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August 24, 1968 – End Of Socialism With A Human Face – The Streets Of Prague

Prague - August 1968 - Photo: Josef Houldelka/Magnum Photos
Socialism With A Human Face – the end of the grand experiment – PhotoL: Josef Houdelka – Magnum Photos
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August 21-25, 1968 – Various Radio Broadcasts – Radio Prague – Voice Of America – Radio Moscow – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –

August 24, 1968 – End of the Grand Experiment – Socialism With A Human Face, as it would be known to the world.

In May 1963, some Marxist intellectuals organized the Liblice Conference that discussed Franz Kafka’s life, marking the beginning of the cultural democratization of Czechoslovakia which ultimately led to the 1968 Prague Spring, an era of political liberalization. This conference was unique because it symbolized Kafka’s rehabilitation in the Eastern Bloc after having been heavily criticized, led to a partial opening up of the regime and influenced the relaxation of censorship. It also had an international impact as a representative from all Eastern Bloc countries were invited to the Conference; only the Soviet Union did not send any representative. This conference had a revolutionary effect and paved the way for the reforms while making Kafka the symbol of the renaissance of Czechoslovakian artistic and intellectual freedom.

As the strict regime eased its rules, the Union of Czechoslovak Writers cautiously began to air discontent. In Literární noviny, the union’s previously hard-line communist weekly, members suggested that literature should be independent of Party doctrine.

In June 1967, a small fraction of the union sympathized with radical socialists, especially Ludvík Vaculík, Milan Kundera, Jan Procházka, Antonín Jaroslav Liehm, Pavel Kohout and Ivan Klíma.

As President Antonín Novotný was losing support, Alexander Dubček, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Slovakia, and economist Ota Šik challenged him at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Party. Novotný then invited the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, to Prague that December, seeking support. Brezhnev, however, was surprised at the extent of the opposition to Novotný and so he rather supported his removal. Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary on 5 January 1968. On 22 March Novotný resigned and was replaced by Ludvík Svoboda, who later gave consent to the reforms.

A few months later, at a meeting of Party leaders, it was decided that administrative actions against the writers who openly expressed support of reformation would be taken. Since only a small group of the union held these beliefs, the remaining members were relied upon to discipline their colleagues. Control over Literární noviny and several other publishers was transferred to the Ministry of Culture, and even some leaders of the Party who later became major reformers—including Dubček—endorsed these moves.

Initial reaction within the Communist Bloc was mixed. Hungary’s János Kádár was highly supportive of Dubček’s appointment in January, but Leonid Brezhnev and the hardliners grew concerned about the reforms, which they feared might weaken the position of the Bloc in the Cold War.

The Soviet policy of compelling the socialist governments of its satellite states to subordinate their national interests to those of the Eastern Bloc (through military force if needed) became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.[43] On the night of 20–21 August, Eastern Bloc armies from four Warsaw Pact countries—the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary—invaded the ČSSR.

That night, 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks entered the country. They first occupied the Ruzyně International Airport, where air deployment of more troops was arranged. The Czechoslovak forces were confined to their barracks, which were surrounded until the threat of a counter-attack was assuaged. By the morning of 21 August Czechoslovakia was occupied.

Over the next several days, the airwaves were filled with reports, eyewitness accounts and appeals to the West for help. To get an idea how it unfolded, here are several reports from different sources, from Czech Radio to Radio Moscow to Voice Of America, reporting on the events taking place in Prague and all over Czechoslovakia that week.

Technical Note: Since these are Shortwave broadcasts, the sound is all over the place – from clear to shrill and distant. It’s history as it was happening and no way to do things over. Apologies from the get-go, but this is history, warts and all.

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