Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

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Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
Part of the Cold War
Date 20 August 1968 – 20 September 1968
Location Czechoslovakia
Result Moscow Protocol, Soviet military presence until 1991
Warsaw Pact
Image-File 600px-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg.png Soviet Union

East Germany East Germany
Hungary Hungary
Poland Poland
Bulgaria Bulgaria

Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia
Commanders and leaders
Image-File 600px-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg.png Leonid Brezhnev
Image-File 600px-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg.png Ivan Pavlovsky
Image-File 600px-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg.png Andrei Grechko
Czechoslovakia Alexander Dubček
Czechoslovakia Ludvík Svoboda
Czechoslovakia Martin Dzúr
200,000–500,000 unknown
Casualties and losses
Image-File 600px-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg.png 96 killed[1],
Hungary 4 killed (in accidents)

Other Warsaw Pact countries: Unknown.

Flag of Czechoslovakia.svg 108 KIA, over 500 WIA.

On the night of 20–21 August 1968, the Soviet Union and her main allies in the Warsaw PactBulgaria, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary and Poland – invaded the Czechoslovakia in order to halt Alexander Dubček's Prague Spring political liberalisation reforms.

In the operation, codenamed Danube, varying estimates of between 175,000 and 500,000 troops[2] attacked Czechoslovakia; approximately 500 Czechs and Slovaks were wounded and 108 killed in the invasion.[3][4] The invasion successfully stopped the liberalisation reforms and strengthened the authority of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The foreign policy of the Soviet Union during this era was known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.[5]

Soviet fears

Leonid Brezhnev and the leadership of the Warsaw Pact countries worried that the unfolding liberalizations in Czechoslovakia, including the ending of censorship and political surveillance by the secret police, would be detrimental to their interests. The first of such fears was that Czechoslovakia would defect from the bloc, injuring the Soviet Union's position in a possible war with NATO. Not only would the loss result in a lack of strategic depth for the USSR, but it would also mean that it could not tap Czechoslovakia's industrial base for its war efforts. [6] Czechoslovak leaders had no intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact, but Moscow felt it could not be certain exactly what Prague's intentions were.

Other fears included the spread of liberal communism and unrest elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact countries worried that if the Prague Spring reforms went unchecked, then those ideals might very well spread to Poland and East Germany, upsetting the status quo there as well. Within the Soviet Union, nationalism in the republics of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine was already causing problems, and many worried that events in Prague might exacerbate those problems.

In addition, part of Czechoslovakia bordered Austria, which was on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This meant both that foreign agents could potentially slip into Czechoslovakia and into any member of the Communist Bloc and that defectors could slip out to the West. The final concern emerged directly from the lack of censorship; writers whose work had been censored in the Soviet Union could simply go to Prague or Bratislava and air their grievances there, circumventing the Soviet Union's censorship.

Czechoslovak negotiations with the USSR and other Warsaw Pact states

The Soviet leadership at first tried to stop or limit the impact of Dubček's initiatives through a series of negotiations. Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union agreed to bilateral talks to be held in July 1968 at Čierna nad Tisou, near the Slovak-Soviet border.

At the meeting, Dubček defended the program of the reformist wing of the KSČ while pledging commitment to the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. The KSČ leadership, however, was divided between vigorous reformers (Josef Smrkovský, Oldřich Černík, and František Kriegel) who supported Dubček, and conservatives (Vasil Biľak, Drahomír Kolder, and Oldřich Švestka) who adopted an anti-reformist stance. Brezhnev decided on compromise. The KSČ delegates reaffirmed their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "anti-socialist" tendencies, prevent the revival of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and control the press more effectively. The USSR agreed to withdraw their troops (still stationed in Czechoslovakia since the June 1968 maneuvers) and permit the 9 September party congress.

On 3 August, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, People's Republic of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration. The declaration affirmed unshakable fidelity to Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against bourgeois ideology and all "antisocialist" forces. The Soviet Union expressed its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a bourgeois system—a pluralist system of several political parties representing different factions of the capitalist class—was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along Czechoslovak borders.

As these talks proved unsatisfactory, the USSR began to consider a military alternative. The Soviet Union's policy of compelling the socialist governments of its satellite states to subordinate their national interests to those of the Eastern Bloc (through military force if needed) became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.


The United States and NATO largely turned a blind eye to the evolving situation in Czechoslovakia. While the Soviet Union worried it might lose an ally, the United States had absolutely no designs on gaining it. President Lyndon Johnson had already invested the United States in the Vietnam War and was unlikely to be able to drum up support for a potential conflict in Czechoslovakia. Also, he wanted to pursue an arms control treaty with the Soviets, SALT. He needed a willing partner in Moscow in order to reach such an agreement, and he did not wish to potentially risk that treaty for Czechoslovakia.[7] For these reasons, the United States made it clear that it would not intervene on behalf of the Prague Spring, giving the USSR a free hand to do as it pleased.


At approximately 11 pm on 20 August 1968, Eastern Bloc armies from five Warsaw Pact countries – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria,[8] Poland, Hungary, and East Germany – invaded Czechoslovakia. That night, 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks entered the country.[9]

The invasion was well planned and coordinated, simultaneously with the border crossing by ground forces, a Soviet airborne division (VDV) captured Prague's Ruzyne International Airport in the early hours of the invasion. It began with a special flight from Moscow which carried more than 100 plainclothes agents. They quickly secured the airport and prepared the way for the huge forthcoming airlift, in which An-12 transport aircraft started arriving and unloading Soviet airborne troops equipped with artillery and light tanks.

As the operation at the airport continued, columns of tanks and motorized rifle troops headed toward Prague and other major centers, meeting no resistance. The bulk of invading forces were from the Soviet Union supported by other countries from the communist bloc. Among them were 28,000 troops commanded by general Florian Siwicki, and all invading Hungarian troops were withdrawn by 31 October.

Romanian troops did not take part in the invasion,[10] and neither did Albania, which withdrew from the Warsaw Pact over the matter.[11] The degree of participation of the East German Army is dubious: either they were withdrawn within a few days.

During the attack of the Warsaw Pact armies, 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed (19 of those in Slovakia)[12] and hundreds were wounded. Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist. He was arrested and taken to Moscow along with several of his colleagues. Dubček and most of the reformers were returned to Prague on 27 August, and Dubček retained his post as the party's first secretary until he was forced to resign in April 1969 following the Czechoslovak Hockey Riots.

The invasion was followed by a wave of emigration, largely of highly qualified people, unseen before and stopped shortly after (estimate: 70,000 immediately, 300,000 in total).[13] Western countries allowed these people to immigrate without complications.

Failure to prepare

The Dubcek regime took no steps to forestall a potential invasion, despite the ominous troop movements by the Warsaw Pact. The Czechoslovak leadership believed that the Soviet Union and its allies would not invade, having believed that summit at Čierna nad Tisou smoothed out the differences between the two sides.[14] They also believed that any invasion would be too costly, both because of domestic support for the reforms and because the international political outcry would be too significant, especially with the World Communist Conference coming up in November of that year. Czechoslovakia could have raised the costs of such an invasion by drumming up international support or making military preparations such as blocking roads and ramping up security of their airports, but they decided not to, paving the way for the invasion.[15]

Letter of invitation

Although on the night of the invasion, the Czechoslovak Presidium declared that Warsaw Pact troops had crossed the border without knowledge of the ČSSR Government, the Soviet Press printed an unsigned request, allegedly by Czechoslovak party and state leaders, for "immediate assistance, including assistance with armed forces."[16] At the 14th KSČ Party Congress (conducted secretly, immediately following the intervention), it was emphasized that no member of the leadership had invited the intervention. At the time, a number of commentators believed the letter was fake or non-existent.

In the early 1990s, however, the Russian government gave the new Czechoslovak President, Václav Havel, a copy of a letter of invitation addressed to Soviet authorities and signed by KSČ members Biľak, Švestka, Kolder, Indra, and Kapek. It claimed that “right-wing” media were “fomenting a wave of nationalism and chauvinism, and are provoking an anti-communist and anti-Soviet psychosis.” It formally asked the Soviets to “lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal” to save the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic “from the imminent danger of counterrevolution.”[17]

A 1992 Izvestia article claimed that candidate Presidium member Antonin Kapek gave Leonid Brezhnev a letter at the Soviet-Czechoslovak Čierna nad Tisou talks in late July which appealed for “fraternal help.” A second letter was supposedly delivered by Biľak to Ukrainian Party leader Petro Shelest during the August Bratislava conference “in a lavatory rendezvous arranged through the KGB station chief.”[17] This letter was signed by the same five as Kapek’s letter, mentioned above.

Internal plot

Long before the invasion, planning for a coup was undertaken by Indra, Kolder and Biľak, among others, often at the Soviet embassy and at the Party recreation centre at Orlík Dam.[17] When these men had managed to convince a majority of the Presidium (six of eleven voting members) to side with them against Alexander Dubček’s reformists, they asked the USSR to launch a military invasion. The USSR leadership was even considering waiting until the 26 August Slovak Party Congress, but the Czechoslovak conspirators “specifically requested the night of the 20th.

The plan was to unfold as follows. A debate would unfold in response to the Kašpar report on the state of the country, during which conservative members would insist that Dubček present two letters he had received from the USSR, letters which listed promises he had made at the Čierná nad Tisou talks but had failed to keep. Dubček’s concealment of such important letters, and his unwillingness to keep his promises would lead to a vote of confidence which the now conservative majority would win, seizing power, and issue a request for Soviet assistance in preventing a counterrevolution. It was this formal request, drafted in Moscow, which was published in Pravda on 22 August without the signatories. All the USSR needed to do was suppress the Czechoslovak military and any violent resistance.[18]

With this plan in mind, the 16–17 August Soviet Politburo meeting passed a resolution to “provide so called help to the Communist Party and people of Czechoslovakia through military force.”[18] At the 18 August Warsaw Pact meeting, Brezhnev announced that the intervention would go ahead on the night of 20 August, and asked for "so called fraternal support", which the national leaders of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland duly offered.

Failure of the plot

The coup, however, did not go according to plan. Kolder intended to review the Kašpar report early in the meeting, but Dubček and Špaček, suspicious of Kolder, adjusted the agenda so the upcoming 14th Party Congress could be covered before any discussion on recent reforms or Kašpar’s report. Discussion of the Congress dragged on, and before the conspirators had a chance to request a confidence vote, early news of the invasion reached the Presidium.

An anonymous warning was transmitted by the Czechoslovak Ambassador to Hungary, Jozef Púčik, approximately six hours before Soviet troops crossed the border at midnight. When the news arrived, the solidarity of conservative coalition crumbled. When the Presidium proposed a declaration condemning the invasion, two key members of the conspiracy, Jan Pillar and Frantíšek Barbírek, switched sides to support Dubček. With their help, declaration against the invasion won with a 7:4 majority.

The Moscow Protocol

By the morning of 21 August, Dubček and other prominent reformists had been arrested, and were later flown to Moscow. There they were held in secret and interrogated for days.

The conservatives asked Svoboda to create an "emergency government" but since they had not won a clear majority of support, he refused. Instead, he and Gustáv Husák traveled to Moscow on 23 August to insist Dubček and Černík should be included in a solution to the conflict. After days of negotiations, the Czechoslovak delegation accepted the "Moscow Protocol", and signed their commitment to its fifteen points. The Protocol demanded the suppression of opposition groups, the full reinstatement of censorship, and the dismissal of specific reformist officials.[18] It did not, however, refer to the situation in the ČSSR as "counterrevolutionary" nor did it demand a reversal of the post-January course.[18]

Reactions in Czechoslovakia

Popular opposition was expressed in numerous spontaneous acts of nonviolent resistance. In Prague and other cities throughout the republic, Czechs and Slovaks greeted Warsaw Pact soldiers with arguments and reproaches. Every form of assistance, including the provision of food and water, was denied to the invaders. Signs, placards, and graffiti drawn on walls and pavements denounced the invaders, the Soviet leaders, and suspected collaborators. Pictures of Dubček and Svoboda appeared in the streets. Citizens gave wrong directions to soldiers and even removed street signs (except for those giving the direction back to Moscow).

Initially, some civilians tried to argue with the invading troops, but this met with little or no success. After the USSR used photographs of these discussions as proof that the invasion troops were being greeted , secret Czechoslovak broadcasting stations discouraged the practice, reminding the people that "pictures are silent.

The generalized resistance caused the Soviet Union to abandon its original plan to oust the First Secretary. Dubček, who had been arrested on the night of 20 August, was taken to Moscow for negotiations. It was agreed that Dubček would remain in office, but he was no longer free to pursue to liberalization that he had before the invasion.

On 19 January 1969, student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in Prague to protest the renewed suppression of free speech.

Finally, on 17 April 1969, Dubček was replaced as First Secretary by Gustáv Husák, and a period of "Normalization" began. Pressure from the Soviet Union pushed politicians to either switch loyalties or simply give up. In fact, the very group that voted in Dubček and put the reforms in place were mostly the same people who annulled the program and replaced Dubček with Husák. Husák reversed Dubček's reforms, purged the party of its liberal members and dismissed the professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political turnaround from public offices and jobs.

Reactions in other Warsaw Pact countries

Many people in the Soviet Union did not approve of the invasion. On 25 August, on the Red Square, 8 protesters opened banners with anti-invasion slogans. The demonstrators were arrested and later punished; as the protest was dubbed "anti-Soviet".[19][20]

In the People's Republic of Poland, on 8 September 1968, Ryszard Siwiec had immolated himself in Warsaw during a harvest festival at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium in protest against Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the communist totalitarianism.[21][22] Siwiec did not survive.[21]

A more pronounced effect took place in the Socialist Republic of Romania, which did not take part in the invasion. Nicolae Ceauşescu, already a staunch opponent of Soviet influences and one to have declared himself on Dubček's side, held a public speech in Bucharest on the day of the invasion, depicting Soviet policies in harsh terms. This response consolidated Romania's independent voice in the next decades, especially after Ceauşescu encouraged the population to take up arms in order to meet any similar maneuver in that country: he received an enthusiastic initial response, with many people who were by no means communist willing to enroll in the newly-formed paramilitary Patriotic Guards.

In the German Democratic Republic, the invasion aroused a fair share of discontent among those who had hoped that Czechoslovakia would pave the way for a more liberal socialism. However, isolated protests were quickly stopped by the People's Police (Volkspolizei) and Stasi.[23]

In the fall of 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev and other Warsaw Pact leaders drafted a statement calling the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czecheslovakia a mistake. This helped to encourage the popular revolutions that overthrew communist governments in East Germany, Czecheslovakia and Romania at the end of 1989.

Reactions around the world

The night of the invasion, Canada, Denmark, France, Paraguay, the United Kingdom and the United States all requested a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. That afternoon, the council met to hear the Czechoslovak Ambassador Jan Muzik denounce the invasion. Soviet Ambassador Jacob Malik insisted the Warsaw Pact actions were " so called fraternal assistance" against "antisocial forces. The next day, several countries suggested a resolution condemning the intervention and calling for immediate withdrawal.

Although the United States insisted at the UN that Warsaw Pact aggression was unjustifiable, its position was compromised by its own actions. Only three years earlier, US delegates to the UN had insisted that the overthrow of the leftist government of the Dominican Republic, as part of Operation Power Pack, was an issue to be worked out by the Organization of American States (OAS) without UN interference. The OAS accepted adherence to Marxism–Leninism as an armed attack justifying self-defense by the United States.

In effect, the western countries offered only vocal criticism following the invasion – the reality of the Cold War meant they were in no position to challenge Soviet military force in Central Europe, without risking nuclear war.

In Finland, a neutral country under some Soviet political influence at that time, the occupation caused a major scandal. Like the Italian and French Communist Parties, the Communist Party of Finland denounced the occupation. Nonetheless, Finnish president Urho Kekkonen was the very first Western politician to officially visit Czechoslovakia after August 1968; he received the highest Czechoslovakian honours from the hands of president Ludvík Svoboda, on 4 October 1969.

The Portuguese communist secretary-general Álvaro Cunhal is believed to have been the only political leader from western Europe to have supported the invasion for being counterrevolutionary, along with the Luxembourgian Communist Party.

Yugoslavia was fearful of a similar action against it and its military was set on the highest alert and the defenses of the border with the Warsaw pact countries was strengthened.

External links


  1. The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War
  2. Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  3. Soviet invasion of 1968 to have its own web page. Aktualne.centrum.cz. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  4. (Czech) August 1968 – Victims of the Occupation – Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů. Ustrcr.cz. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  5. Chafetz, Glenn (30 April 1993). Gorbachev, Reform, and the Brezhnev Doctrine: Soviet Policy Toward Eastern Europe, 1985–1990. Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-94484-0. Retrieved on 9 October 2009. 
  6. Jiri Valenta, “Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968: Anatomy of a Decision” (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979) 3
  7. Dawisha (Fn. 6) 10
  8. Czechoslovakia 1968 "Bulgarian troops". Google Books. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  9. Washington Post, (Final Edition), 21 August 1998, (Page A11)
  10. Soviet foreign policy since World .... Google Books. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  11. "1955: Communist states sign Warsaw Pact". BBC News. 14 May 1955. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/14/newsid_3771000/3771065.stm. Retrieved 27 May 2010. 
  12. "Springtime for Prague" at. Prague-life.com. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  13. "Day when tanks destroyed Czech dreams of Prague Spring" (''Den, kdy tanky zlikvidovaly české sny Pražského jara'') at Britské Listy (British Letters). Britskelisty.cz. Retrieved on 23 June 2011.
  14. Jiri Valenta, “Could the Prague Spring Have Been Saved” Orbis 35 (1991) 597
  15. Valenta (Fn. 23) 599
  16. H. Gordon Skilling, “Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976)
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Kieran Williams, “The Prague Spring and its aftermath: Czechoslovak politics 1968–1970,” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Jaromír Navratíl, et al., eds. “The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader,” (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998).
  19. Letter by Yuri Andropov to Central Committee about the demonstration, 5 September 1968, in the Vladimir Bukovsky's archive, (PDF, faximile, in Russian), JHU.edu
  20. Andropov to the Central Committee. The Demonstration in Red Square Against the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. 20 September 1968, at Andrei Sakharov's archive, in Russian and translation into English, Yale.edu
  21. 21.0 21.1 (English) Hear my cry. www.culture.pl. Retrieved on 22 August 2008.
  22. (English) Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek honoured the memory of Ryszard Siwiec. www.vlada.cz. Press Department of the Office of Czech Government. Retrieved on 22 August 2008.
  23. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: Die versäumte Revolte: Die DDR und das Jahr 1968 – Ideale sterben langsam (in German). Bpb.de (2 March 2011). Retrieved on 23 June 2011.