czechoslovakia 1968

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Bratislava, august 1968 by Ladislav Bielik

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia was a joint invasion of Czechoslovakia by four Warsaw Pact nations – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland – on the night of 20–21 August 1968 approximately 250 000 troops crossed Czechoslovak borders.

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My first recollection of Prague Spring started in late fall of 1967. I was 13 years old. On November 2. 1967, a brief news report appeared in the Czechoslovakian government controlled newspaper about the demonstration on October 31st by residents of the Czechoslovak Technical College. The demonstration began spontaneously with nonpolitical motivation. There had been no electrical power to the student dorms for four days and counting which made it almost impossible to study. About 1,500 students went to Prague Castle where the Czechoslovakian president resided. The students shouted, “We want light.” Unfortunately, no one informed the government of this problem with electrical power. They thought the students were using an analogy that they wanted to overturn the government. The police called for reinforcements and arrested some of the demonstrating students. Then the police followed the students back to their to their dorms and beat them up. However, the police were not supposed to enter the college grounds.

This was the first time real news like this was covered by the newspaper and news programs without censorship. It was also covered in news reels shown before movies in theaters. It was so unheard of to see anything like this without censorship for 20 years. I remember my parents taking my brother and me to the movies around the beginning of December just to watch this story in the news reels and leave as the featured film started. Most of the people in Czechoslovakia were doing the same thing.

After the New Year, Prague Spring started with big hopes and open borders for the people in Czechoslovakia to travel freely to the west. A faction of the Communist party started a movement called, “Socialism with a human face.” They loosened restrictions on media and travel started in the Stalin era and tried to create a more humane government. They also decentralized administrative authority.

Soviet Russian leaders did not like these changes. The new Czechoslovakian government refused the Soviet leaders’ demand to secretly put nuclear missiles in Czechoslovakia on the West German borders. After failed negotiations regarding the Prague Spring changes, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21st with tanks and put a stop to the Communism with a human face movement.

A little over a year after the invasion, the Czechoslovakian borders were closed, and life went back to old routines and worse with the restrictions of normalization.

On August 21, 1968, I was with my parents and brother at our summer house about 25 miles east of Prague. That morning my brother’s friend woke us up at 5am to tell us that Russians had come to occupy Czechoslovakia. We thought he had to much to drink last night and was making this up - we couldn’t believe him. Our parents lived through the German occupation in 1939 and also the Communist uprising in 1948. They worried about my brother and me and did not want us to go out. We sneaked out anyway. My best friend and I painted messages on the asphalt roads like, “Russians go home.” My friend did the painting, and I directed traffic around our signs. The whole country was so united by current events that the drivers followed the directions two 14 year old boys and drove around their new art. At the end of the summer my family went back to Prague, and we saw the devastation caused by Soviet tanks in our neighborhood. We lived only one block from Radio Praha where the biggest fight took place.

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Prague Spring. August 1968. Czechoslovakia. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

POZOR NA RUSKÉ VRAHY KRADOU HODINKY A RÁDIA or BEWARE OF RUSSIAN MURDERERS STEAL WATCHES AND RADIOS

RUSSIANS GO HOME NOW!

VYSTAVA RUSKA KULTURA → or RUSSIAN CULTURAL EXHIBITION →

BREŽNĚV = HITLER

PARIS 1871

[SVOBODA] ROVNOST BRATRSTVÍ or [LIBERTY] EQUALITY FRATERNITY

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Some time before the August invasion in 1968 composer Jiří Brabec wrote music for one part of the series A Song for Rudolf III 

“Goverment of your affairs will come back to you, people.”
This quote (originally from J. A. Komenský) was immediately understood as a protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Marta Kubišová still managed to record this song (watch her 1968 version here) but two years later she was prohibited from public appearances. Next time Marta Kubišová sang this song in public on November 1989 on Wenceslas Square, 21 years after its premiere. Modlitba then became the soundtrack of the Velvet Revolution.