The Czech protests that still hurt 50 years on
Can heroic defeats teach us more than victories? It is 50 years since the Soviet Union crushed Czechoslovakia’s dreams of liberation. What lessons can we learn from this tragic tale?
On the morning of August 21, 1968, in Prague, Pavel Kamenicky was enjoying a favourite student pastime. He was asleep.
Then a deafening noise from his window woke him abruptly. “At first I thought it was the university bus trying to find the right gear. But I realised it was way too loud. I jumped up thinking, ‘they’ve come’.”
Russian tanks were rolling through the ancient city. In total, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent 650,000 troops to keep the satellite state under Moscow’s control.
In January 1968, Alexander Dubček had taken over as leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. His government announced a plan for what it called “socialism with a human face”. It removed state controls over industry and allowed freedom of speech.
The free press thrived. Artists and writers were free to speak their minds. Dubček proclaimed that he wanted “a free, modern and profoundly humane society.”
As the events of May 1968 in France signalled huge social changes in the West, something equally important was happening in the East. Until the invasion.
A spirited, non-violent resistance was mounted throughout the country. Citizens painted over street signs and defied curfews. When student Jan Palach burned himself to death in protest, thousands attended the funeral.
The Soviet military predicted it would take four days to bring the country under control. But the resistance held out for eight months. Hundreds died in the sporadic violence. Hundreds of thousands fled.
The invasion laid bare the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime. The photographs of unarmed citizens pleading “Ivan, go home” as they were confronted by heavily armed soldiers, made it clear that communism was an ideology that needed to be enforced by violent intimidation.
Unlike England or America, Czech history is a tale of heroism amid defeat. The start of the Thirty Years’ War. The Nazi occupation and the devastating reprisals following the killing of Reinhard Heydrich. The two decades of frozen silence that followed the Prague Spring.
Do defeats teach us more than victories?
Never say die
Defeats show us how vulnerable we are, say some. The Czechs and their Central European neighbours understand that everything you cherish can be cruelly snatched away. But defeat also tells us about human bravery. The resistance had no military assistance. They knew they were doomed to fail. But they inspired the world.
Victories change history, reply others. Despite the bravery of the resistance movement, the Prague Spring ended up achieving very little. And in any case, in 1989 the Czechs finally did overthrow communism, ushering in a new chapter for the country. Those moments are far more important.
- Are defeats more historically significant than victories?
- Was communism always doomed?
- Draw a timeline of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
- Research an important defeat in your country’s history. Write 500 words on its significance and what we can learn from it.
Some People Say...
“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”Ernest Hemingway
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Yesterday marks exactly 50 years since Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring — a short period of liberalisation in the first half of 1968. After it was crushed, Czechoslovakia entered a period of so-called “normalisation” and the movement’s main figures were barred from public life. Censorship returned and the state took back control of large parts of the economy.
- What do we not know?
- How much effect it really had. Although the movement was crushed, there is little doubt that the Velvet Revolution of 1989 — when the communists were finally overthrown — drew a lot from the experience of the Prague Spring. It has also been speculated that the Prague Spring encouraged the anti-communist movement in Poland.
- Leonid Brezhnev
- Brezhnev was leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until 1982. His time as leader was marked by increasing influence abroad but also economic stagnation at home.
- Alexander Dubček
- Dubček was succeeded by Gustav Husák. He was then given a post in the Forestry Service in Slovakia.
- Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
- Artists and writers
- One of these was Václav Havel, who became the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia.
- May 1968 in France
- In May 1968, France was gripped by public demonstrations and strikes that originated at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
- Start of the Thirty Years’ War
- A primarily religious conflict in Europe that killed an estimated eight million people. The 1618 Defenestration of Prague was a key moment in the build-up. See Expert Links.
- Killing of Reinhard Heydrich
- In 1942, two Czech partisans assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi general and the architect of the Holocaust, in Prague. As retaliation, the Germans murdered the entire population of two villages, Lidice and Ležáky.