Don’t Forget Czechoslovakia

A Czech student stands on top of a Soviet tank waving a Czech flag (1968)

“At 3am 21 August 1968, I woke up to a completely different world from that one I went to sleep in, just a few hours earlier. The only way how you can help us is this: not to forget Czechoslovakia, don’t forget Czechoslovakia. Please excuse my bad grammar, with the Russian tanks under my window I just can’t concentrate well enough, thank you.” (Appeal by Czech Student) These were the closing words of a radio broadcast in English from a Czech student to other students of the world. The broadcast was recorded on the 22nd of August 1968, a day after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw troops in response to the ‘Prague Spring’—the movement away from the prescribed ideas of Socialism. How did Warsaw troops come to invade a country that was part of their Pact?

Listen to the full Appeal by Czech Student here

“Socialism with a Human Face”

This was the slogan used by Alexander Dubcek to promote political reform in Czechoslovakia following his rise to power in early 1968. His plans were entitled the Action Program, and in them he called for a new Czechoslovak constitution granting greater personal freedoms including freedoms of assembly and speech. “The working people . . . can no longer be prescribed, by any arbitrary interpretation from a position of power, what information they may or may not be given, which of their opinions can or cannot be expressed publicly, where public opinion may play a role and where not.” (Action Program) What followed was a widespread movement in the country pushing for the economic, social, and political reforms suggested by Dubcek. This movement was mostly led by intellectuals and students though worker and farmers were also involved. “On 10 August the Communist Party [of Czechoslovakia] itself drafted new party statutes to require secret balloting, set term limits, and permit intra-party factions.” (Freeze, p.436)

Party poster of Alexander Dubcek. Text reads “I am with you, be with us!” (1968)

Off the Road of Socialism

These movements of political reform proved too much for other Soviet leadership to handle. July 18, 1968 the Warsaw letter was released as a warning to Czech reformers saying the “offensive of reactionary forces . . . threatens to push your country off the road of socialism and thus jeopardize the interests of the entire socialist system.” (The Warsaw Letter) The letter argued that the reformers were backed by anti-socialist forces who sought to bring anarchy to the socialist system as a whole. The movement was called a threat to the foundations of socialism and warned that only as a socialist country could Czechoslovakia retain its sovereignty—not threatening at all. Resistance to the reformer also came from within Czechoslovakia. An August 1968 letter from five Czech party officials to Brezhnev called for the Soviet Union’s aid in restoring socialism in Czechoslovakia. The hardliners wrote that the failures of their party leadership had weakened the country to right-wing forces and, “request for you to lend support and assistance with all the means at your disposal.” (Hardliners “Request”) It is unclear how much this letter influenced the Soviet’s decisions for military intervention in Czechoslovakia, however, it did assist with justification after the fact; and until 1992, the letter was sealed in the Moscow Communist Party archives in a folder labeled “Never to be Opened.” (Hardliners “Request”)

Military Intervention and the Brezhnev Doctrine

All this culminated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops August 21, 1968. The move was met with much backlash from communists around the world at in the Soviet Union itself. In September the Brezhnev Doctrine was published in Pravda as an attempt to justify the invasion. In it he argued that while other socialist countries had the right to determine their own paths, those decisions could “damage neither socialism in their own country, nor the fundamental interests of the other socialist countries.” (Brezhnev Doctrine) Later in the doctrine, Brezhnev frames the decision to intercede with armed forces as a last resort on the part of the Soviet government. Despite the backlash to the invasion, the Czech reformers movement had been broken, but the Czech students radio message to other students around the world “don’t forget Czechoslovakia” was a reminder that for a short time, democracy and socialism were able to coexist.             

Sources

Appeal by Czech Students to the World (August 22, 1968). (2017, November 28). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-audio/appeal-by-czech-students-to-the-world-august-22-1968/

Brezhnev Doctrine. (2015, September 1). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/brezhnev-doctrine/

Czechoslovak Communist Party. (1968, April). Action Program. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/action-program/

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hardliners “Request” Soviet Intervention. (2015, September 1). Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/hardliners-request-soviet-intervention/

Siegelbaum, L. (2015, September 1). Crisis in Czechoslovakia. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/

TASS. (1968, July 18). The Warsaw Letter. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1968-2/crisis-in-czechoslovakia/crisis-in-czechoslovakia-texts/the-warsaw-letter/

All images from 17 Moments

21 thoughts on “Don’t Forget Czechoslovakia

  1. Kayt, this was a good post about the Soviet invasion into Czechoslovakia. Other than the brief section in Freeze’s book, I don’t know much about the topic and your post helped fill in some gaps, so thank you! I listened to the student’s full appeal and like the description says, their statement is “halting but moving.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hearing the students broadcast was definitely a big part of me deciding to write this post. I had already been really interesting in writing about this topic, but once I listened to the message I knew I wanted to use it to inform my post. I am glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. Kayt, I really enjoyed your post. It is very interesting how reformers in Czechoslovakia, who wanted to grant more freedoms to the working class, something that seemed like a broader objective of the ‘socialist revolution’, were crushed by the Soviet state. It seems like according to the Soviet government, workers could only be free if they feared the state and knew their place. They could do and say as they pleased as long as the government approved of it. Great post!

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    1. I agree it is not what you would initially expect. Like you say, what the reformers were attempting seemed to be in the interest of the socialist revolution, but it was definitely taken as a threat to Soviet power over the Warsaw pact countries. It was very much a “your free to make your own decisions so long as they are the decisions we want you to make” kind of situation.

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  3. The Soviet’s invading Czechoslovakia was probably one of the biggest heat checks in a post WW2 world. I always found it interesting how they invaded them and were basically like just kidding, lets get on good terms with the US. This event is a prime example of the differences between the Warsaw Pact and how the United Nations would handle international affairs. Great post.

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    1. It definitely had unintended or unexpected consequences for the Soviets. When they received so much backlash for their invasion they tried to frame the decision as for the common good of socialism to win people over. It did not really seem to work though.

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  4. Kayt, I really enjoyed the radio broadcast you incorporated into your post. I also posted about Prague Spring and the invasion. The Soviets were heavily criticized for their actions by the West and other communists which to me, when I was reading about that, was kind of shocked that they would be criticized by fellow communists. It is very understandable that they received heavy criticism from the West however, receiving it from other communists shows that the Soviet Union may have been taking it too far in this situation.

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    1. I was surprised as well at how much criticism they received from other communists, especially in the Soviet Union itself. I think it really show the fracturing of ideology within the socialist bloc and how important personal rights and freedoms were becoming to people.

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  5. Hey Kayt, this was a great read! I honestly never knew much about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and I read a little bit about it during my research on the invasion of Afghanistan for my own post. You did a great job of describing just how flawed the Soviet logic was in trying to justify their own invasion. Giving a country sovereignty, but then revoking it when it negatively affects the country that granted the sovereignty was not a great excuse for intervention.

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    1. I think you comment really sums up the major criticisms of the invasion. The Soviet’s unwillingness to actually give sovereignty to their satellite states if they were not in line with the Soviet governments ideology. It really shows an aspect of the Soviet Union’s mentality towards foreign affair at this time.

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  6. You’ve got some good comments on this terrific post, so I’ll just add that the pressure for reform in Prague makes more sense in the context of global generational upheaval in 1968. And that Moscow rightly worried that Soviet intellectuals and youth would take inspiration from a reform movement in Eastern Europe that succeeded in gaining too many civil liberties.

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  7. I think this was a lovely summary of what happened during Prague Spring. I’d also like to thank you for writing a piece on it. My uncle and his family had actually felt the full force of this event and the Soviet Invasion when it occurred. Luckily enough for them, they managed to escape to a West German refugee camp before heading over here to America. What happened was an event that may, sometimes, be glossed over as a failed, forgotten uprising, but you, and the protesters, are right in saying “don’t forget Czechoslovakia”, because that event impacted people. It changed people. And eventually, would lead to another, now successful, uprising.

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    1. Alyssa, thanks for your comment. I actually first picked this as a topic for personal/family reasons as my grandfather is from Czechoslovakia. He immigrated to the US right after the end of WWII. Prior to writing this post, I had thought my great grandparents were unable to leave for many years after him and might have been effected by this. After getting clarification from him, however, I learned they actually were able to leave the Czechoslovakia prior to the communist party taking power. While none of them were directly impacted by the invasion, it was still a topic that I really wanted to write about.

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  8. Andrew Grant (8:29 pm EST) – This is a really interesting post, I like how the post started with a quote in the beginning. The Prague Spring, has many similarities to the Hungarian revolt that I discussed in my own blog post last week. The aims of “reformist socialism”, were prevalent amongst both revolts. People were discontent with the hardline communist governments that had existed beforehand and brought new candidates, who were more “liberal communists” into their government. Contrary to popular belief or understandings of the Hungarian revolution, they weren’t “anti-Communist”, they were desiring a more liberalist approach to communism, they weren’t attempting to destroy the system, just revise it. It seems hypocritical that the Soviet Union, the birthplace of the “worker’s revolution” would reject the Czechoslovak government of Alexander Dubcek, who fought for worker’s rights and advancement.

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    1. Thanks for you comment. I think the Czech reformists were definitely looking to what happened in Hungarian revolt throughout the Prague Spring. I found through my research, though did not talk about in my post, that Dubcek was specific about Czechoslovakia intending to stay in the Warsaw pact despite the reforms it was making as they did not want what happened in Hungary to happen to them.

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  9. Hey Kayt as stated previously by Natalie I also did not know much of the situation that went in Czechoslovakia. You were post was very informative and I really liked how you lead the post with the broadcast from the students. It really was an attention grabber for the rest of your post.

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  10. Hey Kayt, I really enjoyed your post and learned a lot from it! I was unaware of how the action was received in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union and it’s interesting that the population of both countries were upset and worried about all of it.

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    1. The actions and reactions of both countries is definitely an interesting interplay. I appreciate that you were able to gain some knowledge about the topic from my post .

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  11. Hey Kayt! This post actually made me feel really sad for the students who didn’t want those listening to forget Czechoslovakia. I also haven’t looked that much into this event, but it really seemed like multiple states under the Easter Bloc had young revolutionaries that were trying to break away from socialism, but just couldn’t get there during this era. Good post overall, it was super informative!

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