Springtime for Prague

4 min read    25 comments

On January 5th, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became the leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia.

Sensing a rare opportunity, he quickly initiated a series of reforms to bring about a socialist democracy, lifting censorship and freeing artists and other political prisoners, and beginning the Prague Spring. In April of that year, Dubcek launched an "Action Programme" of liberalizations that included increased freedom of the press, a switch of emphasis from industrial to consumer goods, and the possibility of a more democratic multi-party government, essentially ending Soviet control over the nation. It also planned the federalization of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic into two equal nations, Czech and Slovak. That spring and summer, liberalizations escalated, including anti-Soviet opinions appearing in the press, something unheard of previously. In addition, new unaffiliated political clubs were being created, whereas in most Soviet-controlled countries non-Party affiliations were strictly banned.

The Fall of Spring

All this changed on the morning of August 21st, 1968, when the Warsaw Pact invasion, led by the Soviet Union with forces from five Pact countries (Romania abstained), brought about normalization, disguised as massive rolling green machines bearing artillery. Dissidents and artists who had been allowed more freedom than ever before were now being persecuted or arrested, including the famous Plastic People of the Universe. Riots broke out, protests and violence were common, but eventually this subsided and the censorship and regulation of a communist system returned.

During the summer of 1968, primarily Brezhnev and the USSR leadership, and to some extent the other leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries were concerned about Dubcek's reforms, fearing that this idea of liberalization could spread to their countries and instigate rebellion (which did happen with the student riots in Gdansk in 1968), which would eventually oust the current leadership from power (and there's nothing politicians fear more than losing their power - this hasn't changed even today). They also feared weakening the position of the Communist Bloc during the height of the Cold War. Before the tanks rolled in in August, a series of negotiations were held between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in July at Cierna nad Tisou, near the Slovak-Soviet border. At the meeting, Dubcek defended the reformist program while pledging commitment to the Warsaw Pact and COMECON, and Brezhnev initially agreed to compromise. The Czechoslovak Party delegates pledged their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "antisocialist" tendencies and control the press and dissidents more effectively, while the Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops.

On August 3, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration, which affirmed their fidelity to the Party's ideologies and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against "bourgeois" ideology and "antisocialist" enemies. Significantly, the Soviet Union declared its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a "bourgeois" system (in theory anything but strict communist control) was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along Czechoslovak borders.

During the night of August 20th, between 5,000 to 7,000 tanks rolled in, accompanied by Warsaw Pact troops ranging from 200,000 to 600,000 in number. The tanks occupied the streets while the troops sought out the "antisocialist" elements, often with the use of police sticks and guns, leading to the death of 72 Czechs and Slovaks and hundreds of wounded. Dubcek himself, along with several of his colleagues, was arrested and taken to Moscow, where he miraculously escaped severe punishment in the end, and was even allowed to return to office. Protest (including a student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire) was accompanied by emigration, as hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks escaped to the West.

Even today debate ensues about the tragedy, as well and the necessity and legality of the invasion. The Soviets had claimed that they had been "invited" to intervene against the "antisocialist" elements threatening Czechoslovakia's Communist Party. In reality, the invasion was a form of coup that had been in the works that whole summer, finally cumulating in the invasion. Meanwhile, resentment remains to this day towards the countries that supplied troops that invaded Czechoslovakia (though the five Pact countries had little choice in the matter). In April 1969, Gustav Husak replaced Dubcek as First Secretary, and the period of "normalization" began. Husak reversed Dubcek's reforms, purged the party of the reformists and dismissed from public offices and jobs those of professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political turnaround, a situation which would remain in place until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.


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Phil Carradice

Thanks for that - I will use quotes from the main text but I'd also like to use small samples from the comments of Marie Anna Dvorak, Marc (both from the USA) and P Chalmers (Canada). That's saying nothing about the comments of the others but those three covered areas that I needed quotes for (bad English, sorry). Thanks for your help - a great site.

Reply Mar 7th, 2019
Phil Carradice

I am currently writing a book on the Prague Spring. I wonder if any of the people who commented - or anyone who reads this - would mind me quoting a few lines. I want to include some of the views of the people, rather than just the politicians but, as ever with publishers, time is short.

Reply Mar 7th, 2019
United States

Where can I get a list of those who died in Prague Spring? A cousin was attending school in Prague and we have not heard from him since.

Reply Aug 17th, 2018
MarieAnna Dvorak
United States

I came across this website while looking for information for my project and I was taken aback by these words: "The soviets took care of this country and helped the citizens." This statement is misleading and its history is twisted. In 1938 Czechoslovakia held 10th place in the world when it came to industrial production. After the war, for the first time under the power of the Soviet Union, the Soviets began to transfer a large amount of industrial and other assets from the Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia. The Soviets also possessed the controlling interest, and required from Czechoslovakia to sell products at below world prices, such as uranium mines. To make a long story short, the people of Czechoslovakia paid dearly for the Red Army liberating them from Nazism. Besides that, the people of Czechoslovakia were granted with Stalinism/totalitarianism. They were liberated from mud and thrown into mud. The same person also stated "these are all lies not a single czech person was killed." During the Soviet invasion in 1968, 108 people died and many hundreds were wounded. But the number of deaths is not the point. The point is the 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks that entered the tiny country. You can only understand the feeling if tanks and machine-guns aim at you. They didn't kill many people but they took away the freedom people longed for and fought for. Millions of people suffered under the totalitarian regime installed by the Soviet Union.

Reply Jun 21st, 2015
Edgar Lokhorst

After twenty odd years of Soviet iron curtainism the population went beyond the revolution to become the ideal which their civilization aspired to. Less successful events had been witnesseses, this one had intermittant victories but eventually capsized.

Reply Aug 21st, 2013
Stefan Radu
United States

Does nobody mention the refusal of Romania to participate in that invasion of Czechoslovakia?

Reply Jan 18th, 2012

It saddens me when I read some of the comments here. I lived through the 21st August 1968. We lived at Vinohrady, not far from the radio station. If I close my eyes, I still could hear the voice assuring us that they will not give up their post as this is where they could inform us about the situation. It was more or less symbolic, the last bastion of the country still in Czech hands. So, people went to help taking down the street signs to confuse the 'guests'. We, the Prague's born and bred, did not need the signs. We know every street by heart. When the tanks finally arrived and blocked the street in front of the RADIO station, it wasn't pretty. My 14 year old sister had a shock when a balcony fell in front of her, shot down by one of the tanks. We did not ask the Warsaw Pact troops to come and help us. Help us against whom? Us? It was us, the Czechs and Slovaks who wanted freedom of speech and lifting of that Iron Curtain. We wanted to travel and see the world with our own eyes. We wanted to have a say about our own affairs. We had the Russian tanks, dead and wounded people, and another 21 years of Russian oppression instead. The Wednesday 21st August 1968 was one of the dark days in Czech's history.

Reply May 19th, 2011
United States

Where can I get a list of Dubcek's Reforms in 1968

Reply May 8th, 2011

So what is the difference now??? Czech republic used and abused Slovakia. Nowadays Czech Republic sold itself to the West Europe. Germans and Frenchmen use your people and your economy. If in Soviet Union you became a colony by force, as of right now you are a colony of West Europe only indirectly. What's left of your local staff??? In Sovet Union Ceba Czechoslovak footwear company was very popular. Is it popular now??? I do not think so! Come on people Soviet Union made you a colony, and yes it was bad. But Stalin was Georgian and he even killed Russians. But this is because of Soviet Union you are not Germans now, and not speaking German. You hate Russian and russian speaking people because they are poorer than the West. So who is talking about morals and religion. I am happy that Ukraine did not sell itself to the West. We will see int he future of your European Union who will be superior. Czech Republik or Germany. This people killed you and you love them just because they give you money. Even Romania sold its rich soil lands to German and French. And now they are trying to expolit poor Moldovans and take their land. Because they became slaves of Western Europe. Romanians now work on their lands for foreigners and their people. How slaverish is it!!! You can hate Soviets and Russian speaking people all of your life. but remembe if you sell yourself for money, you do not have a pride.

Reply Mar 1st, 2011
United States

Just as sometimes the most spiritual people are those who eschew churches, the real socialists of Czechoslovakia were the people in the streets trying to resist the Soviet tanks, which were really rolling into Prague to re-enforce the Kremlin's state capitalism and traditional Russian expansionism. The Prague Spring serves as a tribute to hope for genuineness and spontaneity amid orthodox repression. I only wish my 10th birthday hadn't been Aug. 20, 1968, but had instead been in the spring.

Reply Dec 29th, 2010
United States

I was only 16 in 1968 and didn't begin to visit the former Czechoslovakia until 1985. However between '85 and '87 I was there over a dozen times and I can tell you that anyone who thinks that the Soviets conducted a "benevolent occupation" is out of his mind. Besides the warmth and the intelligence of the Czech people, what struck me more than anything else was the feeling of hopelessness that the population seemed to share. And who could blame them?

Reply Dec 12th, 2009
Humphrey Reader
United Kingdom

Very interesting - I hadn't realised that Dubcek wanted to grant autonomy to Slovakia. I guess we have a similar situation in the UK with Scotland, which may soon be allowed a referendum on independence. I was trying to trace one Vitezslav Gardavsky, Professor of Philosophy at the Brno Military Academy until he 'retired'(?) in 1968. He wrote a powerful defence of Marxist atheism ('God is Not Yet Dead') - even though I am Christian I am reading it and finding it has a lot to say. He wrote nothing afterwards as far as I know, and I would like to know what really happened to him after he left (or I suspect was more likely dismissed from) his Brno post. All I know is that he died in 1978 - a great loss I think to philosophy as 'God Is Not Yet Dead' showed promise of greater things to come. His comments on the Old Testament are especially interesting, as is the obvious influence of J-P Sartre. Were he alive now I think he would be very dismissive indeed of best-selling atheist here in the UK Richard Dawkins! Has anyone else on this message-board come across Gardavsky or knows what happened to him? Gardavsky's book is a little uneven which makes me suspect he must have seen that Dubcek could not last, ie he felt himself to be writing against a deadline.

Reply Sep 28th, 2009
United States

Lou Reed founded the Velvets prior to 1969, way before the term "Velvet Revolution". However,the inspiration for the naming of the "Velvet Revolution" as such was indeed the Velvet Underground which was a very popular band among Czechoslovak students in the late 1960's. I read somewhere that Valclav Haven had something to do with coining the name Velvet Revolution because of the popularity of the band. BUT, thank you, I never knew why Lou Reed named his band the Velvet Underground. Marcia

Reply Apr 26th, 2009
United States

The Velvet Underground was not named after the Velvet Revolution. The band was named after a a paperback book entitled "The Velvet Underground" which is a book about S&M and which Lou Reed found in the street.

Reply Mar 23rd, 2009
Nathan Jirka
United States

AS someone originally from the Czech Republic and who's father was a student during the Prague spring and eventual invasion I find it disturbing when someone says "it wasnt that bad" It is a dishonoring of those who died, those who were arrested and those like my father who were beaten fore dissent and then risked their lives to escape the country that they loved, but was broken by the senseless soviet machine.

Reply Nov 6th, 2008
United States

I find the comments by Ernie Crespin and "tell the truth" to be vile and disturbing. It is a shameful embarassment to the hard fought freedoms of our country.

Reply Sep 18th, 2008
Get your real stories

Get your real story from people that were there not what you read from book or some old newspaper. it was hell i lived there.

Reply Aug 26th, 2008
United States

Tell the truth, are you for real?? I was 10 in 1968, my Grandparents & Father were born in (the former) Czechoslovakia (the Slovak side now)and believe me, the 'soviets' did not take care of that country. They kept it from flourishing. That winter of 1969, my Gram, Mom and I went to a department store to get our relatives in Czechoslovakia some good winter coats because they couldn't get any. We bought them good wool coats, and spent $40.00 and some change on postage alone which was a lot of money in those days. They never got the coats. You don't care for a nation by rolling tanks into their country in the middle of the night when are unsuspecting and asleep and therefore, defenseless. My Gramp died before ever being able to go back to visit his Motherland because of the 'soviets'.

Reply Aug 12th, 2008
United Kingdom

this is the information i really needed. thanks a lot!

Reply Apr 29th, 2008

soviets have destroyed every liberal and democratic things in our country as in Prague in 1 9 6 8. they killed a lot of people since 1937 to 1989 on 9 April. and international society HAS NEVER SAID ANYTHING.

Reply Apr 16th, 2008
F. Fristensky
United States

Yes, there were many people killed and many injured...two were killed not too far away from me in front of the radio station in Praha....and the majority of Czechoslovak people didn't welcome this "friendly" help !

Reply Mar 9th, 2008
P Chalmers

I visited Czechoslovakia in 1970. Russian troops were everywhere. There were no people on the streets in Prague, it was a gray empty city. There was nothing to buy in the grocery stores. Old Town square was deserted. People were frightened, suspicious and defeated. Don't try and tell anyone who lived during that time that it was well cared for. If the people can't make their own choices of where to live, what to do, how to vote, what to read and write there is no freedom

Reply Jan 7th, 2008
United States

My recolection of events of 1968 is this: There was a cold war well in place. The Soviets were well awared of the west's, and specially the U.S hostile intentions towardrs the Socialist camp. The Vietnam war was in full gear, massacres were being carried out by U.S forces and their allies in order to protect the undemocratic and corrupt government in S. Vietnam. So,under those tense and hostile conditions, the Warsaw pact countries headed by the U.S.S.R decided to intervene on behalf of another Socialist country, who was in danger of drifting away towards the "imperialist" camp.As of today, no one knows how many people got killed during the ivasion. The only thing that I know is that the vast majority of people wellcomed the invasion.

Reply Aug 11th, 2007
tell the actual truth
Czech Republic

hahaha, WOW, "truth teller" - i guess the only textbooks you've read on the subject were printed by the soviet union in the 70s, right? hello propaganda! on august 20-21st, between 5000 and 7000 soviet tanks and between 200000 and 600000 warsaw pact troups invaded the streets of prague - do you think they were there to spread the love? no, they were there to kill and arrest anyone who got in the way of restoring the imposed soviet rule. during the attack of the warsaw pact armies, 72 czechs and slovaks were killed and hundreds were wounded. you think they were shooting flowers from those guns?

Reply Jul 2nd, 2007
tell the truth
United States

these are all lies not a single czech person was killed only the crazy guy who set himself on fire.This is propaganda the soviets never killed a single czech person.The soviets took care of this country and helped the citizens.These false stories about soviets killing people were generated by americans seeking to disrupt communism and cause political instability.This revolt was american back as all other revolts and revolutions in former communist countries.

Reply Jun 27th, 2007