50 years later: Does anyone remember the Czechoslovak crackdown in 1968?

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The light mist on the Danube river and the morning radiance on the honey-hued buildings of the Comenius University greet each summer day with the optimism of a fresh beginning.

Yet this is August and the memories of the past still dart among shadows and specters in this storied and proud Central European capital as the date August 20-21 arrives and passes.

But does anyone remember?

'Bare-chested Man in Front of the Occupiers Tank': This photo by Ladislav (Laco) Bielik on Aug. 21, 1968 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, telegraphed to an uncaring world the brutality of the Soviet invasion.
‘Bare-chested Man in Front of the Occupiers Tank’: This photo by Ladislav (Laco) Bielik on Aug. 21, 1968 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, telegraphed to an uncaring world the brutality of the Soviet invasion.

August 1968, now a half century ago, became a political talisman not only for a generation, but another nail in the coffin of Soviet communism. There was rebellious East Berlin in 1953, heroic Hungary in 1956, and now the nonconformist Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

On the night of Aug. 20-21, fifty years ago, the Soviets and their “fraternal socialist states” (Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland) invaded Czechoslovakia to reimpose a tougher form of communism. The Russian-led invasion with more than 250,000 troops and 5,000 tanks marked one of the darkest hours in the country’s history. At least 137 civilians were killed during the attack and its aftermath.

In the early chaotic hours of the incursion, Radio Prague sounded the alarm and kept the flicker of freedom alive until it was seized by the Soviets after a bitter street battle.

Indeed the reformist Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek, was but a mild elixir for a once prosperous land which had known democracy before WWII and the Nazi annexation. Dubcek promised “Socialism with a human face,” and lifted press censorship, a clear deviation from Moscow’s doctrinaire party line.

But Leonid Brezhnev and the Kremlin would have none of it. Non-conformism would be dealt with the old-fashioned way.

The world would protest, the UN Security Council would meet, and the Russians would then predictably get away with it. Czechoslovakia, one of the founding members of the UN in 1945, would be forsaken.

The United States, immersed in perhaps the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War, was in no position to press the issue politically. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a very lame duck that presidential election year too.

Moscow’s pyrrhic victory in Prague was counterbalanced by a renewed awareness of the ferocious stupidity and brutality of the Soviet system as much as the reality that the seeds of
deeper dissent and resistance would be planted that Summer day.

Clearly the fulcrum of political power rested in Prague the capital; but Bratislava, the country’s second city, a stone’s throw from prosperous and free Vienna, must have felt doubly cursed and isolated amid crackdowns by the ruling communist party.

Darkness descended on Czechoslovakia for nearly another two painful decades.

But the freedom tsunami of 1989 liberated Czechoslovakia in the peaceful Velvet Revolution. And yes, the country would split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Yet, who could have possibly imagined that both states would later be asked to join the European Union (EU) and NATO? Both institutions provide a political insurance policy for regions who are part of the common European cultural tapestry.

Today arrive at the Bratislava train station and see new streetcar trams, financed by the European Union, with adverts for seaside trips to Thailand. Billboards extol South Korean phones. Traffic clogs the streets with new BMW’s and KIA’s, Volkswagen SUV’s built locally, and modern Skodas. Gone are the smoke belching Russian Ladas.

During the socialist system, people would be lucky to visit Bulgaria or the Romanian coast.

Travel to nearby Vienna, Austria, just over an hour by train, is a simple passport free journey. The tedious restrictions of the Iron Curtain days are unknown to the younger generations.

One recalls the famed pictured of a bare chested man angrily facing a Soviet tank at Comenius University. Indeed Safarikovo Square, the heart of much resistance to the Soviet attack, is part of bustling Bratislava with a glittering Eurovea shopping center just down the avenue.

What is the official view of 1968 today? Pretty low key in Bratislava surprisingly. Both democratic governments seem to have nervous silence in dealing with the August anniversary. The Czech president, a populist who is sympathetic to Putin, tiptoes round the event while conservative political parties call for remembrance.

In Slovakia the country’s Memory Institute has organized events but stress there will be no politicians attending. According to the Slovak Spectator newspaper, “This shows that the historical awareness of our society is distorted,” adds historian Dusan Kovac.

An independent Czechoslovak Republic emerged in 1918 from the rubble of Austria-Hungary and the First World War. In 1938 the country was seized by Hitler following the infamous Munich pact. In 1948, the communists formally seized power. And in 1968 the Soviet invasion.

Now in 2018, does anybody remember?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]