On August 21, 1968, 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring, successfully stopping Alexander Dubček’s liberalisation reforms and strengthening the authority of the the Communist Party.
After the war, Slovak-born Alexander Dubček steadily rose through the ranks in Communist Czechoslovakia as a member of the National Assembly, before becoming First Secretary of the Slovak branch of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), unseating the hard-line allies of Antonín Novotný, the Stalinist President of Czechoslovakia and First Secretary of the KSČ.
Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak economy began experiencing a serious downturn. The process of de-Stalinization had progressed much slower in Czechoslovakia than in other states of the Eastern Bloc, and the Soviet model of industrialization, which mainly took into account less developed economies, applied poorly to the country. Novotný’s last-ditch attempt at restructuring the economy in 1965 spurred increased demands for political reform.
The Prague Spring
Novotný soon faced a mutiny in the Central Committee, led by Dubček and the economist Ota Šik, and was forced to resign. With his background and training in Russia, Alexander Dubček was seen by the USSR as a safe pair of hands and “our Sasha”, as the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called him, became the new First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and de facto leader of the Soviet satellite state, ushering in a period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring.
At the Presidium of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in April, Dubček announced a political programme of “socialism with a human face”, which sought to liberalize the Communist government, eliminating its worst and most repressive features, and allowing greater freedom of expression and tolerating political and social organizations not under Communist control. Dubček’s relaxation of censorship ushered in a brief period of freedom of speech and the press, and political commentary was allowed for the first time in mainstream media.
But Dubček soon found himself in an increasingly untenable position. On the one hand, the program of reform gained momentum, leading to pressures for further liberalization and democratization, but at the same time, hard-line Communists in Czechoslovakia pressured Dubček to rein in the Prague Spring. In addition, Leonid Brezhnev and the hard-line leaders of other Warsaw Pact countries grew concerned about the reforms, which they feared might weaken the position of the Bloc in the Cold War.
The Soviet leadership tried to slow down the changes in Czechoslovakia through a series of negotiations, during which Dubček attempted to reassure the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact leaders that he was still friendly to Moscow, arguing that the reforms were an internal matter.
Drawing from the experience of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, during which the leaders had gone as far as withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, Dubček hoped that the Kremlin would allow him a free hand in pursuing domestic reform as long as Czechoslovakia remained a faithful member of the Soviet bloc.
Warsaw Pact invasion
But on August 21, 1968, seven months after the election of Dubček, military forces from Warsaw Pact member states invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring. Despite the fact that Alexander Dubček called upon his people not to resist, 137 Czechs and Slovaks were killed, and hundreds more were wounded during the invasion.
While Brezhnev was determined to give the operation a multilateral appearance, unlike during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the invasion was still dominated by Soviet forces, which outnumbered other troops participating in it roughly five times over. Only Albania and Romania refused to take part in the operation, and the participation of East Germany was cancelled just hours before the invasion by Brezhnev who feared a much larger resistance if German troops were present.
Dubček was promptly arrested by the KGB and taken to Moscow along with several of his colleagues. He was replaced as First Secretary by Gustáv Husák, and a period of “normalization” began, during which Husák reversed Dubček’s reforms, purged the party of its liberal members, and dismissed from public office professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political transformation.
Gustáv Husák also sought to re-centralize the economy, as a considerable amount of freedom had been granted to industries during the Prague Spring. The only significant change that survived was the federalization of the country, which created the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic in 1969.
Although the majority of the Warsaw Pact supported the invasion, Western nations and particularly China condemned the attack. As a result, many communist parties around the world lost their influence, denounced the USSR, and split up or dissolved due to conflicting opinions.
In 2019, the Czech Republic approved an amendment to the law on public holidays establishing August 21 as a national day in memory of the invasion of Czechoslovakia from Warsaw Pact troops.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.