Lili Eylon
Lili Eylon
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The night of ‘fraternal assistance’ sowed the seeds

When Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, few knew yet that it was the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime
Unity Avenue, Bucharest, Romania, May 29, 2016. (Wikipedia)
Unity Avenue, Bucharest, Romania, May 29, 2016. (Wikipedia)

A steamy summer day. Typical for August in Bucharest Romania. Nothing seems to move — no breeze flutters a leaf in Herestrau Park, empty now during working hours. But it is not an ordinary day. It is August 21, 1968. There is something ominous in the air.

President Nicolae Ceausescu is to deliver a special announcement later in the day. I prick up my ears. The subject of his message has something to do with Czechoslovakia, my native land.

I quickly turn on Radio Prague, 1081 kilometers (672 miles) physically removed from where I am sitting, but close to my pounding heart. While nothing is moving in Bucharest, some 300,000 unwelcome armed soldiers have entered Czech and Slovak cities and villages of that model inter-war (1918-1938) democracy. From here, at the age of 12, I fled with my family just prior to the approaching Nazi hordes.

My husband Efraim and I were sent as Israeli emissaries in Romania, the only country in the Communist bloc that did not sever diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six Day War.

I listen to the broadcaster as he describes, in his hurried, crescendo-ing voice, the drama unfolding under his office window just off the city’s main square, Václavské Náměstí. “The soldiers are gathering. So are hundreds of citizens.. More and more are arriving…” Thunderous noise dulls his voice, which becomes gradually weaker. Suddenly a shout. “Here they come… I hear their boots… They are getting close…. I think this is the end…” And then — total silence.

Already at 1:55 a.m. on August 21, 1968, Prague Radio, alerted, reported that hundreds of thousands of soldiers of four Warsaw Pact countries began to flood Czech and Slovak cities and villages. Many of the tanks, which had arrived on Soviet army planes at Prague Airport, were rolling through the country.

There was no justification or apparent need for help in this Operation Danube that the Russians insisted on calling “fraternal assistance.”

The Czechs had just begun to enjoy reforms in a hopeful new Communism with a human face, basking in the sun of the first rays of Prague spring, It was precisely that which the Russians planned to wipe out, before the “bug” could infect other Communist states.

As though repudiating this unspoken Soviet fear, Nicolae Ceausescu appeared on his balcony, proclaiming his loyalty to his Czech “brothers” (what an extended family the Czechs possessed!). He called for the formation of an ad hoc citizens’ army, in case a similar Russian-initiated mishap might befall him. According to unofficial diplomatic sources (the only reliable source of information in totalitarian countries, where official news was often mendacious), Ceausescu was invited that night, the 21st of August, to the Russian ambassador. Following that meeting, he remained officially quiet. But he categorically refused the Russian call to join the invading Warsaw Pact forces (as did another Communist country — Albania.)

The new paramilitary Patriotic Guard, carrying obsolete World War I arms, brought up the rear of the traditional military parade on August 23, Romania’s Independence Day.

Radio Prague, located as it was in the center of the capital, became a focal point of the invasion, with unarmed civilians gathering outside the station from the early hours to try to prevent enemy troops from taking control.

According to Richard Seeman, head of Radio Prague’s Austrian section at the time.

By the time the Soviet soldiers got here, a large crowd had already arrived. People build barricades out of trams and buses, but when the tanks arrived they just rolled over them.

Demonstrators surrounded the tanks. They set one of them on fire at the crossroads and that caused an ammunition vehicle to explode, totally destroying one of these buildings.

The Czechoslovakian army had been ordered to not resist and the authorities called on the population to not provoke additional violence

Nevertheless, a total of 137 Czechs are believed to have been killed during the invasion and around 500 seriously injured. Seventeen people lost their lives in the fighting around the station: shot dead, crushed by military vehicles, or burned to death.

Radio Prague was taken over. For some time afterward, brave radio personnel carried on broadcasting from underground locations. Newspapers for a while continued to issue special editions, until they, too, were subdued. Posters proclaiming Death to the Invasion had their day.

Slogans that were often bitterly humorous, calling for the Russians to go home, began appearing on walls around the country. Street signs and signposts were painted over or otherwise altered to slow the invaders’ progress. Many bore signs with arrows simply pointing the way to Moscow.

Because the Czechs had always regarded Russia as its elder wiser bigger brother, they could not believe this treacherous behavior, and felt like they had been given a double stab in the back. Some even ventured out into the street and tried to discuss and reason with the soldiers, many of whom were young and from Asiatic parts of the Soviet Union.

One Czech student said on the BBC on August 24.

You can’t explain anything to them: they are like a wall. We asked them, Why did you come?

They replied, We are your brothers, your liberators. We said, That isn’t true, you must see that there is no counterrevolution, we don’t need your help.

They said,(as they had no doubt been drilled to say), No, we are your friends, we are your friends, we are your brothers, we have come to make freedom and order in your country. But we said, Brothers and friends don’t come on tanks.

The End of Prague Spring

The Russian phrase, “fraternal assistance,” prompted the following remark from American ambassador George Ball at a subsequently specially summoned Security Council meeting: “Yes, fraternal assistance. Like that of Cain to Abel.”

By the morning of August 21, then-first secretary of the Communist party Alexander Dubček and other prominent advocates of “Socialism with a Human Face” had been arrested.

They were later flown to Moscow and interrogated for days. With no alternative, all but one of them signed the “Moscow Protocol,” promising to reinstate censorship and suppress opposition groups.

Following his return to Prague, Dubček was clearly a broken man.

I could not help recalling another — vital — Dubček. Three months earlier, on May 1, I watched two different celebrations of the traditional Workers’ Day. In Communist Bucharest, a drab parade along the capital’s main avenue, Calea Victoriey, of listless, indifferent men and women, each carrying a bouquet of paper flowers which had lain in storage in a building basement for the annual “airing out” occasion. One of the marchers told me that though it was a day off from work, each man had to appear at the parade, otherwise his/her day’s pay would be withdrawn.

Coming home from this gloomy, bleak human mass, I watched May Day in Prague. Here a smiling Dubček was standing on a low veranda as one by one, citizens approached, and handed him a bouquet of real live flowers. What a contrast! What a tableau of sincere real joy|

But it was not destined to last. That “brotherly” visit with its 300,000 soldiers, 6,300 tanks, and 550 fighter planes put an end to it. Prague Spring would become frozen, not continue to bloom into summer.

During the 20 hardline years that followed the invasion, according to official Communist Party records, some 70,000 people emigrated. Many never saw family members again. Many show-trials, among them the well-known Stránský trial, condemned innocent men and women to death.

Already a few weeks after the invasion, on September 12, 1968, Ryszard Siwiec:  a middle-aged Polish accountant and former resistance member, was the first person to commit suicide by self-immolation, in protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Although his act was captured by a motion picture camera, the Polish press never mentioned the incident, which was successfully suppressed by the authorities. His story remained mostly forgotten until the fall of Communism. Since then, Siwiec has been posthumously awarded a number of Czech, Slovak, and Polish honors and decorations.

In Prague, 20-year-old Charles University student Jan Palach decided to sacrifice himself in protest of the invasion and set himself on fire, on Václavské Náměstí, on January 16, 1969. In a letter he had sent to several public figures, he demanded the abolition of censorship and a halt to the distribution of Zprávy, the official newspaper of the Soviet occupying forces. In addition, the letter called for the Czech and Slovak people to go on a general strike in support of these demands.

Palach died from his burns several days after his act, at the hospital. Palach’s funeral at Miloň Novotný turned into a major protest against the occupation. According to Jaroslava Moserová, a burns specialist who was the first to provide care to Palach, he did not set himself on fire to protest against the Soviet occupation, but did so to protest against the “demoralization” of Czechoslovakian citizens caused by the occupation, a demoralization that was seeping into the people who were not only giving up, but giving in.

The funeral of Jan Palach turned into a major protest against the occupation. A month later (on February 25), another student, Jan Zajíc, burned himself to death in the same place — in front of the National Museum

Today, a memorial in stone on the spot recalls their heroic self-sacrifice, as do annual commemorative events. Numerous books, essays and films have been made about Palach’s life, ideas, his death. In his tribute, a number of world capitals have constructed statues to Jan Palach.

Palach’s funeral: a small group of grievers, photographed by Miloň Novotný.

By the time 1989 and the new freedom arrived, it was too late for an entire generation whose careers and home life had been kidnapped by self-serving hard-hearted men

Not only did this ill-advised Warsaw Pact invasion with its Russian tanks and soldiers of four countries grind the buds of a promising Prague Spring out of existence for two decades. A major consequence was the turmoil it caused in upper echelons in both Communist governments and Communist parties. Many European parties split; many fervent loyalists to Russian politics now just as fervently opposed it. The cracks, both in the parties abroad and in Russia itself, became unhealable. Eventually, they spelled the downfall of the powerful Soviet regime.

This modest memorial in front of the National Museum to Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc was created by the artist, Barbora Veselá and the architects, Čestmír Houska and Jiří Veselý.

So, as it wiped out the reforms of Prague Spring, the invasion also shook the foundations of the very structure of Communism and spelled the eventual demise of Soviet supremacy.

The occupation continued for more than two decades, until 1989, when, in an atmosphere of euphoria, a renewed attempt at democracy brought newly-born hope.

But by the time 1989 and the new freedom arrived, it was too late for an entire generation of people whose careers and home life had been kidnapped by self-serving hard-hearted men

Commemorating the infamous 1968 event 51 years later at a ceremony at the Radio Prague building, Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hříb commented, “….… this invasion was presented as help from our Eastern brothers, but obviously it was something different. It was a pure invasion and an occupation after that.

It is important to call events by their proper names.

And it is particularly important to do so today, because today there is a massive increase in fake news in the public space and that is something we have to deal with.

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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