In the late 1960’s Czechoslovakia was part of the Warsaw Pact, a group of European countries with governments that operated under the thumb of the Soviet Union (USSR). But Czechoslovakia was beginning to show a certain degree of independence. Writers and intellectuals were demanding an end to censorship and more freedom to travel abroad. At the Thirteenth Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1966, a radical new economic policy was introduced and steps were taken that could lead to the separation of the Communist Party from the national government.
The reformers gained ground. In early 1968 Ludvik Svoboda was installed as president and Alexander Dubček was made head of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. The new regime abolished press censorship and travel restrictions. They made plans for open elections, free trade, and economic reforms. Czechoslovakia was on its way to becoming the most liberal communist country in the world. People reveled in their newfound freedom and creativity bloomed. This euphoric period became known as the “Prague Spring.”
Not surprisingly, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his counterparts in the other Warsaw Pact countries found this train of events deeply disturbing. After some tense negotiations among the parties, a compromise was worked out. Reforms were allowed to continue, but at a slower pace. Everyone in Czechoslovakia breathed a little easier.
However, the uneasy détente did not last for long. In the wee hours of August 20, 1968, Warsaw Pact military forces struck like lightning, initiating a massive invasion of their wayward ally. On the morning of the 21st Czechs were shocked to find their streets inundated with tanks and troops from East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the U.S.S.R.
Within a week, over half million Warsaw Pact troops occupied Czechoslovakia. In Prague alone 500 tanks controlled strategic locations.
The Soviets had planned to crush any military resistance, install a puppet government, and begin withdrawing within four days. With their overwhelming forces, they were well prepared to counter any resistance the small Czechoslovakian army might offer. But, surprised by an invasion by supposed allies, the Czech soldiers did not fight. Instead, they were ordered to remain in their barracks. This was an unfortunate turn of events for the invaders because they were completely unprepared for the kind of resistance they were about to encounter.
The occupiers had been told they would be welcomed with open arms by the Czechoslovakian workers. Instead, they were booed, taunted, spit at and jeered. Initially there was some violence, as angry kids set tanks on fire and threw paving stones and Molotov cocktails at the troops.
But radio and TV stations denounced the violence and called for “passive” resistance instead. Over the next couple of weeks these clandestine broadcasters coordinated the civilian resistance that essentially prevented the Soviets from taking control of the country.
People found creative ways of demonstrating hostility toward their invasive “friendly” neighbors.
In addition to making it clear the troops were not welcome, this spontaneous noncooperation seriously hampered Soviet plans to subjugate Czechoslovak civil society. Here are some of the more interesting resistance actions:
At 9:00 am on August 26, people all over Czechoslovakia rang church bells, blew horns and sounded sirens to protest the invasion. The din frightened some of the nervous occupation troops, who shot a woman in Klárov and roughed up an engineer who was sounding his train whistle. Sirens and horns also announced the beginning of one-hour general strikes in Prague. Soviet tank crews watched helplessly as motorists blew their horns and all traffic stopped.
Citizens in a small village in Eastern Bohemia formed a human chain across a bridge and blockaded a Russian convoy of tanks and other vehicles. After eight and a half hours, the Russians turned back.
When it was discovered that a Russian freight train was transporting equipment to jam pirate broadcasts, a radio station put out an appeal for rail workers to stop the train. It never made it to Prague. First, the train was delayed when the electricity failed. Then it ended up on a side track stuck between two other immobilized locomotives. The Soviets eventually had to transport the gear by helicopter.
In Bratislava a group of young people gathered up boxes of “girlie” magazines that had recently become available from the West. They went to a park and handed them out to the lonely Soviet tank crews that were keeping watch over the area. After a while the commander realized what was happening and ordered his men back into their tanks. The kids joked that the soldiers, who had been abused by the local Slovaks for the last few days, were now abusing themselves. With the soldiers sealed inside their tanks, the kids pasted paper over their periscopes, making it impossible for the crews to continue their surveillance.
Some Russian troops took up residence in an old castle in Bratislava that housed a museum. The museum curator asked the Russian colonel if he could check the exhibits to make sure they were unharmed. The colonel readily granted him permission for an inspection. When the curator was left alone he sneaked down into the basement and turned off the main water valve. When the soldiers found they had no water, they had to look for it elsewhere. Mysteriously, much of the water in the rest of Bratislava had somehow been cut off as well. Finding potable water became a serious problem for the troops, and for several days it had to be brought in from Hungary by helicopter.
The Soviets had brought powdered rations that needed to be mixed with water. When they tried to fill their canteens with public tap water in Bratislava, the Slovaks gathered around and warned them that “counter-revolutionaries” had poisoned the water supply. Some soldiers resorted to scooping up water from mud puddles, or getting it from the heavily polluted Danube River.
The troops were expecting a warm reception from the Slovaks so they brought few supplies and facilities with them. The lack of food, sleep and proper sanitation took its toll. Drinking polluted water added to their distress and many soldiers became ill.
The people who lived in Rožňava, a small town in eastern Slovakia, were mostly of Hungarian decent. So the Soviets thought it would be a good place to station the Hungarian troops, confident they would receive a warm welcome. Instead, the soldiers were spit at and booed. The citizens of Rožňava refused to provide them with food, water, supplies or lodging.
Desperate, the Hungarian colonel had a meeting with the mayor. They finally came to an agreement. The troops would receive the supplies they needed and could stay in an unoccupied school building. However, they would be forced to obey the town’s curfew. So each day at nightfall the Hungarian occupiers returned to the school so the mayor could lock them inside. Then at dawn the mayor would come back to let them out again.
Radio and television played a key role in the resistance. Broadcasts were able to create a sense of solidarity and hope by keeping citizens informed about what was happening in other parts of the country. Underground news media sent out government appeals and made suggestions on how to resist the invaders, while urging people to remain nonviolent. The amazing thing is that none of this was planned beforehand. All broadcasting arrangements were continually modified to prevent detection.
The Russians had a hard time closing down all the television stations because broadcasting facilities were dispersed throughout Prague. Covert TV broadcasts were also done from factories and other buildings using mobile and remote transmitters. For instance, on the day of the invasion, television workers escaped with a remote broadcast truck. They then set up a studio in an empty apartment building in the Prague suburbs. From there broadcasts were beamed all over the country using microwave links. The on-air personalities—well-known intellectuals, newscasters, athletes and other Czech celebrities—all urged nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.
Clandestine radio stations were even more important than television because there were more of them and they were easier to hide. Mobile transmitters, supplied by the Czech army, were moved every few hours to avoid detection by Soviet tracking equipment. The army also helped transport audiotapes, which were recorded in secret locations, to the radio transmitters.
The Czechs made good use of graffiti to make the invaders feel unwelcome.
They hung posters and used chalk or paint to apply anti-Soviet slogans to the walls of buildings. A common activity was to climb on a tank while it was stopped at a traffic light and paint a swastika on it. Some slogans seen in Prague:
- “Why bother to occupy our State Bank? You know there is nothing in it.”
- “United States in Vietnam, Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia.”
- “Leonid, send 10 more tanks—20 more counter-revolutionaries arrived here today.”
The underground press
Using printing presses and mimeograph machines (photocopiers were not yet widely available), the Czechs published leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers right under the noses of the occupiers.
When Soviet troops shot some kids who were distributing underground newspapers, hundreds of people attended their funerals.
Lost in Czechoslovakia
Traveling in Czechoslovakia was a nightmare for the Warsaw Pact troops. The Czechs had removed street signs and painted over building address numbers. Many small villages renamed themselves “Dubček” or “Svoboda.” In rural areas it was not uncommon to see a troop convoy stalled at a crossroad, the commander scratching his head over an open map.
THE MOSCOW AGREEMENT
On the leadership level, the Soviets met additional resistance for their plans to set up a puppet government. Top Czechoslovakian officials refused to corroborate the Soviet’s story that the troops had been requested to put down an uprising of “counter-revolutionaries.” Because of the near unanimous civilian resistance throughout the country, even conservative leaders were reluctant to collaborate with the Soviets, and no one could be found to form a puppet government that had the slightest facade of legitimacy.
Some Czech government bodies continued to meet despite the occupation. Many of these secret gatherings were coordinated by pirate radio broadcasts. The Czechoslovak Communist Party Congress, the National Assembly, and government representatives all refuted the legitimacy of the Soviet’s actions, demanded the withdraw of troops, and encouraged nonviolent resistance by the population.
Dubček and several other high officials were taken to the Soviet Union to be executed as soon as a new government could be put in place. Svoboda was initially placed under house arrest in Prague and pressured to cooperate. When he refused, the Soviets flew him to Moscow to work out a compromise.
The Soviet leaders seemed to temporarily abandon their plan to install a new regime, and instead worked on pressuring the legitimate government to change its ways. At the Moscow meeting the Soviets used threats and demanded cooperation in no uncertain terms, but the Czech leaders stood their ground. In the end, a vague agreement was worked out that scrapped many of the reforms, but left the legitimate government leaders, including Svoboda and Dubček, still in office.
When Czechoslovakians heard about the Moscow Agreement they were outraged. They felt their leaders had sold them out. Demoralization began to set in. Gradually the clandestine printing presses and radio stations were located by the Soviets and closed down. Throughout the next few months, scattered dissent continued in the form of factory resolutions, demonstrations and the occupation of university buildings. But generally, the intense resistance of the first few weeks slowly turned into a disgruntled complacency.
Their military tactics having failed, the Soviets began to use political manipulation, economic pressure and subtle threats against the Czechoslovakian leadership to chip away at the reform movement. The government made more and more concessions to the Soviet demands. Finally, in April 1969, anti-Russian riots (which may have been instigated by agents provocateurs) created a shift in power in the Czech government. Dubček and his reformers were ousted. Eight months after the invasion the Soviets finally got the conservative government they wanted in Czechoslovakia.
The story of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is a testament to the power of civilian resistance and the limitations of military force. Even when the country was bristling with Warsaw Pact troops and military equipment, in no way could it be said that the Soviets were in control of Czechoslovakia.
If it had fought, the highly trained Czechoslovakian army would only have lasted a couple days, and then the country would surely have come firmly under Soviet control. Instead, an improvised campaign of noncooperation kept the Soviets from installing their puppet government for eight months.
The resistance would have been more effective if had been part of an integrated strategy rather than a series of spontaneous actions. Pre-planning would have enabled the Czechs to start the resistance earlier, avoid violence (that occurred mainly on the first day) and coordinate their actions for maximum effect. The leaders should have gone underground when the invasion first began so they would have been available to coordinate the resistance and inspire their fellow citizens. If that were not possible, they should have resigned rather than accept the unfavorable terms of the Moscow Agreement. That would have left the country without legitimate leadership. The ball would have been in the Soviet’s court to find authorities that had credibility with the population.
If the Czechoslovakian people and their leaders had continued their defiance in a determined and coordinated fashion, there is every likelihood that they could have created serious internal problems for the Soviet Union. At the time, some experts speculated that there were major differences of opinion within the Kremlin hierarchy, not only about Czechoslovakia, but also about the reform issue itself. It was known that there were officials who favored instituting exactly the kinds of changes for the Soviet Union that the Dubček government had been implementing. (In fact, twenty years later Gorbachev introduced similar reforms, which ultimately resulted in the disintegration of the Soviet system and the subsequent fall of communism in Eastern Europe.) In any event, it’s possible that a crisis resulting from continued resistance in Czechoslovakia may have served to exacerbate policy differences in the Soviet government, weakening it politically and strengthening the Czech bargaining position.
All bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations have fault lines that make them vulnerable to nonviolent strategies. The people who occupy high positions in these bureaucracies are typically very competitive and aggressive (or they wouldn’t be there). In such groups there are always officials who don’t like each other personally, who feel they have been snubbed or stabbed in the back by some fellow bureaucrat and are looking for revenge. There are always jealousies, insecurities, divergent goals and philosophies.
That natural divisions are a major vulnerability of all bureaucratic and hierarchical structures is a fact that should not be lost on those of us interested in developing strategies to overthrow such organizations. A major strategic concern when planning a campaign of resistance should be finding ways to drive wedges in the cracks that naturally occur in these organizations. The divide and conquer strategy has often been a decisive a factor in successful nonviolent campaigns. The tendency to create dissension in the opponent’s ranks is a unique strength of nonviolent tactics. On the other hand, when faced with violent opposition, bureaucratic institutions tend to band together and increase solidarity.
Some believe it may be possible to use nonviolent strategies to defend a country against internal coups and foreign invasions. This practice is sometimes called Social Defense (mainly in Europe) or Civilian-based Defense (CBD).
Instituting CBD in a country like the US would be problematic for a number of reasons. It would require a radical transformation in the way we think about defense, security and social equality. Because CBD can only defend societies—not territory—it could not project power around the world like a modern military can. And because unyielding solidarity is essential for protracted nonviolent struggles, cultural, racial and economic rifts in the US could become fatal liabilities. Nothing can exacerbate existing societal fault lines more surely than extended pressure from violent repression and divisive propaganda.
However, a number of smaller countries in Europe have researched the possibility of using carefully planned programs of civilian noncooperation in the event of foreign invasion—either as supplements to military defense or as standalone systems. It will be interesting to see if any military incursions are met with effective nonviolent resistance in the coming years.
Originally published 1997
Colin Chapman, August 21st
Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action
Gene Sharp, Social Power and Political Freedom
Joseph Wechsberg, The Voices
Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, Czechoslovakia 1968
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.