Springtime for Prague
On January 5th, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became the leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Sensing a rare opportunity, he quickly initiated a series of reforms to bring about a socialist democracy, lifting censorship and freeing artists and other political prisoners, and beginning the Prague Spring. In April of that year, Dubcek launched an "Action Programme" of liberalizations that included increased freedom of the press, a switch of emphasis from industrial to consumer goods, and the possibility of a more democratic multi-party government, essentially ending Soviet control over the nation. It also planned the federalization of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic into two equal nations, Czech and Slovak. That spring and summer, liberalizations escalated, including anti-Soviet opinions appearing in the press, something unheard of previously. In addition, new unaffiliated political clubs were being created, whereas in most Soviet-controlled countries non-Party affiliations were strictly banned.
The Fall of Spring
All this changed on the morning of August 21st, 1968, when the Warsaw Pact
invasion, led by the Soviet Union with forces from five Pact countries (Romania abstained), brought about normalization, disguised as massive rolling green machines bearing artillery. Dissidents and artists who had been allowed more freedom than ever before were now being persecuted or arrested, including the famous Plastic People of the Universe
. Riots broke out, protests and violence were common, but eventually this subsided and the censorship and regulation of a communist system returned.
During the summer of 1968, primarily Brezhnev and the USSR leadership, and to some extent the other leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries were concerned about Dubcek's reforms, fearing that this idea of liberalization could spread to their countries and instigate rebellion (which did happen with the student riots in Gdansk in 1968), which would eventually oust the current leadership from power (and there’s nothing politicians fear more than losing their power – this hasn’t changed even today). They also feared weakening the position of the Communist Bloc during the height of the Cold War. Before the tanks rolled in in August, a series of negotiations were held between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in July at Cierna nad Tisou, near the Slovak-Soviet border. At the meeting, Dubcek defended the reformist program while pledging commitment to the Warsaw Pact and COMECON, and Brezhnev initially agreed to compromise. The Czechoslovak Party delegates pledged their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "antisocialist" tendencies and control the press and dissidents more effectively, while the Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops.
On August 3, representatives from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava and signed the Bratislava Declaration, which affirmed their fidelity to the Party’s ideologies and proletarian internationalism and declared an implacable struggle against "bourgeois" ideology and "antisocialist" enemies. Significantly, the Soviet Union declared its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a "bourgeois" system (in theory anything but strict communist control) was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along Czechoslovak borders.
During the night of August 20th, between 5,000 to 7,000 tanks rolled in, accompanied by Warsaw Pact troops ranging from 200,000 to 600,000 in number. The tanks occupied the streets while the troops sought out the “antisocialist” elements, often with the use of police sticks and guns, leading to the death of 72 Czechs and Slovaks and hundreds of wounded. Dubcek himself, along with several of his colleagues, was arrested and taken to Moscow, where he miraculously escaped severe punishment in the end, and was even allowed to return to office. Protest (including a student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire) was accompanied by emigration, as hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks escaped to the West.
Even today debate ensues about the tragedy, as well and the necessity and legality of the invasion. The Soviets had claimed that they had been “invited” to intervene against the “antisocialist” elements threatening Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party. In reality, the invasion was a form of coup that had been in the works that whole summer, finally cumulating in the invasion. Meanwhile, resentment remains to this day towards the countries that supplied troops that invaded Czechoslovakia (though the five Pact countries had little choice in the matter). In April 1969, Gustav Husak replaced Dubcek as First Secretary, and the period of "normalization" began. Husak reversed Dubcek's reforms, purged the party of the reformists and dismissed from public offices and jobs those of professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political turnaround, a situation which would remain in place until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.