. In mid-July, at a meeting in Warsaw, the Soviet, East German, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Polish communist leaders signed the key element of the Brezhnev doctrine of "partial sovereignty": that if one part of the socialist bloc threatened to destabilize the others, then the whole bloc would had the right to intervene in the internal matters of that country. The Czechoslovak Communist Party refused to take part in the meeting, though it had been invited.

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