It’s easy to feel like the world is teetering irrevocably on the brink of one or another global catastrophe as local and national disasters unfold all around us. When we look back half a century ago to 1968, we see an uncannily similar mix of state brutality and organized resistance, of seemingly irresolvable political crises and unprecedented democratic mobilization. Nearly every published tribute marking the 50th anniversary of one of the major events of ’68—from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to the Paris uprising in May—has noted the parallels with our current moment. As the title of an Esquire anthology (and documentary) suggests, the late 60s seemed to many people like the end of the world.
But what, exactly, can we learn by looking back at historical events that mostly mark tragedy or defeat? Events like the Prague Spring—that brief moment of hope in Czechoslovakia when its premier Alexander Dubček promised a reformed “socialism with a human face,” only to have the liberalizing movement crushed, quite literally, “under the treads of Soviet T-54 tanks”? Maybe the lesson, “if nothing else,” writes Peter Canby at The New Yorker, is “the limitations of authoritarian solutions.” It may have taken another two decades, but the Soviet Union finally collapsed under the weight of its own iron fist.
“Perhaps more than any other event during the Cold War,” argues The New York Times’ Marc Santora, “the invasion laid bare for the world to see the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime.” But its future demise gave no solace to ordinary Czechs at the time, who weren’t going to wait around for the problem to solve itself when the tanks rolled into Prague. Unarmed citizens took to the streets in huge numbers, shouting “Fascists, go home!”, staging sit-ins, and swarming the soldiers.
Czechs sought by any means to impede the invasion, succeeding with sheer numbers—and improvised barricades and explosives—to overturn and burn tanks. Many paid for their resistance with their lives. All this despite the fact that “Dubček ordered the Czechs not to resist,” notes Canby. The Czech premier later told TV Bratislava, “I would have had the blood of thousands on my hands without any hope of victory.” After his arrest and release, he was “forced to preside over the dismantling of his own liberalization.”
Over 2000 tanks and thousands of Warsaw Pact troops arrived in Czechoslovakia in the summer after the Prague Spring, “In the first few weeks,” notes The Atlantic, “occupying soldiers were met with protests… and more than 70 civilians were killed in the conflicts. Within the following year, resistance faded.” The images here show Czech citizens engaged in mass defense of their country and movement, surrounding the tanks, in the photo further up, on the first day of the invasion on August 21, 1968.
Some of the most striking and intimate photos—like that of a young man killed while trying to drape the Czech flag over a Soviet tank, above—were taken by Josef Koudelka, “who was on the streets, writes Santora, “with his Exakta camera loaded with film that he had cut from the end of exposed movie reels.” See more of his photographs further down and at The New York Times.
A young Czech man showing a news report about the invasion to a Soviet soldier. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
Soldiers abandoning a burning tank in Prague. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
A protester confronting troops in Prague during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
Residents of Prague witnessing the invasion. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos