On the night of August 20, 1968, approximately 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring”—a brief period of liberalization in the communist country. Czechoslovakians protested the invasion with public demonstrations and other non-violent tactics, but they were no match for the Soviet tanks. The liberal reforms of First Secretary Alexander Dubcek were repealed and “normalization” began under his successor Gustav Husak.
Pro-Soviet communists seized control of Czechoslovakia’s democratic government in 1948. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin imposed his will on Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders, and the country was run as a Stalinist state until 1964, when a gradual trend toward liberalization began. However, modest economic reform was not enough for many Czechoslovakians, and beginning in 1966 students and intellectuals began to agitate for changes to education and an end to censorship. First Secretary Antonin Novotny’s problems were made worse by opposition from Slovakian leaders, among them Alexander Dubcek and Gustav Husak, who accused the central government of being dominated by Czechs.
In January 1968, Novotny was replaced as first secretary by Alexander Dubcek, who was unanimously elected by the Czechoslovakian Central Committee. To secure his power base, Dubcek appealed to the public to voice support for his proposed reforms. The response was overwhelming, and Czech and Slovak reformers took over the communist leadership.
In April, the new leadership unveiled its “Action Program,” promising democratic elections, greater autonomy for Slovakia, freedom of speech and religion, the abolition of censorship, an end to restrictions on travel, and major industrial and agricultural reforms. Dubcek declared that he was offering “socialism with a human face.” The Czechoslovakian public greeted the reforms joyously, and Czechoslovakia’s long stagnant national culture began to bloom during what became known as the Prague Spring. In late June, a popular petition called the “Two Thousand Words” was published calling for even more rapid progress to full democracy. The Soviet Union and its satellites Poland and East Germany were alarmed by what appeared to be the imminent collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned Dubcek to halt his reforms, but the Czechoslovakian leader was buoyed by his popularity and dismissed the veiled threats. Dubcek declined to attend a special meeting of the Warsaw Pact powers in July, but on August 2 he agreed to meet with Brezhnev in the Slovakian town of Cierny. The next day, representatives of European Europe’s communist parties met in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, and a communiquÉ was issued suggesting that pressure would be eased on Czechoslovakia in exchange for tighter control over the press.
However, on the night of August 20, nearly 200,000 Soviet, East German, Polish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops invaded Czechoslovakia in the largest deployment of military force in Europe since the end of World War II. Armed resistance to the invasion was negligible, but protesters immediately took to the streets, tearing down streets signs in an effort to confuse the invaders. In Prague, Warsaw Pact troops moved to seize control of television and radio stations. At Radio Prague, journalists refused to give up the station and some 20 people were killed before it was captured. Other stations went underground and succeeded in broadcasting for several days before their locations were discovered.
Dubcek and other government leaders were detained and taken to Moscow. Meanwhile, widespread demonstrations continued on the street, and more than 100 protesters were shot to death by Warsaw Pact troops. Many foreign nations, including China, Yugoslavia, and Romania, condemned the invasion, but no major international action was taken. Much of Czechoslovakia’s intellectual and business elite fled en masse to the West.
On August 27, Dubcek returned to Prague and announced in an emotional address that he had agreed to curtail his reforms. Hard-line communists assumed positions in his government, and Dubcek was forced gradually to dismiss his progressive aides. He became increasingly isolated from both the public and his government. After anti-Soviet rioting broke out in April 1969, he was removed as first secretary and replaced by Gustav Husak, a “realist” who was willing to work with the Soviets. Dubcek was later expelled from the Communist Party and made a forest inspector based in Bratislava.
In 1989, as communist governments collapsed across Eastern Europe, Prague again became the scene of demonstrations for democratic reform. In December 1989, Gustav Husak’s government conceded to demands for a multiparty parliament. Husak resigned, and for the first time in nearly two decades Dubcek returned to politics as chairman of the new parliament, which subsequently elected playwright and former dissident Vaclav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. Havel had come to fame during the Prague Spring, and after the Soviet crackdown his plays were banned and his passport confiscated.