Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Empire
Economic problems were a major cause of calls for reform in Czechoslovakia. The country had been economically successful before the Second World War. By the mid- 1960s many people were very disappointed with the standard of living under Soviet-style communism.
Czechoslovakia had also been a democracy before the war and people resented their lack of freedom of speech under the Soviet system. In 1966 there were student demonstrations and public criticism of the way the Soviet Union controlled the economy of Czechoslovakia. The student protesters called for greater democracy and free speech.
In January 1968 a new communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, was appointed. He was determined to improve communism. His plans were described as ' socialism with a human face', and the early months of 1968 have become known as the 'Prague Spring'. Dubcek began to introduce a number of reforms:
• the Soviet system of state planning would be altered to give more responsibility to farms and factories,
• trade unions would be given greater freedom, more foreign travel to the West would be allowed,
• censorship of the Press would be abolished so that people could say and write what they liked,
• criticism of the government would not be seen as a crime.
At the same time Dubcek was still a communist. He did not want to introduce Western-style capitalism. Dubcek knew what had happened in 1956. He tried to reassure the Soviet leaders that his reforms were less radical than those called for during the Hungarian Uprising. He stated repeatedly that he wanted Czechoslovakia to remain a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact. He insisted that changes in Czechoslovakia were no threat to the security of the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, did not accept these assurances from Dubcek. He was afraid that once the communist system allowed free speech the country would become chaotic. Brezhnev felt that the Czechoslovak reforms were the first step towards the country leaving the communist bloc and becoming a Western-style country, allied to the USA. He was not prepared to allow this.
Czechoslovakia was in an important strategic position. If it was allied to the USA, it would provide a corridor along which American forces could march from West Germany to the Soviet Ukraine. Brezhnev was also under pressure from hard-line communists in East Germany. They argued that if free speech was allowed in Czechoslovakia, people in all other Eastern bloc countries would demand the same rights. This would weaken the power of the communist parties throughout Eastern Europe.
Help from the USA?
Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, began to plan an invasion of Czechoslovakia. By late July Soviet tanks and troops were massed on the Czechoslovak border. Brezhnev was encouraged by developments in the West. The American government was in crisis in the summer of 1968. There were race riots in the black districts of several cities.
The war in Vietnam had gone disastrously wrong for the USA. Brezhnev calculated that there was no possibility of America taking any action to stop the invasion. The Vietnam crisis distracted attention from Czechoslovakia, just as in 1956 the Suez crisis reduced the impact of the invasion of Hungary.
Dubcek's response to the Soviet threat made matters worse. He invited Tito, the independent communist leader of Yugoslavia, to Prague. Tito arrived on 9 August. To Brezhnev this seemed like a signal that Dubcek was moving away from the Warsaw Pact and towards the same independent position taken by Yugoslavia. Dubcek also entered into negotiations with the Romanian leader, Nicolae Ceausescu.
A pact of friendship between Czechoslovakia and Romania was signed. The Romanian leader also resented control from Moscow. The closer ties between these two countries seemed like an attempt to undermine Soviet control of the Warsaw Pact.
Warsaw Pact forces invade
Soviet forces crossed the Czechoslovak frontier on 20 August 1968. They were joined by token forces from East Germany, Poland and Bulgaria. A day later the Warsaw Pact forces were in Prague, the Capital of Czechoslovakia. Large-scale loss of life was avoided because the Czechoslovak government decided not to resist the invading army. People took to the streets to protest but there was none of the bloody street fighting that had taken place in Budapest in 1956.
The Soviet troops took Dubcek to Moscow and ordered him to abandon his reforms. He was finally removed from office in 1969. A pro-Soviet leader called Husak took his place. Soviet power was demonstrated in May 1970 when a Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty was signed. In this the Czechoslovaks were forced to thank the Soviets for the invasion.
The aftermath of Czechoslovakia 1968
After the invasion Brezhnev said that the Soviet Union was not prepared to let any communist country abandon communism. If a state did try to give up communism, the Soviet Union claimed the right to impose communism by force. This view became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. The doctrine was finally abandoned in the 1980s.
The way the Soviet Union dealt with Czechoslovakia was less bloody than the treatment of Hungary after 1956. Nagy was executed. Dubcek was thrown out of the communist party in 1970. He spent the 1970s and 1980s working as a forestry inspector. However, he kept his life and his freedom.
The government of China was unhappy at the invasion and it led to a further deterioration in relations between the two communist superpowers. The Chinese disliked the way the Soviet Union treated other communist countries. Afterwards, Mao encouraged Yugoslavia and Romania to remain independent of Moscow. There were border clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops in the months after the invasion.
The invasion disillusioned communists around the world. In Western Europe many communists stopped looking to Moscow for guidance. In the 1970s the powerful Italian and French communist parties called for a new style of communism that allowed free speech and free elections.