Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia

The Soviet Union responded to liberal reform in Czechoslovakia during the so-called Prague Spring by invading the country. The invasion, which used Warsaw Pact forces, demonstrated the Soviets’ belief that any liberalization of the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe represented a threat to Soviet interests.

Summary of Event

The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August, 1968, was the third major disaster to befall that hapless country within a generation. Thirty years earlier, in 1938, Nazi Germany began the piecemeal annexation of the Czechoslovak Republic. Restored to independence after World War II, Czechoslovakia fell victim to a communist coup in 1948, which transformed the country into a full-fledged satellite of the Soviet Union. For the next twenty years, the Czechoslovak Communist Party exercised, with the blessing of Moscow, a dictatorial authority characterized by terror, purges, and the repression of basic liberties. Soviet Union;invasion of Czechoslovakia by
Czechoslovakia;invasion by Soviet Union
Prague Spring (1968)
Iron Curtain
[kw]Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia (Aug. 20-21, 1968)
[kw]Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union Invades (Aug. 20-21, 1968)
Soviet Union;invasion of Czechoslovakia by
Czechoslovakia;invasion by Soviet Union
Prague Spring (1968)
Iron Curtain
[g]Europe;Aug. 20-21, 1968: Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia[09900]
[g]Czechoslovakia;Aug. 20-21, 1968: Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia[09900]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 20-21, 1968: Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia[09900]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 20-21, 1968: Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia[09900]
[c]Cold War;Aug. 20-21, 1968: Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia[09900]
Brezhnev, Leonid
{Ccaron}erník, Old{rcaron}ich
Dub{ccaron}ek, Alexander
Husák, Gustáv
Kosygin, Aleksey
Novotn{yacute}], Antonín
Svoboda, Ludvík
Ulbricht, Walter

A leading figure in this brutal regime was Antonín Novotný, first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Communist Party, Czechoslovakian and president of the republic. Particularly hostile to the Novotný regime were Czech writers and intellectuals. In late June, 1967, the writers, on the occasion of their fourth congress, unleashed a vigorous attack upon the repressive policies of the regime. This event marked the first step toward the liberalization of Czech life and government that flowered during 1968. Novotný’s position steadily deteriorated. Unrest spread rapidly among students.

On October 31, 1967, a serious clash took place in Prague between police and students who were critical of the regime. Moderate Communists, meanwhile, had begun to blame Novotný for the bad state of the Czech economy. By the end of the year, the ranks of the Czech Communist Party were seriously split between the old-guard Novotný faction and the moderates who sought to introduce political as well as economic reforms. Finally, on January 5, 1968, the moderates succeeded in ousting Novotný from his position as first secretary. He was succeeded by a Slovak Communist, Alexander Dubček. The “Prague Spring” had begun.

Dubček and his supporters soon inaugurated a series of sweeping reforms designed to liberalize Czech life and politics. Almost immediately, the government released the press, radio, and television from twenty years of rigorous censorship. Groups and organizations such as the Sokol and Boy Scouts, which had been suppressed following the communist coup in 1948, now reemerged. Within a few months, the new regime had bloodlessly purged itself of Communist hard-liners, including Novotný, who was forced to resign from the presidency in March. Elected as new president was the highly respected Ludvík Svoboda. Shortly thereafter, Oldřich Černík, another liberal, became chairman of the Council of Ministers and organized a government of moderates.

Early in April, the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party adopted the so-called Action Program, which established the guidelines for the New Model of Socialist Democracy New Model of Socialist Democracy, Czechoslovakian . This program guaranteed the basic freedoms of speech, press, assembly, organization, and religious worship while assuring all people the free choice of work, fair trial, personal property rights, and the right of free movement inside and outside the country. In addition, the New Model called for the creation of an independent judiciary and promised to “give reality to the constitutional status of the National Assembly as the highest organ of state power.” The Council of Ministers was to assume its rightful place as the highest executive organ of the state rather than leave major decisions to the Communist Party apparatus. These innovations were eventually to be incorporated into a new constitution.

Despite Dubček’s frequent pronouncements that these reforms would neither compromise the continuation of Communist one-party rule nor Czechoslovakia’s participation in the Warsaw Pact, criticism of his policies began to mount in various capitals of the Soviet bloc. As early as May 9, Soviet troop movements were reported near Czechoslovakia’s frontiers. Later in the month, Aleksey Kosygin, the Soviet premier, abruptly terminated a surprise visit to Prague, having failed in his efforts to check the tide of Czech liberalism.

The Czechs, undaunted by these developments, continued their program of reform, despite the press campaign launched against them in Russia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Exasperated at the attitude of the Czechs, the leaders of these countries met in Warsaw on May 15, where they drafted a virtual ultimatum to the Dubček government, demanding that it put an end to the liberalization program. The Czechs responded to this demand by meeting in early August, first with the Soviet leaders in private talks, and subsequently with these same leaders and their allies in a larger session to arrange what appeared to be a tentative compromise. An uneasy calm was momentarily restored in the Soviet bloc.

On August 10, however, the reformers issued a draft of proposed new party statutes which would be debated at a special Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in September, 1968. The proposed statutes went far beyond the Action Program. The reformers now were proposing fundamental changes which they believed would ensure that the party would not be able to violate the civil liberties promised in the Action Program. The proposed new statutes called for all party elections to be conducted by secret ballot, for the separation of party and state offices, for term limits on the holding of any party or state office, and for the transfer of decisions on the disciplining of party members from the central party organs to the local organizations. Even though the proposed statutes did not call for an end to one-party rule by the Czechoslovak Communist Party, they would have greatly weakened the power of the central organs and have made party officers responsible to the rank-and-file members for their policies and conduct.

The publication of the proposed party statutes undid the tentative compromise which had been reached a few days before. On August 12, Dubček held an important meeting in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, with Walter Ulbricht, chairman of the German Democratic Republic, who without success demanded an end to the reforms. A frustrated Ulbricht now strongly urged Soviet leaders openly to intervene in Czech affairs. This appeal seems to have been a key element in the Kremlin’s decision to invade Czechoslovakia on August 20-21.

There were several reasons why the Soviet Union decided to use military force against Czechoslovakia. Most Communist leaders feared that unless the Czech liberalization program was immediately and ruthlessly quashed, it might encourage moderates elsewhere in the Soviet bloc to attempt similar experiments, thus threatening the stability of several autocratic communist regimes. The Soviet leadership felt that a liberal Czechoslovakia would be a danger not only ideologically but also militarily.

Czechoslovakia, strategically located in the geographic heart of the Soviet bloc, shared common frontiers with West Germany and the four communist states of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. The Russians feared that Czechoslovakia might one day provide the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance with a corridor leading directly to the Soviet frontier, a corridor that would separate East Germany and Poland from the other Warsaw Pact states to the south. Economically, Moscow believed that a free Czechoslovakia would in time establish closer trade relations with the West to the detriment of those with the Soviet Union. Not all Russian leaders, Kosygin among them, agreed that the use of armed force was the best or most prudent way discipline the Czechs. The militants, however, led by Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, prevailed.

On August 20-21, some 200,000 troops of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia from all directions. Romania refused to participate. Before he was arrested on August 21 and taken to Moscow under armed guard, Dubček ordered the Czech army and people not to resist. There were, however, numerous sporadic clashes between Czech citizens and Russian troops, especially in Prague. Brezhnev justified the invasion by stating that the interests of international socialism took precedence over the rights of state sovereignty. The Brezhnev Doctrine Brezhnev Doctrine
Cold War;Brezhnev Doctrine represented Soviet communism at its ideological best and Russian nationalism at its traditional worst.


The invasion of Czechoslovakia had significant repercussions both in that country and throughout the world. On August 26, Dubček, Svoboda, and Černík were obliged to sign the Moscow Agreement, under which they promised to curtail liberalization, allow Soviet forces to remain in Czechoslovakia, and reestablish the leading position of the Communist Party in the state. In the year that followed, the Czech government, under constant pressure from Moscow, steadily retreated from the Dubček program. Dubček himself stepped down as first secretary of the Communist Party in April, 1969, his place being taken by Gustáv Husák, a Slovak Communist usually styled as a “realist” because of his willingness to cooperate with Soviet Russia.

In reaction to the nationwide “Day of Shame” that was staged on the first anniversary of the invasion, Husák declared a state of emergency and had the federal assembly draft a drastic decree “for the defense of public order.” He vigorously employed this measure during the late summer and early fall of 1969 by carrying out mass arrests and clearing the ranks of the Czech Communist Party of all remaining reformers. By the end of the year, Husák had “normalized” the situation in Czechoslovakia to the satisfaction of the Soviet government. Dubček’s plans for the creation of “socialism with a human face” were dead, at least for the moment.

On the international front, the Soviet-led invasion created an air of intense indignation rather than an immediate threat to peace. Nevertheless, it dispelled the notion that the Soviet government was mellowing, a thesis which had been gathering support since the late 1950’s. The 1968 invasion proved, as had suppression of the German revolt of 1953 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, that Soviet leadership would take any steps to maintain the integrity of its vast empire, even at the risk of losing claim to the moral leadership of the world Communist movement. Soviet Union;invasion of Czechoslovakia by
Czechoslovakia;invasion by Soviet Union
Prague Spring (1968)
Iron Curtain

Further Reading

  • Crampton, R. J. Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge, 1994. This general survey of Eastern European history since World War I contains an extensive bibliography of works published in English.
  • Dawisha, Karen. The Kremlin and the Prague Spring. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Based on declassified American intelligence sources, this study examines the way in which Soviet leaders responded to the unfolding crisis in Czechoslovakia.
  • Dubček, Alexander. Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubcek. Edited and translated by Jiri Hochman. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. The posthumously published memoirs of the leader of the Prague Spring, written in collaboration with a former Czech journalist who emigrated to the United States after the Warsaw Pact invasion.
  • Eyal, Gil. The Origins of Postcommunist Elites: From Prague Spring to the Breakup of Czechoslovakia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Study in the history of ideas and political philosophy that traces the effects of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion upon the political evolution of Czechoslovakia. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Golan, Galia. The Czechoslovak Reform Movement: Communism in Crisis, 1962-1968. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971. Concentrates on the economic and political background to the emergence of the reform movement within the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
  • Gorbachev, Mikhail. Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Volume of inteviews with the former Soviet leader who oversaw the liberalization of Russia and the end of the Cold War. The Prague Spring is one of the major topics of conversation. Index.
  • Kusin, Vladimir V. The Intellectual Origins of the Prague Spring: The Development of Reformist Ideas in Czechoslovakia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971. This analysis of the reform movement emphasizes its moderation and the willingness of the reformers to effect change by working within existing institutions.
  • Renner, Hans. A History of Czechoslovakia Since 1945. New York: Routledge, 1989. This narrative history of Czechoslovakia since World War II was published in the year that Communist rule was overthrown.
  • Skilling, H. Gordon. Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. In this massive scholarly study, Skilling argues, in contrast to Kusin and Golan, that the Prague Spring was a revolutionary movement that presented a radical challenge to existing institutions.

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