Oldřich Škácha: Occupation 1968

Knihovna Vaclava Havla (Vaclav Havel Library)

A unique collection of reportage photographs from the first days of the occupation of Czechoslovakia

The August invasion

The August invasion is the name given to the incursion by Warsaw Pact troops, headed by the Soviet Union, onto the territory of Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20 to 21, 1968. It was aimed at stamping out the reforms of what became known as the Prague Spring, an attempt to liberalise politics and accelerate democratisation after 20 years of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, dating back to the coup of February 1948. During the Prague Spring censorship was abolished and civil
rights such as freedom of expression and movement were restored. Economic changes were also implemented. The Soviet Union responded to this with military aggression, the pretext for which was the so-called letter of invitation; a request from the conservative wing of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia for an intervention against the policies of Alexandr Dubček and other reform politicians, it was sent to Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Central Committee of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Letter of invitation to Leonid Brezhnev

Dear Leonid Ilyich,

Conscious of full responsibility for our decision, we appeal to you with the following statement. The essentially correct post-January democratic process, the correction of mistakes and shortcomings of the past, as well as the overall political management of society, have gradually eluded the control of the party's Central Committee. The press, radio, and television, which are effectively in the hands of right-wing forces, have influenced popular opinion to such an extent that elements hostile to the party have begun to take part in the political life of our country, without any opposition from the public. (…) The very existence of socialism in our country is under threat. At present, all political instruments and the instruments of state power are paralyzed to a considerable degree. The right-wing forces have created conditions suitable for a counterrevolutionary coup.

In such trying circumstances we are appealing to you, Soviet communists, the leading representatives of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with a request for you to lend support and assistance with all the means at your disposal. Only with your assistance can the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic be extricated from the imminent danger of counterrevolution. (…)

Alois Indra, Drahomír Kolder, Oldřich Švestka, Antonín Kapek, Vasil Biľak

The letter was handed over on 3 August 1968 following negotiations between Soviet and Czechoslovak leaders.

Military units from five countries crossed Czechoslovak state borders in the course of the invasion. Alongside the Soviet Army, the operation involved troops from the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic, the Bulgarian People’s Republic and the German Democratic Republic, which sent a small number of soldiers. In the initial days of the invasion there were approximately 200,000 foreign soldiers and up to 6,300 tanks on Czechoslovak soil.

On the night of August 20 to 21, 1968 Czechoslovakia’s airports were taken over and used to land Soviet transport planes carrying military units and equipment.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on 21 August 1968 Czechoslovak Radio broadcast a proclamation from the leadership of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party entitled “To all people of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.” It referred to the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops as a denial of the basic tenets of international law and called on the population not to offer resistance to the advancing troops. The same went for Czechoslovakia’s security forces.

01:50

To all people of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic

Yesterday, on 20 August 1968, at around 23:00, troops from the Soviet Union, the Polish People’s Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic crossed the state borders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. This occurred without the awareness of the president of the republic, the chairman of the National Assembly, the prime minister or the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CC CCP) and of those organs.

In those hours the leadership of the CC CCP convened a meeting and discussed preparations for the 14th Party Congress. The leadership of the CC CCP calls on all the citizens of our republic to remain calm and to not offer resistance to the advancing troops. Therefore neither our army, Security or People’s Militia received an order to defend the country.

The leadership of the CC CCP regards this act as contravening not only all rules governing relations between socialist states but also as a denial of the basic norms of international law. All leading functionaries of the state, the CCP and the National Front remain in the posts to which they have been elected as representatives of the state and members of their organisations under the laws and other norms valid in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Constitutional officials have called an immediate session of the National Assembly, the government of the republic, and the leadership of the Central Committee of the CCP is calling a plenum of the CC CCP to discuss the situation that has arisen.

The Soviet news agency TASS issued an official statement saying that Warsaw Pact troops had entered Czechoslovakia at the request of party and state officials. During the course of the day media in other states involved in the invasion put out similar information. However, almost the entire world, including the communist parties of most countries, condemned the occupation.

04:20

Statement from the Soviet press agency TASS on the occupation of Czechoslovakia

TASS has been authorised to announce that party and state officials in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic turned to the Soviet Union and other allied states with a request to provide fraternal assistance forthwith to the Czechoslovak people, including with the help of armed forces. This request was provoked by the danger facing the existing Czechoslovak socialist order and constitutionally assured statehood from counterrevolutionary forces which have conspired with external forces hostile to socialism. (…)

Soviet military units along with units from the referred to allied states entered the territory of Czechoslovakia on 21 August. (…)

The steps taken are not directed against any state and do not harm anybody’s state interests in any way. They serve peace and were provoked by concerns over its safeguarding. Firmly and determinedly, fraternal countries are standing up in inviolable solidarity against any external danger. Nobody will ever be allowed to excise a single link from the alliance of socialist states.

In the first hours of the occupation people in all parts of Czechoslovakia were woken by the sound of military columns on the move. The majority of important cities and towns were occupied. The public expressed spontaneous resistance to the occupation. People took to the streets, though many were still unable to comprehend that something of this sort had occurred.

The situation in front of the CC CCP

In Prague a crowd began gathering in front of the building of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CC CCP) before midnight. At 4:30 the first Soviet armoured vehicles reached the building. A number of citizens trying to protect the building were shot during its seizure; one succumbed to his injuries.

Old Town Square

Citizens started gathering on Old Town Square in the early hours of the morning. The Radio repeatedly called for calm, so there would be no pretext for bloodshed. The Czechoslovak flag was raised above the monument to Jan Hus at 8:00.

Wenceslas Square

One of the first and main targets of the occupiers was Czechoslovak Radio, which was broadcasting uncensored information about the invasion. At 7:00 several Soviet tanks entered Wenceslas Square and soldiers, evidently believing they were attacking the nearby Czechoslovak Radio building, shelled the National Museum.

The situation in front of the Czechoslovak Radio building

An improvised barricade comprising buses and trucks was erected in front of the Czech Radio building on Vinohradská St. in a bid to prevent the occupiers reaching it. After a clash with tanks, which arrived at 7:30, a fire broke out that subsequently took hold at some buildings. The crowd of demonstrators protecting the barricade was broken up by gunfire. Many were injured and several killed. At 8:30 soldiers occupied the Czechoslovak Radio studio.

How the Radio reported

At 7:35 Czechoslovak Radio broadcasting ends and the national anthem is played and we are terribly sad… It means the Radio has been occupied. However, a moment after the anthem a familiar voice from the Radio announced that they were still in the studio and would broadcast news to us for as long as they could. If you hear different voices than the hitherto announcers on the radio, don’t trust them.

Mladá fronta, special edition

8:15

First statement by President Ludvík Svoboda

Dear fellow citizens, in the last few hours a highly complicated situation has arisen in our country. At the present moment I cannot explain it in any more detail. As the president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, I appeal to you with the full responsibility that I took on with the acceptance of that function and urgently request that you maintain complete composure and absolute calm. In the knowledge of your civic responsibility and in the interests of our republic, do not commit any rash acts. With the dignity and discipline that you have shown in recent days, await the further steps of the republic’s constitutional bodies.

In the course of the day Soviet soldiers seize television and radio transmitters and the editorial offices of newspapers, including the Communist Party daily Rudé právo. Broadcasting continues in improvised studios and special editions of newspapers are issued.

10:00

Statement by the Rudé právo collective

Citizens, comrades, friends!

The editorial offices of Rudé právo were taken over by a military unit and gradually cleared out from 10 o’clock. We remained at our places and worked for as long as we could. All editors, compositors and printers have received an ultimatum to leave the grounds of our publishers by 13:00. We have been forced to interrupt the publication of our newspaper, we hope not for long. (…) If necessary, Rudé právo will again be published even at the cost of the safety of our editors’ lives.

10:00

Statement by the Municipal Committee of the CPC in Prague

Citizens, people of Prague,

Our city is experiencing perhaps the most difficult moment in our modern history. Prague has been occupied by foreign forces on more than one occasion in the past. The nation underwent tough tests then. For the first time in history our city is now occupied by the soldiers of allied countries. It is not yet possible to say what consequences this unprecedented action will have for the fate of our city, our nations and the development of socialism. At this moment we can only call on the people of Prague, in the spirit of their city’s best traditions, to stay faithful to one another, to remain unwaveringly and firmly behind the Dubček leadership of the CPC and the lawful bodies of the state. We call on all the people of Prague, in particular Prague’s working people. Resist all possible provocations! It is not possible in this moment to use force in defence! Our defence must be a dignified and level-headed unfaltering loyalty to the direction that we embarked on in January!

A parade of Prague citizens protesting the occupation walks along Wenceslas Square with a bloodied flag.

“Occupiers go home!“

“Moscow is your city“

The world responds

Critical voices had already been heard from the Italian Communist Party; the Swedish Communist Party also condemned what had occurred with the Warsaw Pact forces’ invasion of the CSSR.

The Communist Party of the Netherlands has declared in connection with the situation in the CSSR: We reject all interference in the internal affairs of that country.

The NATO council was quickly convened to discuss the situation in the CSSR.

The Vatican expressed deep disquiet at the occupation of the CSSR by Warsaw Pact soldiers.

Special publication by combined editorial offices.

17:00

In the course of the day leading representatives of the Communist Party and government, headed by Alexandr Dubček, were arrested by Soviet soldiers and taken in armoured personnel carriers to Ruzyně airport. Subsequently they were taken to Moscow against their wills. In the early evening President Ludvík Svoboda vainly called for their release.

People, do not inform the occupiers and their lackeys about the names of streets. Don’t give them directions! If possible, remove street signs and house numbers. Occupiers and collaborators are arresting our representatives. Don’t let them do so!

Unknown journal, shortly after 21 August 1968

19.00

Statement by the government of the CSSR

All people of Czechoslovakia!

Against the will of its government, National Assembly, CPC leadership and people, Czechoslovakia has been occupied by the troops of five Warsaw Pact states.

An act of aggression against a state ruled by a Communist Party carried out by the allied armies of socialist countries has thus occurred for the first time in the history of the international Communist movement. (…)

- We demand the immediate departure of the troops of the five Warsaw Pact states and adherence to and full respect for Czechoslovakia’s state sovereignty.
- We urgently demand that the governments of the USSR, GDR, PPR, HPR and BPR issue an order to halt armed operations during which blood has been spilled and the material assets of our country destroyed.
- We demand the immediate creation of normal conditions for the work of Czechoslovak constitutional and political bodies and the cessation of interventions against individual members of those bodies so that they can renew their work.
- We demand the immediate convening of the whole National Assembly, before which the entire Czechoslovak government would present its standpoint on resolving the existing situation. (…)

It is still within your powers to help us to complete the major work of renewal that we embarked on in January. The government believes that with your help we can achieve this without unnecessary victims and bloodshed.

“Soldiers, go home“

22:30

Second statement by President Ludvík Svoboda

Dear fellow citizens,
(...) I am aware off all the problems and hardships that the current situation is causing. However, I again turn to you, dear fellow citizens, with an urgent request that you maintain the utmost composure and avoid anything that could give rise to regrettable actions with irreversible consequences. I sincerely call on you in particular, young people.

I call on you all, workers, farmers and intellectuals, to once again show evidence of your relationship to socialism, to freedom and to democracy in your attitude.

There is no way back for us. The CPC’s action programme and the statement of the National Front government expresses the life concerns and needs of all of the people of our homeland, so we must continue further in the work underway. Let’s not succumb to mistrust. Let’s all join together and, with the CPC and the National Front, remain as one, working for the better life of our nations.

Václav Havel on August 1968

The establishment brought to power in Czechoslovakia by the invasion of five Warsaw Pact states in 1968 fully identified with that invasion and also completely accepted the then Soviet criticism of the Czechoslovak reform process. They turned the occupation into “fraternal assistance” and began gradually demanding the unreserved agreement of the whole of society with that “assistance”. They began to brutally persecute tens of thousands of advocates of reform, freethinking people and all who refused to feign such agreement.

The essay “The Burden of 21 August“, August 1988

Václav Havel on the impact of the occupation and the advent of normalisation

Thanks to that aggression, one of the most conservative regimes in the Soviet Bloc was installed in our country. It ruthlessly got revenge on all who had strove for the rebirth of our society and did immense damage, the extent of which we aren’t actually fully aware of yet. (…) Czechoslovakia became an island of quiet, injustice, systematic demoralisation and criminal exploitation of the future. Thus we lost 20 years of our lives.

Speech of the president of Czechoslovakia on the anniversary of the occupation of the country, 21 August 1990

Between August and December 1968 a total of 137 civilians died. The majority of Warsaw Pact troops departed Czechoslovakia before 4 November 1968. Following the invasion the Soviet Army remained, with an estimated 150,000 persons in 33 locations on the territory of the state, as “Soviet units temporarily deployed on Czechoslovak territory” with no date set for their departure. Some of them left the country in the middle of 1987, though the last went two years after the Velvet Revolution, in 1991.

Oldřich Škácha

(16.10.1941 – 29.3.2014)

The leading Czech photographer Oldřich Škácha entered the public consciousness thanks to his work documenting major figures in the Czechoslovak arts scene and dissent in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular the circle surrounding Pavel Kohout and Václav Havel. For 20 years, a unique reportage collection of photographs from the initial days of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968 remained closed away in his studio. Incidentally, the photographer met a similar fate; he was barred from public activities following the Soviet occupation.

Oldřich Škácha
Credits: Story

Photographer: Oldřich Škácha
Author of the online exhibition: Eva Csémyová

The exhibition "Oldřich Škácha: Occupation 1968" is also held in extended form in the Czech Photo Center s.r.o on August 15 - September 16, 2018.

© Vaclav Havel Library, 2018

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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