Here's What You Need to Know: Some 100 Czechoslovakian men and women, mostly young protesters, were killed and hundreds more were wounded.
At 1:30 am on August 21, 1968, Czech authorities at Ruzyne Airport in the capital city of Prague waited to greet a special flight that was flying in directly from Moscow. The authorities were not alarmed. Perhaps it was a delegation coming to try to hammer out the growing differences between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
As soon as the plane taxied to the terminal, it became apparent immediately that it was no official delegation—diplomatic or otherwise. Instead, 100 plainclothes Russian soldiers armed with submachine guns clambered down the catwalk to the tarmac and stormed the airport terminal and control tower, overcoming the Czech security personnel without firing a shot. They were an advance unit of the Soviet 7th Guards Airborne Division. With the airport secured, the commandos signaled all clear for the rest of the Soviet airborne invasion force to proceed. It was the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakian democracy, which was being virtually strangled in its crib.
Around the world, 1968 had already been a year of turmoil. In the United States, the year was marked by the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. A growing number of Americans were taking to the streets, protesting the ever-escalating war in Vietnam, clashing with police and National Guard units, and taking over administration buildings at colleges and universities. The antiwar, antiestablishment furor was catching on in Europe as well, with similar demonstrations in West Germany by activists protesting the continuing American military presence in their country. Throughout France, mass demonstrations and strikes by students and workers were paralyzing the French economy and pushing the de Gaulle government to the point of collapse.
Communist leaders within the walls of the Kremlin were comforted by the thought that their own closed-off societies, isolated from the West by barbed wire, guns, and tanks, were immune to the sort of disorder and strife that was gripping the capitalist world. They hadn’t counted on Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia: The Warsaw Pact’s Stable Eastern Flank?
Unlike in most of the other Eastern European countries that came under Soviet occupation after World War II, in Czechoslovakia the communists came to power in 1946 through electoral victories. But when in 1948 it became apparent that they were losing their popularity and thus were going to lose the next round of elections, the communist prime minister, Klement Gottwald, cracked down on all noncommunist factions in the government and used the militia and police to seize control of Prague. From then on, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic solidified its communist ties and joined the ranks of the other Eastern and Central European vassal states in the Soviet Empire.
The Czechoslovak Peoples Army (CSLA), numbering 250,000 men, was structured along the lines of the Soviet Army. Its officer corps was composed almost entirely of men trained by the Soviets who had served in the First Czechoslovak Army Corps on the Eastern Front during World War II. Those officers from the prewar Czechoslovakian Army who had gone to London during the war and had come back after 1945 to help reconstitute the country’s military were purged from the ranks. During the 1950s, when East Germany, Poland, and especially Hungary were wracked by uprisings, Czechoslovakia remained a stable, solid part of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets were so confident of the stability and loyalty of the Czechs and Slovaks that they did not even keep a standing Red Army contingent in the country. In the event of a war with NATO across Germany, the Czechs were expected to hold up the Warsaw Pact’s southern flank.
Humiliation in the Six-Day War
But by the 1960s, conditions within Czechoslovakia had started to change. Gottwald was dead, and in his place was a cautious reformer named Antonin Novotny. Unlike his predecessor, Novotny was willing to allow a certain limited degree of reform and loosening up of Czechoslovak society. He even went so far as to give businesses a little leeway in dictating their own production schedules and business plans.
In 1967, events in the Middle East altered Czechoslovakia’s political course. In June of that year, Israel overwhelmingly defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War. The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been largely trained and equipped with advisers and weapons from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia. To many Czechs and Slovaks, Egypt’s and Syria’s humiliation was also their own.
The Six Day War provoked many among Czechoslovakia’s intellectual elite to begin questioning the government’s support for Egypt and its antipathy toward Israel. This criticism in turn opened up the floodgates to criticism of the government in general and of Premier Novotny in particular. Some of the first open critics of the regime were the members of the Writers Union, which numbered among its ranks a young playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was just beginning to make a name for himself. Novotny reacted to the criticism by reimposing censorship and clamping down on the press, moves that only engendered more criticism, both inside and outside the party. By the end of the year, there were calls within the Central Committee for Novotny’s resignation.
The Fall of Novotny, the Rise of “Our Sasha”
When the committee met again in January 1968, the decision was made to strip Novotny of most of his power by separating the offices of first secretary of the party from the office of president of Czechoslovakia. Novotny previously had held both posts, and he was allowed to keep the office of president; but the first secretariat went to the head of the Slovakian wing of the party, Alexander Dubcek.
Dubcek was the son of Slovakian immigrants who had come to the United States and become American citizens. Active in the American socialist movement, they had both worked for Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party at the turn of the century. In 1921, Dubcek’s father, Stefen, moved the family to the Soviet Union to help build an industrial cooperative. The family moved back to their homeland of Czechoslovakia in 1938. As a teenager, Dubcek and his brother joined the Slovakian resistance against the Nazi occupation and took part in the Slovak national uprising in August 1944. Dubcek was wounded and his brother was killed in the fighting.
After the war, Dubcek climbed the ladder of the communist hierarchy and became a champion for the Slovak minority within the country. He made a name for himself as an advocate of government reform, including the separation of the party organization from the government. Dubcek was not known for being a maverick, but for being a hard worker, a fervent believer in Marxism-Leninism, and an admirer of the Soviet Union. Among his comrades in the Kremlin, Dubcek was affectionately referred to as “Our Sasha.”
Dubcek’s appointment was a welcome development for reformers in Czechoslovakia, but it did nothing to mollify the tens of thousands of people who had started taking to the streets and publicly demanding Novotny’s resignation as president. On March 22, 1968, they got their wish; Novotny finally conceded the inevitable and stepped down. His successor was a former general and war hero named Ludvik Svoboda, who supported Dubcek’s proposals.
“Czechoslovakia’s comrades know best”
What followed was an unprecedented period of freedom and reform behind the Iron Curtain that would be remembered in history as the “Prague Spring.” For the first time in more than 20 years, the people of Czechoslovakia were not only allowed but encouraged to speak up and criticize the government and the party. Economically, Dubcek instituted an action program that loosened government controls on the private sector to an extent that Novotny had never dared. It wasn’t long before the man whom the Soviets had regarded as a loyal, orthodox communist was declaring the desire to establish a “free, modern, and profoundly humane society.”
Dubcek’s neighbors and fellow Warsaw Pact leaders wanted no part of such an open society. They made their feelings known to Dubcek during the March 23 Warsaw Pact summit meeting in Dresden. Heading up the campaign of denunciation was Dubcek’s neighbor to the north, East German leader Walter Ulbricht. The architect of the Berlin Wall and the most Stalinist of the Warsaw Pact leaders, Ulbricht was more than a little concerned about the possibility that the newfound freedoms of the Czech and Slovak citizens would tempt his own citizens to demand the same. He denounced Dubcek for laying open Czechoslovakia to infiltration by Western influences and for giving his nation’s artists and writers too much freedom. “The capitalist world press had already written that Czechoslovakia was the most advantageous point from which to penetrate the socialist camp,” he exclaimed.
Poland’s communist leader, Wladislaw Gomulka, shared Ulbricht’s hysteria and went so far as to remind Dubcek of how Hungary was invaded and crushed in 1956 after its leadership had strayed too far from the Soviet fold. Ironically, Hungarian leader Janos Kadar, who had replaced the unfortunate Imre Nagy after Nagy was executed by the Soviets in 1958, took a more moderate tack, concluding that “Czechoslovakia’s comrades know best, I believe, what is happening in Czechoslovakia today.”