Czechoslovakia 1968

During the early part of 1968 there was a considerable program of liberalisation within Czechoslovakia. This was viewed with concern throughout the Warsaw Pact countries and especially within the Soviet Union. In August 1968 Czechoslovakia was invaded by the combined armies of the Warsaw Pact.

The invasion involved some 650,000 troops. It was accompanied by a demand for a new government more to the liking of the other Warsaw Pact powers. It was in this situation that the Czechoslovak people made one of the fullest attempts in history to use nonviolent action as a national defence.

Evidence conflicts on how much planning had been done by the government for the contingency of civilian based defence. It was the government itself which called for resistance and set the example by its own firm refusal to cooperate with the invasion. Czechoslovak leaders moved quickly in the first hours of the invasion to deny legitimacy to the invasion and to provide the groundwork for diplomatic showdowns. This is one of the ways in which civilian based defence is quite different from most nonviolent protests; the legitimacy and sovereignty represented by the government encourages a high degree of unity in the population.

However, apart from urging the people to remain calm and go to work, and promising that they would be able to defend themselves by a general strike if necessary, the government did not have a plan thoroughly prepared which took into account the emotions of an indignant people. They left the initial responses of the masses largely to improvisation. And they improvised magnificently.

On the first day of the invasion there was a brief standstill in Prague reportedly observed by hundreds of thousands. Airport officials at Ruzyne refused to supply Soviet planes with fuel. At a number of places crowds sat in the path of oncoming tanks; in one village citizens formed a human chain across a bridge over the river Upa for nine hours, inducing the invading tanks eventually to turn tail. Swastikas were painted on tanks and slogans in the streets.

Leaflets in Russian, German and Polish were distributed explaining to the invaders that they were in the wrong, and countless discussions were held between bewildered and defensive soldiers and angry Czechoslovak youths. Army units were given wrong directions, street signs and even village signs were changed, and there were refusals to supply food.

The popular resistance was heavily indebted to the role played by journalists, and radio and television. After six days of occupation there was still not one radio station in the Prague area that was pro-Soviet. As the occupation troops moved in, technicians, programmers and announcers for both radio and television worked desperately to remain on air. They literally moved from studio to studio. As the official studio and broadcasting stations were closed down by the occupation forces, clandestine radios started to operate. Several reports indicate that the transmitters used for these came from the Czechoslovak army, which in some places refused to turn over their equipment to the Soviets. There were usually about ten stations broadcasting at once. Some had a very brief existence, but they were vital to the resistance.

They kept people informed about what was happening – though in the conditions in which they were working, news was not always totally reliable. They published the names of collaborators, and gave specific warnings to individuals in danger of arrest. They relayed news about the response and protest in other countries. They were the channel for advice and appeals to the people from the leaders of the resistance. They also gave positive advice about how to resist. When, for example, a Soviet train carrying special equipment for tracking and jamming underground radios was known to be coming, railway staff were urged to stop the train. This they did; after several days the equipment had to be transferred from the train, which had come to a complete halt after being diverted around the country.

The radio and TV stations provided a voice for the Czechoslovak people which was essential for their morale, a symbol of continuing resistance and a means of keeping their cause before the rest of the world. Czechoslovak television pictures, smuggled out and relayed from Austria, of the people in the streets confronting the tanks, meant that the resistance was understood much more vividly and completely by the people in the West.

On the second day of the invasion a reported 20,000 people demonstrated in Wenceslas Square in Prague, and on the third day came a one hour stoppage which left Prague eerily still. On the fourth day young students and workers defied the Soviet curfew by a round-the-clock sitdown at the statue of St Wenceslas in Prague. Nine out of ten people on the streets were wearing Czechoslovak flags on their lapels. Whenever the Soviets tried to announce anything the people raised such a din that the announcements could not be heard.

The Czechoslovak army and police comprised another major element of the resistance. The army, continuing to guard the frontier with West Germany, was strictly forbidden to engage with the Warsaw Pact forces, but it was also ordered not to surrender its arms. The police consistently refused to aid the occupation forces, or the Soviet KGB, in rounding up intellectuals and others prominent in the campaign for democratic socialism. A few days after the invasion the Minister of the Interior in a broadcast praised the police for helping Czechoslovak citizens: ‘They are protecting them from arrest, they are supporting the distribution of leaflets, supporting our radio and television, and leading the occupiers astray.’

An important aspect of the strategy of civilian based defence is the weakening of the reliability of the repressive agents. If a political authority loses control of its troops and police, it may be lost. In Czechoslovakia much of the energy of the resistance was spent in weakening the will and increasing the confusion of the invading forces. Young men clambered onto tanks to argue with the often young and bewildered conscripts from the Soviet Union. Young women went up to Soviet troops and urged them kindly to go home. Older men and women joined in discussions with Soviet troops – the compulsory teaching of Russian in the schools now proved very useful. Leaflets were printed for the soldiers. Slogans were daubed everywhere. One read ‘Lenin wake up – Brezhnev has gone mad.’

‘This is a picture that will always stay in my mind: a blond Prague girl crawling under the fixed bayonets of a tank crew, standing up and chalking a swastika on the monster’s bows. Then she spat, and crawled back again. The soldiers looked on helplessly. In their faces was written bewilderment and shame. They had not expected this sort of thing here.’ (Heinz Schewe Observer London, 25 August 1968)

By the third day military authorities were putting out leaflets to their own troops with counter-arguments to those of the Czechs. The next day rotation began, with new units coming into the cities to replace the Russian speaking forces. The combination of confrontation and lack of anxiety about personal injury (because of the nonviolent nature of the resistance) began to take its toll among the troops.

Members of the Government were arrested by invading troops and abducted from the country. However it proved impossible to find people to form a new pro-Soviet government, and after a few days the Dubcek Cabinet were taken to Moscow for negotiations. It was these negotiations that ultimately proved the downfall of the resistance.

Isolated from events in Czechoslovakia, the government was unaware of the level of resistance, and may even have been misled about the number of casualties among the Czechoslovak people. They agreed to call off the resistance, and also agreed to the resignations of some of the Cabinet members. Concessions were made by the Soviet side in the negotiations, but these were gradually rescinded over a period of some months. By mid 1969 the Soviet backed government was in complete control of Czechoslovakia.

It is likely that the control of Czechoslovakia as a buffer state was so important that no amount of resistance, military or nonviolent, could have succeeded. However, most analysts agree that military defence of Czechoslovakia could have only lasted a few days. Nonviolent resistance denied control of the country to the Soviet authorities for several weeks, with little loss of life, and forced the return of the official government from arrest. To quote Boserup and Mack, ‘it was not physical repression or hardship that eroded the resistance in Czechoslovakia but rather the very fact of making concessions in the first place…’

References for this case study, which was prepared by the Association for Transarmament (Aotearoa):
War Resisters League Study Kit on Nonviolence.
Anders Boserup & Andrew Mack War without weapons: non-violence in national defence London: Francis Pinter (Publishers) Ltd., 1974.

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