Logistically, the invasion was next to a nightmare. Ground troops were puzzled, because maps were more than 20 years old. Towns and villages often had new names, and the locals changed or painted over the street and railway signs. The public took to the streets on August 21, built improvised barricades, stopped tanks with human chains, and refused to cooperate. The latter, besides random shooting in the air, was the most common reason for the cruel killings of innocent, unarmed individuals, teenagers and young women. There were many instances of tanks crashing shops, attacking barefoot protesters or street cars, or simply shooting against walls and militarily insignificant buildings, like museums and schools.
Czech sources report 137 Czechs and Slovaks died as a result of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and 400 between then and 1989. On the invaders side, 98 were killed, most of them in automobile or equipment accidents, including the inexperienced use of firearms. Five committed suicide in the first month of invasion. Eleven Soviet soldiers are believed to have been killed by locals. One Bulgarian soldier there was either killed in a drunken quarrel while attempting to desert, or killed by border guards while trying to flee into West Germany.
”Oak – Out, KGB Stays”
By the fall of 1968, the unarmed resistance was already fading away. But it rose anew on January 16, 1969, when 21-year-old Jan Palach set himself on fire, leaving behind a message, “I burn myself in order to wake up the people of this land.” Unfortunately, human torches started burning one after another – six young men and one young woman set themselves on fire and died in the following month. Another 26 were saved by medical intervention. Soon, the movement went international: Three perished by self-immolation in Poland, Hungary, and Latvia. The letters they left were, in substance, the same as Palach’s.
The Kremlin, furious over Dubček (whose surname may be translated into English as “Oakson”) and his inability to bring “appeasement.” The order given by Brezhnev to Soviet Marshal Andrei Grechko said: “Oak – out, KGB stays.” As a result of the Hockey Riots, Dubček was dismissed in April 1969. He served for two years as ambassador to Turkey, and then until his retirement as a clerk in the ministry of forestry. He was replaced by the KGB loyalist Gustáv Husák. Since his last name means “goose,” the Czechs and Slovaks dubbed the regime “socialism in a goose skin.” He ran the country until 1987.
Why did this happen?
The reasons for the discontent of 1968 were not immediately economic. True, power shortages were regular phenomena in ex-Communist Europe, as Ludwig von Mises predicted in 1922 – and so were shortages of all kinds. But despite the USSR’s postwar actions (the Red Army confiscated key industries as “reparations”), the economy of Czechoslovakia was the most competitive Communist economy. Their cars were far superior to those produced in the USSR or East Germany. Their shops offered better food and other products. By the end of the 1980s, the country traded only 55 percent of its output with the Soviet Union (as contrasted with Poland and Bulgaria, where the USSR accounted for more than 80 percent of international trade).
“The Evil Empire” was exporting Communism since the founding of the Comintern in 1919. In 1922, it exported the Bolshevik system to the Caucasus and financed a rebellion in Bulgaria in 1923. In 1939-1940, it occupied West Ukraine, Bessarabia, and the Baltics. And from 1944 to 1950, the Soviet system reached East Germany, China, and North Korea. These nations were held at the point of a gun – in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was more “business as usual”: deadly, nasty, and fundamentally unjust, but also typical.
Because the system could not work economically without private property and free trade, the citizen had to be trapped within it by force. For individuals, there was an Iron Curtain; for nations and ethnic groups, there was the Warsaw Pact under Soviet, and KGB, command. Some in the West viewed these invasions as an internal Soviet affair. No one would risk another war or a nuclear standoff in the 1960s because of a distant “people of whom we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia three decades earlier.
Today, the Russian Federation tries to keep the memory of this tradition alive. The president, a former KGB leader, exercises strong influence in the former Soviet countries, and less strong influence in Western Europe and elsewhere. This is the key motivation for the ongoing glorification of the Red Army and the embellishment of the activities of so-called “masters of invasions” like Margelov.
As the Prague Spring was suffocated by military force, a generation lost the hope of instant liberation. But the flashes of discontent with the Communist-Soviet rule that sparked across Eastern Europe did not cease to exist. The 1968 generation in Eastern European nations, to which I too belong, put an end to Soviet rule in 1989. Publicly commemorating the invasion of Czechoslovakia and teaching new generations about the misdeeds of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR is necessary to assure we never repeat similar crimes in the future.