The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The End of Socialism with a Human Face

DURING THE NIGHT of August 20–21, 1968, the joint forces of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. This action was the biggest military operation in Europe since the Second World War and, according to the official statement of the Soviet press agency TASS, was launched by request of “the Party and government leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.” However, the names of those who supposedly issued the invitation were never disclosed. 1 The invasion was preceded by several months of preparations, which had included joint maneuvers, extensive troop movements along Czechoslovakia's borders, and the establishment of communication and coordination centers. It was massive, swift, and well executed. The invading forces from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary crossed Czechoslovakia's four borders at eighteen different points. Initially, the invading forces numbered around two hundred thousand men and more than sixty-three hundred tanks. Ultimately the occupying forces reached between four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand men. 2 The troops primary targeted airports, communication centers and important cities. They quickly secured important party and government buildings, public places of gathering, and all the country's strategic facilities.

In striking contrast to the invasion of Hungary in 1956, the invading troops did not attempt to assume full control of the country, take over the institutions of the party-state, and carry out the functions of maintaining public order. The troops did not occupy factories, did not prevent legitimate political organs from convening meetings, and more importantly, did not carry out mass arrests or impose martial law regulations. Only few top leaders of the Czechoslovak party were arrested during the outset of invasion. Given the scale of the military operation, it was remarkably bloodless, with few casualities on both sides. Some one hundred civilians and less than twenty soldiers of invading armies died during the invasion and subsequent occupation of the country. While the invading troops used tanks and guns to subdue the crowds, there were no armed clashes either with the Czechoslovak army or with any civilian groups.

In facing the invasion, Czechoslovakia's Communist leaders did not call upon the Czechoslovak People's Army to defend the country's sovereignty, and the army units stayed in their barracks, while foreign tanks rolled over the country. They also issued orders to the security organs and the militia to make sure that arms were secured and not available to “unauthorized” persons. Even though the Czechoslovak army (175,000 men) did not have the

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