When liberty was lost

50 years ago Soviet soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia and stopped the country on its way to a liberal communist state. Tanks arrived on Wenceslas Square and people were demonstrating to keep their new liberties as long as possible.

Petr Balla, teaching History of Central and Eastern Europe at the Institute of International Studies at Charles University, talked to us how Prague Spring could happen, what it meant for Czech society and how people today commemorate the event.

Prague Correspondent: Why is 1968 such an important year for the Czech Republic?

Petr Balla: I always compare 1968 to the Central European countries. We had the revolution in Hungary in 1956 and kind of a revolution in Poland in 1956. People in the 1950s thought that changes are needed after the death of Stalin but nothing actually happened in Czechoslovakia. Until the beginning of the 1960s the Czechs would rather not speak about what all the terrible things connected with the Stalin era – the show trials and executions. That was the official statement.

But in the second half of the 1960s a new generation of people grew up who were ready and eager to speak about the 1950s. So finally what happened in Hungary and Poland happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Alexander Dubcek, the new young leader of the communists was elected. Some knew how the situation was in Poland and Hungary, that they were all liberal and could even listen to western music and that life was better – and they wanted it here.

So at the end of the 1950s to the beginning of the 60s people were all passive but during the Prague Spring people suddenly started to be interested in community life, in social and public life and all the people were involved in these changes. That’s why they were so eager to change the system and that’s also why it was such a great shock for society when the Soviets and the tanks came in August 1968.


Why did they come anyway?

The whole problem started because the Soviets had no trust in our leaders, especially in Alexander Dubcek. They thought him is too weak to handle the situation. I would argue that people in Hungary and Poland were even more free than in Czechoslovakia. But there changes went on gradually and the Soviets knew the leaders could handle it. Nothing could went out of control. In case of Czechoslovakia the Soviets told our communist leaders to cool down with the reforms because they didn’t think he could handle it. But actually Dubcek couldn’t stop them because society was so eager to have the changes.

Secondly it was very strategic for the Soviets to have their own basis of army in Czechoslovakia. Until 1968 they didn’t have any basis in here. Which was quite strange. If you have a look at the map of Warsaw Pact you have West Germany which was part of the NATO since 1955 neighbouring only two Warsaw Pact countries. One was East Germany and another one was Czechoslovakia. The Soviets had soldiers in Poland because they needed the road to East Germany and they had soldiers in Hungary because of 1956. So strategically they needed the basis in Czechoslovakia. The Soviets were not thinking politically but in a matter of military strategy.


So they were actually afraid to lose a communist country to the western world.

Yes, exactly.


What exactly happened then in Prague?

Czechoslovakia was flooded by Soviet tanks. They first occupied the airports. Every ten minutes new tanks and other heavy vehicles were landing in the airports and half a million soldiers came into Czechoslovakia. So the military action that happened 21st of August was massive. And actually the Soviets wanted to show that this was a common action of all socialist countries but that was not true. Albania and Romania refused. Hungary was not very happy because they actually favored the changes in Czechoslovakia but they were afraid that if they not participate the Soviets would make some harsh changes in Hungary too. The Bulgarians were following the Soviet model, Poland was okay with the occupation and then we have the funny case of East-Germany. They actually said yes  to participating but then their soldiers went over the Czechoslovakia border just 30 years ago…


That would not have made a good impression…

No, the memories were not that good. They were saying they would participate but actually not a single East German soldier crossed the border. So there were Poles, Hungarians, some Bulgarians and the Soviets at the occupation.


Was there a special place where the people of Prague were demonstrating?

The main area was the Wenceslas Square where all the tanks were standing. The second place was at the radio just next to National museum. That’s today the place of memory of 1968 where they are commemorate the event in front of the building. People were trying to keep the free radio in Czechoslovakia running as long as they could. They tried to fight the Soviets with some improvised weapons but nothing serious. I mean, the Soviets had tanks you cannot do anything about that…


Soviet tanks arriving on Wenceslas Square in August 1968. Source: Vladimír Lammer

Were there any incidents?

There were some incidents when the Soviets started to shoot into the people – I think we had like 90 victims of the invasion. But most accidents happened when the tanks went into a car.

But what younger people today do not quite understand: Before 1968 Czechs  were one of the few nations who really liked Russians. We had that russianmania, everyone liked them. Our communist party had 40% in the democratic election in 1946. They were all speaking Russian here. So the people surrounded the tanks and started talking to the soldiers which were absolutely shocked because they’ve been told by their officers that they had fascists here, that they were killing communists, that they were a counterrevolution and the NATO is preparing to invade the country. Now they were facing normal people who were speaking Russian and who said something totally different.

It was really a shock for the Czechoslovakian society. They wanted a better society, a social society and the Soviet Union was our greatest friend and the desillusion was very great.


Talking about the young people – what does the Prague Spring mean for the Czech society today?

People still remember 1968 because it’s just been 50 years. Many people said it shaped the people of Czechoslovakia. The worst was not the occupation. The Soviets came in and the Czechs did passive resistance. But then changes started to happen when the liberals were excluded from the communist party and the new regime from 1969 were not run by the Soviets but by Czech people. And many people said that the 1970s were just awful. Everything was forbidden. It didn’t matter how talented you were or how hard you were working. The only thing that mattered was how willing you were to cooperate with the new regime. The 1970s and 1980s were called normalization and that’s something that hit the society more than 1968. People are still quite nostalgic about the 1980s saying “I was young. I had work and yes i couldn’t travel but today I am poor and I can’t travel either.”


So basically there are still pieces left not of 1968 itself but of what happened in Czech society after.

Yes. The normalization-process hit the society very heavily. We still have the problem talking about that because many people had connections to the regime.

On the other hand people gave 30% to our prime minister although they knew he was a former agent of State Security (StB) and 10% to the communist party. We can’t really overcome these things.

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