- Browse Cases
- Search Cases
- Browse Methods
Czechoslovak resistance to Soviet occupation, 1968
For the first eight months of 1968, the Czechoslovak Communist Party engaged in limited but significant reforms known as ‘Prague Spring,’ including declarations of freedom of expression and organization. The reform movement began in January, when moderate Alexander Dubcek replaced the Party’s hard-line First Secretary.
Communist leaders in the Soviet Union and satellite regimes in Central Europe saw these reforms as a threat and took action to stop them. On the night of August 20, 1968, at least 300,000 Soviet troops, plus units from Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Czechoslovakian forces were largely outnumbered; it was hoped that in the chaos of invasion, Dubcek’s leadership could be quickly destabilized and possibly replaced. Soviet forces shut down Czechoslovak borders, seized airports, and swiftly occupied most towns.
Resistance to the invasion started immediately. Civilians met soldiers with arguments and condemnations. Signs and graffiti denounced the invasion. People brought pictures of Dubcek into the streets and gave wrong directions to invading soldiers. The night of the invasion, the Czechoslovak military was told to stay in the barracks. The morning of August 21, statements from the Czechoslovak Communist Party Presidium were read over Prague radio denouncing the invasion, and pleading that civilians ‘stay calm’.
Soon after, youth demonstrated in the streets, forming human blockades in front of tanks, later using overturned buses and vehicles. Radio broadcasters advocated ‘passive resistance,’ alerting the public that the invaders were looking for an excuse to attack.
Hundreds gathered at iconic statues in Prague, where they fraternized with Soviet soldiers. Demonstrators sang the national anthem and chanted ‘Dubcek’. Banners and protest messages appeared throughout the city, denouncing the occupation and urging the soldiers to leave.
On the afternoon of August 21 villagers in Upa formed a human blockade across a bridge, blocking the route of invading tanks. After some time, the tanks turned and left. In some confrontations in Prague and other cities, rude gestures and calls for Soviets to go home led to the soldiers opening fire, killing and wounding protesters. Some resisters threw Molotov cocktails (homemade gasoline bombs) in return, destroying some tanks and killing the tank crews. Immediately after these incidents, Dubcek denounced violence over the radio. Even still, some unorganized violent resistance did continue to occur. Shortly after, Soviet forces captured Dubcek, along with other prominent Czechoslovak reformers.
That evening, radio broadcasters discouraged even mass demonstration. Instead, resisters heavily used radio, leaflets, newspapers, and signs to spread a message of opposition and condemnation of the occupation. Resistance leaflets were distributed by Czechoslovak police cars using their sirens and lights in order to get through Soviet checkpoints. Civilians gained access to secret radio broadcasting stations set up by the military (unclear which military), which they used to set up social networks to spread instructions of resistance. Reports indicate that organized bodies formed through radio and telephone this way to organize and disseminate information.
On the morning on August 22, the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party (national governmental congress of Czechoslovakia) held an emergency meeting in a factory outside of Prague. Some reports claim that the delegates disguised themselves as workers to make it past Soviet troops. Almost 1,192 delegates attended. The Congress issued a statement that condemned the invasion as unjustified, stated that there had been no Czechoslovak counterrevolution, called for leaders to be released and reinstated, and called for a one-hour protest strike the next day if troops did not withdraw.
More leaflets were distributed. A petition circulated calling for the release of Dubcek. Newspapers and magazines continued to publish, often with the words ‘legal’ or ‘free,’ indicating that they were not in the hands of the occupation. Some printed messages to the occupying soldiers in Russian; graffiti in Russian was also common. The call to strike was broadcasted over the radio, in addition to calls for a go-slow of railway workers, which successfully delayed the transport of radio jammers to the occupiers. The radio served other functions as well, assuring parents of the whereabouts of children in summer camp, and relaying updates about negotiations in Moscow.
On August 23, Soviet leaders agreed to let Czechoslovakian President Svoboda travel to Moscow for negotiations. He insisted that Dubcek and others be present at the negotiation table.
That evening in Prague, radio broadcasts warned of potential arrests. Civilians painted over street signs to confuse the occupiers. Some rioting and looting did occur as well as Czechoslovakians conspiring with occupying forces.
The next day, August 24, Soviet forces intensified the occupation, removing signs and graffiti (which resisters quickly replaced), conducting searches, and distributing their own leaflets justifying the occupation.
International solidarity protests to the occupation occurred through August 27, which included demonstrations in Italy, a general strike in Austria, work stoppage in France, and a moment of silence in Holland. Soviet troops showed signs of decreasing morale, with some defying orders to disperse crowds. Farmers worked extra hours; the Horka Poricany Agricultural Cooperative announced it would donate over 5 tons of potatoes to citizens in Prague during the resistance.
After four days of negotiation in Moscow, the Czechoslovakian delegation accepted the ‘Moscow Protocol,’ which allowed most Czechoslovakian leaders to remain in power, but implicitly condemned the post-January reforms. The agreement demanded the increased suppression of opposition groups and a tighter censorship policy. It also allowed Soviet forces to remain in Czechoslovakia. One person, Chairman of the National Front Frantisek Kriegel, refused to sign the protocol; he was stripped of all official duties and was later expelled from the party.
Public reaction to the protocol was mixed, with many seeing it as a failure of the resistance. Mass resistance is said to have lasted for about seven days, after which the resisters became exhausted and partly demoralized.
Soviet forces would linger in Czechoslovakia for months, pushing their political agenda. But public resistance to the occupation didn’t stop completely. In early November there were mass demonstrations in Prague, Bratislava, Brno, and other cities. Later, tens of thousands of students conducted a four-day sit-in in high schools and colleges, with factories sending them food in solidarity.
In mid-January 1969, Jan Palach a college student set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the occupation and the removal of civil liberties. His funeral turned into a protest demonstration and the next month another student, Jan Zajíc, burned himself to death in the same square. In April, Evžen Plocek committed the same act in Jihlava.
Soviet forces cracked down on further protest demonstrations later in the year with full force. Dubcek was ousted soon after demonstrations in March and replaced with a Party hard-liner who reversed Dubcek’s reforms and purged the party of any opposition. Protests in August 1969 were brutally suppressed. These turned out to be the last mass demonstration against the invasion. In total about 70 people were killed during the invasion and up to 1,000 were wounded in shootings.