August 20, 1968: The Day tha Warsaw Pact Crushed the Prague Spring

By Carlos Mareco

1968 was the year that inspired rebellions in different parts of the world, from France to the US and Vietnam, the enthusiasm that later on came to Latin America with the ‘Cordobazo’ in Argentina and ‘Tlatelolco’ in Mexico. 

Following the death of Stalin, the so called ‘de-stalinization’ processes takes place in the Soviet Union and the bureaucratic  states of Eastern Europe, thus provoking large uprisings seeking better living conditions, and democratic and political freedoms. The East German Uprising of 1953, the Poznán Protests and the Polish October of 1956, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, all of them processes that were defeated then and there. 

The Czecoslovakian Crisis and the Rise of Dubček 

In 1967, the Czechoslovakian economic crisis was deepening in a country which, although industrialized, was suffering from an export-oriented production and not one oriented to meeting local necessities. In this context, two different wings existed within the Czechoslovakian Communist Party (KSČ). A conservative side sought to keep the same authoritarian regime and did not allow any criticism of it -commanded by Antonin Novotny, First Secretary of KSČ. Novotny would slowly stand behind the reforms pushed by Kruschev, until the latter was replaced in 1964 by the conservative Leónidas Brezchnev who, since the Soviet Union, was trying to stop said reforms. 

The other side, saw the discontent of the masses with the regime and wanted to step to the front of the demands that were already starting to come up since before 68. The reformists sought to decompress the social situation, while still maintaining the plan of a controlled economy all the way from those states with the greatest democratic, political and press liberties. This side had Alexander Dubček as a known referent who, in January 1968, would replace Novotny as the head of KSČ. The replacement took place with the blessing of Breschnev, who thought to control the reforms and Dubček himself.

A third side, those in favor of restoration and who wished for a mixed economy to be implemented, were a minority and had no bearing on the mass movement. 

The Prague Spring Begins

First of all, the social discontent came from the intellectuals, of whom Milan Kundera stood up. With the change in leadership within KSČ, on March 5th 1968, censorship was lifted. Scholars felt brave and published a magazine free of censorship with over 300.000 numbers distributed. At the same time, they begin to give statements to the press against the former regime of Novotny. 

In April, the Central Committee of the CP passed a ‘Plan of Action’, a program that, along with small economic liberation, put forward a deep political change that included an open policy for the creation of political parties (if they accepted the existing economic layout), national faulty among Czechs and Slovaks, pardons for all political prisoners. On the social front, it included the right to go on strike, independent unions and religious freedom. On the political side, it kept its connections to the Soviet Union and adhesion to the Warsaw Pact, adding a recognition of Israel as a State. 

The Workers Movement came into action with assemblies per company, changes in the unions’ leaderships, as well as revoking some leaderships within companies. The body that regulated the unions would inform that within 250 companies, new leaders were elected with this assemblies. A lot of euphoria is experienced, everything was being questioned and all kind of organizations were created, while the organisms within the CP suffered changes as well. The reforms pushed by Dubček were far behind those imposed by the working class, student and popular movement. In fact, in July 1968, the ‘The Two Thousand Words’ is created, encouraging the people to put the reforms into place by themselves, as the regime would not move ahead. The mobilizations put forward slogans that Trotsky had already raised for the processes of the political revolution. 

The Invasion of the Warsaw Pact: Winter is Here

Since February, upon his visits to Czechoslovakia, Brezchnev would warn Dubček that he needed to restrain himself and stop the reforms, inciting him to a change in his speech. In March, they meet in Germany those who were part of the Warsaw Pact to warn Czechoslovakia. In May, an invasion plan is crafted and, in June, maneuvers and military training were implemented on Czech territory, this commencing the occupation by soviet troops. Between July and August, tensions rise, the Warsaw Pact addresses a letter to the KSČ and Dubček rejects it, denying a visit to Moscow as well. The Czechoslovakian people close ranks and prepare for an invasion. In August, a CP Congress was in the ways, and the Kremlin asks to call it off and for the resignation of both Dubček, first Secretary of the CP, and Svoboda, Czechoslovakian governor that was in favor of the reforms. They do not comply and Dubček is detained. The XIV Congress takes place, a new CC is elected, constituted by Dubček and the other detainees, new statutes are put into place, they put forward a declaration against the military invasion and in favor of the ‘Plan of Action’. 

Between August 20th and 21st, the invasion began with 200.000 troops and 2000 tanks. The Czechoslovakian government did not give guns to the people and the army did not try to stop the invasion, and Dubček asked the people not to resist. In spite of this, the working class, students, scholars and popular sectors opposed with resistance on the streets to the invasion, using barricades, factory committees and the creativity to stop the tanks from the Warsaw Pact. They changed the traffic signs, modified the names of the street, naming everything either “Dubček” or “Svoboda”, leaving only those that led to Moscow. 

This all resulted in 72 deaths, 266 gravely injured and 436 with minor injuries. 70.000 Czechs left the country and, towards the end, around 300.000 people left. When they were able to control the country, the conservative Husak was put in the government, cleansing the CP, getting read of a third of the affiliates and in consequence, in spite of the weariness and the disapproval towards the authoritarian regime, things were kept in place through arms and the betrayal of their own political leadership. 

The Communist Parties around the world supported the invasion, including Fidel Castro and the CP in France, that had already betrayed the ‘May 68’ protest (Le French May) trusting Charles de Gualle. Mao’s China denounced the action for being ‘social-imperialist’ and compared it to Fascism, fearing a military invasion could come to Chinese territory. On those days, there were mobilizations on the Red Square in Moscow and in Finland, against the military invasion in Czechoslovakia.