On this day: Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring was ended by a Soviet invasion

The events of 1968 have strong parallels to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, though the outcomes so far are quite different.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 20.08.2022 08:54:00 (updated on 20.08.2022) Reading time: 6 minutes

The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia took place 54 years ago on the night of Aug 20–21 when tanks crossed the border without warning. This brought an end to the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubček, the communist leader who wanted to create socialism with a human face. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia has several parallels to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.

Dubček ended censorship in early 1968, which started open public debates about policy. In April, the government announced a plan for more reforms but within the existing socialist framework.

Soviet leaders were concerned that these ideas could spread throughout the Eastern bloc, the Soviet-dominated part of Europe. They wanted to stop the reforms once and for all. And they did so by invading with tanks to “protect” Czechoslovakia.

A British travelogue film shot in 1968 shows Prague in the midst of Prague Spring. It wasn’t released until after the invasion, so it carries the title “Prague – the Sad City” and has rather downbeat narration running counter to the happy scenes. You can read about the film here.

Instead of free speech and a free press, Czechoslovakia faced two decades of “normalization,” the code word for strict control of the government from Moscow and large crackdowns on people’s basic rights.

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While this year is not a significant anniversary, the 1968 invasion has been brought back to prominence by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin reportedly expected the invasion of Ukraine to be over in a few hours. He used the same strategy as in 1968, invading from multiple points at once. He also tries to make it look like a multinational effort, with Belarus involved.

Tank crews took their parade uniforms with them to Ukraine, expecting to be marching in the streets in Kyiv in a victory parade the same day, welcomed as liberators from western oppressors.

Putin’s excuse for invading Ukraine was to prevent it from becoming closely aligned with Europe instead of Russia, or “de-Nazifaction” as he called it. This played on the idea of the Soviet Union’s fight in World War II, in which the country lost over 2 million people. The link between the current Ukrainian government and Nazis is something that makes sense only through the thick veil of Russian propaganda.

Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, as president in May 2019. Zelensky sought to move the country closer to the west so it could bring in more foreign investment, among other economic reforms. This would reduce reliance on Russia.

Tanks stopped by crowd at the start of the invasion. Photo: Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Tanks stopped by crowd at the start of the invasion. Photo: Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia, which were already strained by the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region, deteriorated further. Russia demanded that Ukraine agree to never join NATO and meet other requirements to avoid “severe consequences.” When these demands were not met, Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

Something that makes images of the 1968 invasion and the current one of Ukraine strikingly similar is that the invading vehicles were all marked with white paint so they could be easily distinguished from the victim's vehicles. In both cases, the victim's tanks and trucks were the same exact models.

In another move that sounds familiar, Russia claims it was responding to requests for help, as the puppet governments in the self-proclaimed states of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic asked for protection to stop the alleged persecution of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian “neo-Nazis.”

Destroyed tank in Ukraine with painted Z markings.  Photo: Wikimedia commons, Govt. of Ukraine.
Destroyed tank in Ukraine with painted Z markings. Photo: Wikimedia commons, Govt. of Ukraine.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s official reason for the 1968 invasion was to protect Czechoslovakia from corrupt Western influences attempting to interfere with socialism by “creating a counterrevolution.” The Soviets claimed that Czechoslovak politicians had asked for their help and protection, a claim that remains controversial.

The Soviets even used pictures from a Hollywood war film production shot near Prague called “The Bridge at Remagen” to claim that western troops were already secretly occupying the country with the intent of taking it over. The tanks near Prague were movie props.

You can read about the saga of the stars of “The Bridge at Remagen” and about other celebrities including Shirley Temple and pop band the Moody Blues who were trapped in Prague in 1968 in our previous coverage.

The current Czech government is keenly aware of the similarities between 1968 and 2022. It has been one of the strongest supporters of tough sanctions against Russia and for extensive military and non-military aid to Ukraine.

Czechoslovakia in 1968 ignored warnings as relations with Moscow turned sour and failed to make any preparations to stop an invasion. But It is unlikely that resistance would have had any effect. Over 2,000 tanks, 250,00 troops, and 800 planes came from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary.

Several countries refused the call to send troops. Romania, Albania, and East Germany all ignored Brezhnev’s request. East Germany backed out at the last minute because its leaders felt that the presence of German soldiers returning in an occupying army after World War II might actually cause the Czechs and Slovaks to rally and fight, as they had in the Prague Uprising of 1945.

Romanian Prime Secretary Nicolae Ceauşescu gives a speech critical of the invasion. Photo: Romanian National Archives
Romanian Prime Secretary Nicolae Ceauşescu gives a speech critical of the invasion. Photo: Romanian National Archives

Romanian Prime Secretary Nicolae Ceauşescu gave a speech against the invasion. Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, as the Soviet-led military group was called, and criticized the Soviet Union for imperialism.

Demonstrations took place in Helsinki, Finland, among other places. Finland, while not technically part of the Eastern bloc, was heavily influenced by neighboring Russia. Another critic of the invasion was China's Mao Zedong, who saw that the Soviet Union could use the same logic to justify an invasion of China.

Protest in Helsinki in 1968. Photo: Szilas, public domain
Protest in Helsinki in 1968. Photo: Szilas, public domain

At a meeting of the UN Security Council, Soviet Ambassador Jacob Malik reiterated that the invasion was “fraternal assistance” to stop the spread of “antisocial forces.” Since the Soviet Union had veto powers, no resolution was passed.

The harsh suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956 was still on people’s minds, and there was no reason to think that standing up to the Soviet Union would be any different this time. Czechoslovakia at the time could not have held out long against the Soviet Union without outside help, and there was no indication that any other countries were interested in going to war with the Soviet Union, which had a huge nuclear arsenal as well as one of the world’s largest conventional forces.

Tanks on Prague's Old Town Square. Photo: Wikimedia commons, CC by SA 3.0.
Tanks on Prague's Old Town Square. Photo: Wikimedia commons, CC by SA 3.0.

The invasion was not without casualties, and there was some initial resistance from civilians. On the Czech side, 137 people died and 500 were seriously injured. The invading forces lost 112 people, mostly through accidents though several soldiers also committed suicide.

The “normalization” didn’t start right away after the invasion. A series of belated protests took place at the end of March 1969 when the Czechoslovak team beat the Soviet Union in the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships in Stockholm.

Thousands of people took to the street to celebrate, but the celebrations turned into protests against the Soviet occupation. An Aeroflot agency was ransacked on Wenceslas Square, though some people say the mob was encouraged to do this by agent provocateurs trying to make an excuse so the military could respond.

The protests were put down by the police and military, both now under communist party control. The riots were used as an excuse to get rid of Dubček and replace him with Gustáv Husák, who introduced normalization.

Dubček was sent to Turkey as an ambassador briefly, perhaps with the hope that he would defect and stay away. He did not. On his return he was expelled from the communist party in 1970 and then worked in forestry in Slovakia. He made a comeback after the Velvet Revolution but died in 1992.

The announced intent of normalization was to roll back the clock to the time before Prague Spring, when things were allegedly normal – the dark era of Klement Gottwald and Antonín Novotný, when the country was under Soviet domination.

All reformers were removed from office, and laws passed under the reform movement were repealed. Travel was restricted, speech was monitored, and culture and art were limited to non-controversial themes. Opponents to the state found not only their own opportunities but those for their families limited.

The situation, also called Husakism, lasted until the end 1987 when Husak left office as first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. He remained president of Czechoslovakia, though, until December 1989. At the same time, the glasnost reforms were taking root in the Soviet Union, and normalization was a relic of an ending era.

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