Seven Days that Ended the Prague Spring

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Houye Lyu

“Prague Spring” was a liberalization attempt led by Alexander Dubček, the newly elected first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, to reform socialism in Czechoslovakia and create a more humane version of communism in April 1968. The program included economic and political reforms, the latter specifically focusing on the freedom of speech and press.[1] However, despite Dubček’s assurances to the Soviet Union multiple times that the party would continue to lead this reform and that there were no “counter-revolutionary” attempts in Czechoslovakia, the Soviets still saw the situation’s development in Czechoslovakia as a threat to their authority in Eastern Europe.[2] Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, finally decided to occupy Czechoslovakia with four other countries in the Warsaw Pact on August 18, 1968 to prevent further unfavorable development.[3] No military resistance took place, but the people of Czechoslovakia resisted the occupying army, mostly nonviolently from August 21, when the first batch of the army entered the border, to August 27, when the Moscow Agreement was made between high-level officials of Czechoslovakia and the USSR.[4]

Black and white photo of people in Prague in 1968.
People on the street, Prague, August 21, 1968.

These nonviolent resistances could first be seen on the streets and were not limited to cities but also expanded to villages. People went to the streets to hinder the movement of invading tanks by building barricades, condemning invading soldiers as Nazis.[6] They restricted invading armies’ access to water by saying that the “counter-revolutionaries” had poisoned the water source, and a Czech girl even managed to stick a swastika behind the bayonets of a tank crew. If these were only hints that could make invading soldiers realize that they were not welcomed by the people, some more direct cases are citizens trying to persuade the soldiers to go back home by talking to them directly.[7] It is clear that these soldiers lost their confidence, if it ever existed, in their action’s legitimacy on the second day of their invasion. Ladislav Mñačko, a Slovak journalist, observed that the invading soldiers were afraid to look at people’s faces, and they were ashamed and afraid. When he tried to force the soldiers to confront him by shouting at them in Russian, one ‘hippie’ stopped him, saying, “Leave them alone. Can’t you see the state the poor buggers are in? They don’t know a thing… fight the men who sent them here.”[8] Villages and rural areas also played their role in the resistance. Rural people removed the road signs except those pointing to Moscow or Budapest.[9] When Murray Sayle, an Australian journalist, drove back to his village in the first few days of occupation, he saw the solidarity among people around Dubcek’s reformative government as well. He passed five villages named “Dubček” and five railway stations named “Svoboda,” after the president of Czechoslovakia. He saw the Czech national flag outside each house and posters and slogans on the walls.[10]

These genuine resistance movements were autonomous but also a part of a nationwide effort to resist the interventionist forces and assert the nation’s self-determination. At this point, liberals, communists, and ordinary citizens all shared the same goal of resisting the USSR’s attempt to bring them back to the dark ages of oppression, with no freedom of speech or press. It was the significant role of the media and press in this resistance that united all these different people’s autonomous actions. The broadcast and television system in Czechoslovakia was composed of many separate studios that had the ability to air programs distributed throughout the country, making it almost impossible to prohibit all of them without thorough planning and fast actions. Clearly, the failed coup d’état also failed to control the media at the beginning.[11] Thus, the broadcast and television programs continued to express and unite the voice of the Czechoslovakian people throughout the seven days of resistance.[12] In fact, one of the most violent resistances took place in front of the Prague Radio Building when a group of people took over an outside broadcast van and used it to air messages that encourage people to keep resisting passively to Prague for days.[13] Radios were implemented in various ways to encourage people to resist the Warsaw Pact invasion. Radios warned those who were in danger of being arrested by the KGB to hide: “Calling Emil Zatopek !… He must not go back to his apartment…” These radios also facilitated the legal government to work without top officials in office to make vital decisions: “Calling delegates to the Fourteenth Extraordinary Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia!… Get to Prague… The meeting is going to meet soon.”[14] According to political scientist, Jonathan Schell, one of the most powerful techniques in nonviolent resistance was to establish a parallel organization to the oppressive government which will castrate all its functions, one may argue that the underground radios effort in facilitating the rightful government of Czechoslovakia work is in a way, nonviolent resistance to the superpower intervention that sought to establish a puppet government.[15] [16]

Given that, it would be natural to claim that government officials, police, and the military force of Czechoslovakia also supported the civil resistance. It was with the help of a Czech border police that Murray Sayle managed to get into Czechoslovakia from Austria without delay, and with the help of another village’s police, he entered into Prague through side roads without Russian inspections.[17] Even though the Czechoslovak People’s Army was ordered not to resist, it was believed that many officials and soldiers worked actively to support civil resistance, particularly the maintenance and transmission of underground studios.[18] From a micro point of view, most of the junior officials maintained the normal operation of the national machine by fulfilling their duties normally, preventing any structural national chaos and dysfunction from happening which could potentially happen. The Congress of the Communist Party also successfully made a few meetings and reached vital decisions that show the solidarity of Czechoslovakia people around Dubcek’s government and delivered a clear message to the Soviets that a puppet government is not acceptable or practical in the context.

Even though the resistance was praise-worthy in many ways, the effect of this nonviolent resistance was, to a large extent, limited. Chapman described the Warsaw Pact invasion as an occupation without an occupational government; one may want to attribute the credits to the civil resistance that proved to the Soviets the implausibility of the plan of setting up a puppet government. However, this situation appears to be definite as the first attempt at coup d’etat organized around Salgovic failed for their poor organization and underestimation of difficulties in operation.[19] The civil resistance may have effectively prevented Dubcek from being removed from the office of first secretary, but it didn’t prevent his replacement by Gustáv Husák, a more conservative and pro-Soviet politician, after several months and years of a new round of normalization, which in fact was the counterpart of Dubcek’s reformation ideas.

The nature of this seven-day-long nonviolent resistance is hard to define. It was not a typical struggle against an authoritarian state for the freedom of individuals; it was a government and its people’s collective struggle against an authoritative foreign superpower intervention. Thus, one may criticize the incompleteness of the struggle as the people failed to see that their government, led by Dubcek, did not have the capacity to fight for their freedom. Their resistance by supporting the present reformative government at stake, to some extent, authorizes the same government to implement normalization policies in line with the invading Soviet power as most of the reformers in the Presidium remained in office after the Moscow Agreement and turned into a pious supporters of reformation to normalization.[20]

Notwithstanding, the civil resistance was definitely a fight for a nation’s self-determination against foreign intervention. Even though Czechoslovakia contains two major groups, Czechs and Slovakia, they are known to have some tensions over their sovereignty. Slovakia had long felt suppression as the leader had always been Czech until Dubcek, the first Slovak first secretary, took office. Nonetheless, he is soon condemned as being too “Czechnized.” Such tensions didn’t impact the collaborative attitude towards the Warsaw Pact intervention. Many Czechs and Slovaks came together to participate in nonviolent protests against the occupation, and there are numerous accounts of individuals from both groups supporting and helping each other during this time.

In conclusion, the resistance against the Soviet Union’s intervention in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring was largely nonviolent and spread throughout the country, including cities and rural areas. The resistance was autonomous but part of a nationwide effort to resist the interventionist forces and assert the nation’s self-determination. The media and press played a vital role in this resistance as they worked as a pillar of strength in uniting all the autonomous actions. The underground radios facilitated the rightful government of Czechoslovakia to work without top officials in office to make vital decisions. The government officials, police, and the military force of Czechoslovakia also took their part in supporting the civil resistance. Ultimately, nonviolent resistance was a powerful technique that proved effective in resisting the Soviet Union’s attempts to suppress the freedom of speech and press in Czechoslovakia.

[1] Kieran Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath: Czechoslovak Politics, 1968-1970, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 3-28.

[2] Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, Czechoslovakia, 1968: Reform, Repression, and Resistance, Institute for Strategic Studies, 1969, p. 102.

[3] Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath, p. 125.

[4] Skilling, H. Gordon. “Thaw and Freeze-up: Prague 1968.” International Journal 25, no. 1 (1969): 192–201.

[5] P. Canby, The Day the Soviets Arrived to Crush the Prague Spring, in Rarely Seen Photos, Photograph by Libuše Kyndrová, The New Yorker, August 26, 2018.

[6] Colin Chapman, August 21st; the Rape of Czechoslovakia, 1968, p. 47.

[7] Ibid. p. 52.

[8] Ladislav Mňačko, The Seventh Night, 1969, p. 43.

[9] Chapman, August 21st, p. 70.

[10] Ibid. p. 72.

[11] Ibid. p. 60.

[12] Joseph Wechsberg, The Voices, 1969.

[13] Chapman, August 21st, p. 59.

[14] Mňačko, The Seventh Night, p. 86.

[15] Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, 2005, p. 125-142.

[16] Windsor and Roberts, Czechoslovakia, 1968, p. 127.

[17] Colin Chapman, August 21st, p. 70.

[18] Ibid. p. 61.

[19] Williams, The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath, p. 125.

[20] Ibid. p. 51-58.