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Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

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History

Why did Czechslovakians enjoy flourishing arts and culture for a brief few months in 1968, only for it to be brutally taken away by the Soviet Union?

In 1968, Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia enjoyed four months under the new liberal reformist Dubček; the removal of some state control led to greater freedom of arts, press, culture, and speech. This period from January until August 1968 became known as the Prague Spring. Concerned about Czechoslovakia’s freedom undermining the Soviet Union and the Communist Party’s power, the Soviet Union sent troops from the Warsaw Pact countries to re-establish authority. This was a major event that had a lasting impact on relations during the Cold War.

The events leading up to the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

Below is an outline of the events leading up to the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Background

The Soviet Union gained control of Czechoslovakia in 1948 and it remained a stable satellite state for 20 years, controlled by a rigid and oppressive communist regime.

Satellite state

A country that is independent but under heavy influence or control by another country (here the Soviet Union).

From 1953, the hardliner Antonín Novotný led the country, maintaining strict regulations in the arts and media. Whilst these loosened after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the de-Stalinisation programmes of 1956, Czechoslovakia did not go through the same liberalisation processes as some other Eastern bloc countries.

De-Stalinisation

A series of political reforms after the death of Stalin.

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia Photograph of Antonín Novotný StudySmarterPhotograph of Antonín Novotný, Harry Pot, Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Wikimedia Commons.

Peaceful student protests

In 1967, dissatisfaction with Novotný and his repressive regime grew and led to peaceful student protests. Novotný appealed to the Soviet leader Brezhnev for assistance but was refused. Instead, in January 1968 the Central Committee elected the more liberal Alexander Dubček to replace Novotný as Communist Party Secretary.

Central Committee

The executive leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (here).

Socialism with a human face

In April 1968, the more liberal Alexander Dubček agreed to bring in new reforms under an Action Plan that would provide ‘socialism with a human face’. The idea was not to get rid of socialism but to democratise it, allowing Czechoslovakians greater freedom. The Action Plan was characterised by:

  • More freedom of speech and less censorship.

  • The legalisation of political opposition groups.

  • More freedom of travel for Czechoslovakian citizens.

  • Reduction of the secret police’s activities.

This period of reduced restrictions and increased freedom became known as the Prague Spring.

The dates of the Prague Spring

Although the reforms which characterise the Prague Spring were only introduced in April 1968, the Prague Spring is generally considered to begin when Dubček was elected on 5th January 1968. Even before the Action Plan, Dubček began to reform Czechoslovakia through measures such as allowing greater press freedom, and rehabilitating victims of past political purges.

Soviet concerns

These reforms worried the Soviets as they were concerned that they may go too far and encourage other satellite states to follow, recalling the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, where revolts almost led to the overthrow of the Hungarian government and Hungary leaving the Warsaw Pact. Dubček’s legalisation of political opposition groups was of particular concern, especially his proposals to allow non-communist political parties in elections. In reference to Czechoslovakia, Brezhnev declared that he would not allow countries in the Eastern bloc to reject communism, even if it meant a third world war. This became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which essentially justified military intervention in any dissenting Eastern bloc states.

What caused the Prague Spring?

Rising tensions in Czechoslovakia led to protests that ousted Novotný, brought in Dubček, and eventually culminated in the Prague Spring. Below we will outline the factors which caused the Czech people to become disillusioned with the communist regime.

Weak economy

Czechoslovakia had the strongest industry in the Eastern bloc and had previously enjoyed a strong economy. In the 1960s, however, this had started to decline, as the USSR had Czechoslovakia produce raw materials like steel for the Soviet economy rather than its own. There was also a feeling that the Communist Party was preventing progress. Their control over farming and guidance on what to produce prevented modernisation efforts and restricted farmers. Attempts at economic reforms under Novotný were also unsuccessful, leading to frustration.

Living standards

Discontent began to grow in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s as economic problems led to growing inflation, food shortages, and a decline in living standards. Housing for workers was poor, and they were only able to lead basic lifestyles. As Czechoslovakia was the strongest industry in the Eastern bloc, there was an increasing realisation that the population was sacrificing its standard of living to prop up the Soviet Union.

Political discontent

There was growing unrest amongst the population of Czechoslovakia. Czechs did not like how communist control had developed over the last 20 years, and felt that the country had transformed from a democracy into a dictatorship. Novotný was unpopular for censoring the press and limiting personal freedom for citizens. His quasi-authoritarian approach (he imprisoned and killed innocent protestors) made him increasingly unpopular.

Quasi-authoritarian

Partly authoritarian (enforcing strict obedience at the expense of personal freedom).

Western support

Some Czechoslovakians thought that the US would intervene and support them if they protested against the communist regime, something they had repeatedly said they would do. The Truman Doctrine, for example, stated that the United States would

support free peoples who are resisting… subjugation.¹

Timeline of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

The Prague Spring ended when the Soviet Union sent a combination of Warsaw Pact troops to invade Czechoslovakia, ousted Dubček, and re-established authority. Despite the initial belief that Warsaw Pact troops could restore order to the country in four days, civilian resistance lasted eight months.

Warsaw Pact

A collective defence agreement between the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. It stated that if one was attacked, then the others would intervene militarily to defend it.

Negotiations

Before invading Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union first tried to enter into negotiations to stop or limit the Prague Spring and its effects. In these negotiations, Dubček:

  • Reaffirmed his Party’s loyalty to the Warsaw Pact.

  • Pledged to suppress any ‘anti-socialist’ tendencies.

  • Promised to prevent rival political parties from gaining popularity or power.

  • Stated he would control the press more rigorously.

However, the Soviet Union felt that these commitments were not being upheld. They proclaimed under the Brezhnev Doctrine that socialism was under threat in Czechoslovakia and an invasion was necessary to protect it.

The Soviet invasion

During the night of 20 August, around 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks entered Czechoslovakia from four Warsaw Pact countries (the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary), and occupied the country.

Civilian defence

Czechoslovakia did not fight back militarily. Resistance came from civilians, despite Dubček’s plea for compliance. Whilst some of the protests were violent, many were peaceful. Czechs confused soldiers by painting over town signs or giving them the wrong directions. Some protesters stood in front of tanks and offered flowers to the soldiers.

Despite the Czechoslovakian response being largely passive, the Soviets responded brutally. Over 100 civilians were killed during the first four months, and there were also hundreds of non-fatal casualties.

One of the most notable deaths was student activist Jan Palach, who set himself on fire (an act known as self-immolation) in Wenceslas Square in Prague to protest the invasion.

Self-immolation

An act of sacrificing oneself for religious or political reasons by setting oneself on fire.

The End of the invasion

In April 1969, the invasion ended when the Soviets managed to force Dubček from power. He was arrested and replaced by Gustáv Husák, who reversed all of Dubček’s reforms.

Consequences of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

The suppression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia led to international criticism despite the fact there was no direct intervention on the side of Czechoslovakia. Unsurprisingly it led to a deterioration in relations between the US and the USSR but it also had consequences on other relationships - find out more below.

International criticism

Internationally, the Soviet’s actions received widespread criticism. Photographs of peaceful citizens handing out flowers and standing in front of looming Soviet tanks were examples of the brutality of the USSR. The Brezhnev Doctrine was a threat to peace and countries such as Romania and Yugoslavia moved politically away from Moscow after the invasion. It also finalised the Sino-Soviet split; Beijing was concerned the Soviet Union might invade China using the doctrine as justification.

Criticism from the West

The West did not intervene, accepting the Soviet action in their own Eastern bloc countries; they did, however, vocally criticise the invasion. The US was focused on the Vietnam War, and President Lyndon Johnson wanted to avoid stoking tensions with the USSR at a time of easing tensions. The idea was to avoid any action that might constitute rollback. The US was concerned that involvement in Czechoslovakia might be interpreted as an act of war.

Rollback

A discredited US policy that aimed to revert communist states to capitalist ones.

Criticism from the Eastern Bloc

Civilians in some of the Eastern Bloc countries condemned the invasion, bravely protesting for freedom. The Soviets brutally suppressed a protest in Moscow’s Red Square and detained protesters.

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia A Russian protest banner reading “for your freedom and ours” StudySmarterA Russian protest banner reading ‘for your freedom and ours’, credit: Alex Bakharev, Wikimedia Commons.

In Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu, the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, publicly declared support for Dubček and refused, along with Albania, to comply with the Warsaw pact and send in troops.

Criticism from China

Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was furious. He felt that the Brezhnev Doctrine might justify a future Soviet invasion of China. He created a huge propaganda campaign against the Soviet reaction to the Prague Spring, despite his earlier opposition to the freedom Czechoslovakians had enjoyed. Mao denounced the invasion as monstrous, comparing it to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, and claiming the support of the Czechoslovak people.

This campaign did not significantly affect Czechoslovakians but it did contribute to deteriorating relations between China and the USSR.

The Warsaw Pact

The Prague Spring invasion strengthened the Warsaw Pact and increased the USSR’s control of its satellite states in Eastern Europe. The Prague Spring and the Brezhnev Doctrine justified military intervention in any eastern European country that dissented, hence preventing future uprisings until the late 80s.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia’s significance for Cold War relations

With the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union sent a message that peaceful co-existence was no longer an option. As a result, relations between the USA and the USSR further deteriorated, and both continued to stockpile weapons. However, some progress was made later on with the signing of the SALT 1 agreement in 1972 and the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which aimed to improve relations and limit weapons hoarding.

Peaceful co-existence

The idea that communism and capitalism can coexist in peace.

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia - Key takeaways

  • Student protests against the hardliner Antonín Novotný led to the election of the more liberal Alexander Dubček.
  • ‘Socialism with a human face’ was an action plan by Dubček to keep communism in Czechoslovakia but allow more freedom and less censorship.
  • The Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring after four months because they were concerned that they were losing control of Czechoslovakia and might inspire similar actions in other countries.
  • The Prague Spring meant the introduction of the Brezhnev Doctrine, allowing the USSR to intervene in Eastern Europe.
  • The USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia strengthened the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union’s control of their satellite states.
  • Relations between the USA and the USSR deteriorated because of the intervention, and both continued stockpiling weapons.
  • The events of the Prague Spring suggested that this was the end of the East and West’s peaceful co-existence.

1. The Avalon Project, ‘Truman Doctrine.’ Yale Law School.

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia reversed the Prague Spring, during which Czechoslovakians had increased freedom, less censorship, and new political parties could form. Scared of losing its grip on Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union used Warsaw Pact troops to invade the country, arrest Dubček and replace him with Husák. The USSR reversed the reforms, and Czechoslovakia returned to its repressive state.

The Prague Spring was important because it demonstrated that the Soviet Union would intervene militarily in their satellite states. This tightened their control on Eastern Europe, and deteriorated relations between the USSR and the US.

The Soviet invasion deterred future uprisings in the Eastern Bloc due to its brutal suppression and the West's unwillingness to intervene. Despite hopes, the US was not involved in the Prague Spring and purposefully did nothing to support the Czechs when the troops invaded. They wanted to avoid stoking tensions with the USSR.

Historians suggest around 108 people died during the first four months of the invasion despite Czechoslovakia’s peaceful approach. One of the most notable deaths was that of Jan Palach, a student that set himself on fire in protest of the invasion.

The USSR invaded Czechoslovakia because they felt Dubček’s reforms had gone too far, and they were worried about losing their grip on Czechoslovakia and other satellite states following suit. They invaded to re-establish control, replace Dubček, and reverse his liberal reforms.

Final Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia Quiz

Question

 What actions made Novotný unpopular? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

His imprisonment of political protesters

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Question

Why was Czechoslovakia’s economy getting weaker? (Choose two answers)

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Answer

The USA stopped sending aid packages

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Question

Which of these factors did not lead to growing dissatisfaction in Czechoslovakia? (Choose one answer)


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Answer

Inflation

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Question

Who did Novotný appeal to for help during the student protests? 


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Answer

The Soviet Premier, Leonid Brezhnev

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Question

Which country did Czechoslovakia think might help them if they protested? 


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Answer

The USA

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Question

What year did the Prague Spring take place? 


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Answer

1968

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Question

How did Dubček describe his action plan?


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Answer

‘Socialism with a human face’

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Question

Which of these were changes implemented by Dubček? (Choose two answers)


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Answer

Less censorship

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Question

Why did the USSR invade Czechoslovakia and end the Prague Spring? (Choose two answers)


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Answer

They were concerned about Czechoslovakia’s relationship with the USA

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Question

Who replaced Dubček?


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Answer

Gustáv Husák

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Question

Which countries moved away from Moscow after the Prague Spring? (Choose two answers)


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Answer

Bulgaria

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Question

What happened to relations between the USA and the USSR after the Prague Spring?


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Answer

They deteriorated further, and both continued to stockpile weapons.

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Question

What were the impacts of the Brezhnev Doctrine and its implementation in the Prague Spring? (Choose three answers)


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Answer

It suggested the end of peaceful co-existence

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What happened to the Warsaw Pact after the Prague Spring?


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Answer

It became stronger and a formidable force, however lost its members Albania and Romania shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia

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Question

How did the rest of the world react to the USSR’s crushing of the Prague Spring?

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Answer

They criticised it but did not intervene to help the Czechoslokians despite hopes they may do so.

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