ON 20 AUGUST 1968, half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers swarmed into Czechoslovakia. Within 24 hours, the whole country was occupied, and pictures of tanks rolling through the streets of Prague circulated around the world. My Dad – only ten-years old at the time – still remembers worrying that a new world war was imminent, something fuelled by the international outrage and condemnation that followed. Soviet assurances that the invasion was merely ‘fraternal assistance’ in the defence of the Eastern Bloc fell flat, and even communist China denounced the invasion as ‘social imperialism’.
It started in the early 1960s, when Czechoslovakia began experiencing an economic downturn. In an effort to revitalise the economy, president Antonin Novotný began a process of liberalisation and decentralisation. Though far from a rejection of the Soviet system, it did lead to calls for greater freedom of speech and press.
In the spring of 1968, under Novotný’s successor Alexander Dubček, restrictions on Czechoslovak public life were lifted, including limits to movement and media and press censorship – he even teased the possibility of a multiparty system. This so-called ‘socialism with a human face’ allowed national art and cinema to flourish, but was met with considerable opposition from Stalinist voices within the Communist Party – and more importantly from the Soviet Union, which feared potential Czechoslovak withdrawal from the Eastern Bloc.
At the behest of Czechoslovak hardliners, the Warsaw Pact launched its invasion. Initially, Dubček was allowed to stay in place, and the Soviets, having reasserted their power, even allowed moderate reforms to take place. But within a year, freedoms were once again restricted, and the president forced to retire.
As Czechs and Slovaks mark the fifty years since the invasion, it is the peaceful resistance in the face of overwhelming force that’s really worth celebrating. Czechoslovaks responded to the invaders with peaceful demonstrations; a student – Jan Palach – self-immolated on Wenceslas Square, and citizens removed road signs to send tank divisions wandering directionless throughout the countryside. This was a struggle against illiberalism and authoritarianism, and against the orthodoxy that might makes right.
During the commemoration this week, one voice has been conspicuous by its absence. Miloš Zeman, the pro-Russia president of the Czech Republic has refused to make a speech marking the events of 1968, even though he was expelled from the Communist Party at the time for voicing his disapproval of the invasion. Silence suits Zeman not just because of his sympathy towards Russia – a country, by the way, that still broadly supports the invasion – but also because celebrating peaceful resistance in support of liberalism would highlight his own authoritarianism.
Zeman’s silence can highlight the lessons of the Prague Spring: that freedom is worth fighting for, that citizens should speak uncomfortable truths to power, and that Russia is rarely a trustworthy ally. As Europeans increasingly look to authoritarians and populists for answers to their problems, it’s worth looking back at 1968 as a model for resistance, and for the value of tolerance and openness.
Fortunately, Czechs will be given another opportunity to remember 1968: in a remarkable act of defiance, the Czech national broadcaster chose instead to broadcast the address of Andrej Kiska, the pro-European president of Slovakia.