he USSR and its puppet states in Eastern Europe had always had a strained relationship. After their “liberation” from the Nazis, most of these states were forced into the Soviet sphere of influence through rigged elections which aligned the government of these nations with Moscow. For many of the people who lived in these nations, this infringed in their wish for freedom leading to unrest in many of these regions.
One nation which had always troubled the USSR was the Československá Socialistická Republika, ČSSR (Anglicised: Czechoslovak Socialist Republic). Being on the edge of the Soviet sphere of influence and with a border with the US-aligned Austria, the ČSSR always posed a threat to the stability of the Warsaw Pact. Reigning in this “unruly” nation would end in conflict.
The Brezhnev factor
On 14 October 1964, Леонид Ильич Брежнев (Anglicised: Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev) took over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This made him the de facto ruler of the Soviet Union, taking over from his predecessor Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.
The period under Brezhnev is referred to by many as a period of stagnation for the USSR in terms of economic, political, and social policy. Maintaining the status quo was Brezhnev’s only real objective. The goal of this was to keep the people who supported his rise in their current positions rather than promote innovation.
Even so, during his rule, he would introduce one key policy which would lead to what we now know as the Prague Spring (a.k.a. The Soviet Invasion of the ČSSR). The Brezhnev Doctrine.
The Brezhnev Doctrine stated that it was the Warsaw Pact’s responsibility to maintain socialism within the bloc and thus any disturbance to how socialism was conducted would be met with force.
Virtually it meant that the USSR now had a justification for invading its satellite states if they noticed disobedience within the leadership of the country or from the country’s population. Disobedience was exactly what was exhibited by the ČSSR.
The one to head the Czechoslovak push for independence from the USSR was Alexander Dubček. Becoming the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in January 1968, he would push for the liberalization of media, highlighted in the Eduard Goldstücker incident.
During a news broadcast, Eduard Goldstücker tested the limits of the newly appointed premier. In the broadcast, the intellectual proceeded to criticize the previous First Secretary on his “shadow policies” of which the general public was not aware of. Dubček didn’t sanction him contrary to the status quo at the time, which would’ve seen the intellectual persecuted or killed.
Shortly after this event, during his “Victorious February” speech, Dubček voiced his opinion on the current state of the communist party and its role within society. In his opinion, reform was required. He wanted to implement “Socialism with a human face” which would strengthen the connection of the party to the people mainly through the rolling back of censorship in the media. During the speech, he declared:
“[There is a need] to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations […] a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties […]”
These reforms were implemented during the Action Programme of April.
The most important policies of the program were the increase in freedom of speech, the reigning in of the Secret Police, and placating their power as well as a bigger focus on the consumer industry.
The support from the Warsaw Pact countries was mixt. Leaders who sought more independence and reform, such as the Hungarian premier János Kádár and the Romanian premier Nicolae Ceaușescu were very supportive of Dubček’s policies.
Even so, the hardliners such as Brezhnev and the East German premier Walter Ulbricht were much more cautious of this sudden move.
Brezhnev saw this liberalization as a danger to the integrity of the Eastern Bloc; thus, he decided that he must stamp out the reformer. After failing to convince Dubček to roll back his program, Brezhnev used the justification of the Brezhnev doctrine as well as a forged letter from the Czechoslovak government in which they requested military help from the USSR to prepare an attack. Several countries which aligned themselves with the USSR refused to participate in the attack, namely Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania.
The invasion forces were made up of troops from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary numbering to around 200,000 with 2,000 tanks supporting them. They entered the ČSSR on the night of 20 August 1968 with the intent to occupy the country and depose Dubček. Something that they would find to be exceedingly difficult.
Due to Dubček’s popularity, the masses rose up behind him even after he released a public statement telling the citizens of the ČSSR not to resist the invasion force. People chose to ignore this and made the invasion force’s job as hard as possible. Street signs were removed, except those which pointed to Moscow, towns were renamed to Dubček, and locals gave troops wrong directions when they were asked.
Even so, this did not hinder the troops that much, and by the afternoon of the next day, the ČSSR was fully occupied by the Warsaw Pact forces. The citizens of the ČSSR would oppose the infringement of their sovereignty, with many berating the invasion forces. It did not take long for the conflict to turn violent. Many students took up arms and molotov’d the incoming troops.
Some would take this opposition above and beyond, such as student Jan Palach who, in protest of the invasion, burnt himself alive in Wenceslas Square both in protest of the invasion but also in protest of the demoralization caused by the invasion.
After the invasion, the USSR planned to placate Dubček but couldn’t do it rapidly due to his popularity. He was allowed to serve in office for another year, after which he was replaced by Gustáv Husák. Dubček worked in the Forestry Service in Slovakia after his dismissal, using his previous power to gain many favors within the industry.
He would stay out of politics until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when the Communist government was deposed, after which he was elected Chairman of the Federal Assembly (the Czechoslovak Parliament) on 28 December 1989.
The wide world reacted quite negatively to this infringement of sovereignty, with many communist parties of countries outside of the Warsaw Pact, such as the French and Italian communist parties, condemning the attack. There was an uproar within the Warsaw Pact too, with Romania’s premier Nicolae Ceaușescu publicly condemning the Soviet attack in a speech on 21 August 1968, where he declared to the Romanian people that any infringement on Romanian sovereignty would be met with force.
The day after the invasion, the major NATO powers, namely Canada, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States all held a meeting at the United Nations Security Council where they all denounced the invasion claiming it to be an infringement of Czechoslovak sovereignty. Overall the event worsened the already soured relations between East and West, delaying the era of “détente” between the Communist and the Capitalist power for even longer.