Monday, August 20, 2018

50 Years Ago Today...

Prague August 21, 1968, Photograph by Josef Koudelka

I'll never forget the look on my father's face the evening of August 20, 1968, as the news of the Soviet invasion of his homeland, Czechoslovakia, started trickling over the radio. What had begun early that year as an experiement in social and economic reform, or as the leader of the country Alexander Dubček referred to it, "Socialism with a human face", ended in late summer as you see above, with Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague.

Soldiers from the USSR as well as Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, entered the Czechoslovak capital the following day, no doubt under the impression that they were on a noble mission to liberate their fellow Warsaw Pact brethren from the evil grips of capitalism whose false promises of  bourgois prosperity had blinded their government into taking a stand against the workers' paradise that the glorious revolution had created.

One can only imagine the soldiers' amazement when ordinary citizens came out in full force onto the streets of Prague to challenge them. Soldiers of course, train to fight other soldiers on the battlefield, not civilians, including old people armed with nothing other than words, their fists, and their rage. In his remarkable series of photographs, one of the few visual documents we have of the event, Josef Koudelka captured not only dramatic moments like the one above of a young man defiantly waiving the Czechoslovak flag while standing on top of a Soviet tank, but also banality as portrayed in the faces of Warsaw Pact troops, most of them just beyond puberty, bewildered by the absurdity of the situation in which they found themselves. A gallery of Josef's photographs on the invasion can be found here.

Absurdity is a central theme of the work of writer and dramatist. Vaclav Havel, whose work became known to much of the Czechoslovak people during the brief period of openness in 1968, popularly referred to as Prague Spring.

After the invasion, Havel at great risk to his safety not to mention his personal freedom, became a dissident who wrote extensively about totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia. Here I've borrowed a couple sections from my tribute to Havel written shortly after his death in 2011. Havel's words are in italics:
The fifties were a difficult time in Czechoslovakia. Havel wrote about the conflicting currents that defined life in those years. The revolution brought with it for some, excitement and hope for the future: 
Building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction. 
While at the same time: 
In the fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people... There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders.
As bad as all that was, Havel wrote that at the time, there was at least some sort of meaning to all the madness: 
The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes-these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.
After the invasion, life did not exactly return to pre-Spring days. Here is Havel in 1987, contrasting the totalitarianism backed with an ideology of the fifties, with a totalitarianism whose only purpose was self-preservation of the post-Prague Spring:
... the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.
After the invasion of 1968, Czechoslovkia was swept up into a period of inertia (the official term for it was normalization), that lasted until November 28, 1989 when it was discovered the walls holding up the regime were made of glass, with nothing inside left to support them. The fall of the Czwchoslovak Communisr regime was called the Velvet Revolution, as not a drop of blood was spilled, and the Czechoslovak people elected none other than Vaclav Havel to be their new president. 

It would be nice to say that is all behind us and everyone lived happily ever after, but that is simply not the fate of the human condition. Soon after the Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia was no more, as Slovakia in the east, split from the Czech Republic in 1993. The Soviet Union is no more either but rumblings coming from Moscow over the past deecade or so seem to indicate that there is considerable nostalgia for the good ol' days of Russian hegemony over the countries who used to be behind what was once ominously referred to as the "Iron Curtain."

Most recently the unthinkable has happened. The current president of the United States has openly declared his admiration for the dictator of Russia. The jury is still out on exactly how much this president likes that dictator, exactly where that admiration comes from, and even more unthinkable, whether or not the dictator of Russia might have some dirt on the President of the United States, enabling him to exert considerable influence over him. Regardless of the verdict, there is a palpable and justifiable fear in Western and Central Eurpoe, especially among the countries formerly under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, that the United States no longer has their backs.

On top of all that speculation, what is crystal clear is that the POTUS has openly declared the free press, well at least the part of it who does not show its unfailing loyalty to him, the "enemy of the people."

There is certainly an ominous precedent for that; I don't have to enumerate it in all its ugly iterations. Interestingly enough, it has been stated that perhaps the greatest threat to the Soviet Union posed by the reforms of Prague Spring which led to the invasion, was the relaxation of governmental censorship of the press.

We have no further to look than Josef Koudelka, whose photographs of the people of Prague resisting Soviet tanks, as I said one of the few visual documents we have of the invasion, were not released to the public for several months after the event. Koudelka processed the film and printed the negatives in hiding, and had the finished work smuggled out of the country to be published as the work of P.P. (Prague Photographer). Shortly thereafter he left his country and lived in exile for twenty years. It was only after returning home after the Velvet Revolution that Koudelka claimed responsibility for his pictures.

Here is a film published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2008, that tells the story from the viewpoint of individuals who were on both sides of the tanks during the invasion, inside and out. The film describes the importance to both sides of the Prague offices of Czchoslovak Radio, the last "source of uncensored news":

It would do us well on this anniversary, to remember our own country's long and imperfect history of justice, liberty, democracy, and a free press.

We take these things for granted, which is a terrible mistake.

Listening to the words of people like Vaclav Havel and seeing the images of Josef Koudelka can only remind us of how much we have to lose.

Above all, take heed of a memory of the Czech woman in the film, Ivana Dolezalova, whose thoughts on the urgency of protecting the offices of Czechoslovak Radio bear repeating:
Once they get hold of the media, the country (will) pretty much be lost.
Because hard as it may be to conceive, something like this could in fact happen here, if we as a people don't care enough to prevent it.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I remember the invasion as if it were yesterday. It was one of the most stressful times of my military career. 1968 was a year full of stressful moments as our country and the world stood on the precipice of catastrophe. I was stationed at San Vito dei Normanni Air Station in southern Italy serving in my first military specialty with the Air Force arm of the NSA, USAF Security Service. I had been ecucated in various COMINT (Communications Intelligence) skills having spent close to a year in intensive training while learning more about the Soviet Union, including a crash course in the Russian language, than I knew about the United States. We knew the invasion was coming but our biggest concern at the time was the Soviets wouldn't stop in Czechoslovakia but would continue into Yugoslavia to quash Marshall Tito's growing split from the prevailing Soviet communist ideology as he gravitated toward Mao. We spent many days on full alert working 12 hours shifts with no time off. Needless to say it was a bonanza of intelligence collecting. Had Brezhnev decided to foray into Yugoslavia, it was almost a certainty there would have been direct U.S. involvement. Fortunately he chose not to. For the people of Czechoslovakia the Prague Spring was short lived but as we all know, when the wall fell, freedom finally came to Prague.