“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)
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.
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/
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