Czech Citizens Take to the Streets to Fight the Soviet-Led Invasion of Their Country After the 1968 Prague Spring

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.

Lone car passing dozens of Russian tanks during Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia during Prague Spring. (Photo by Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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.

Prague residents surround Soviet tanks in front of the Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia August 21, 1968. Libor Hajsky (CZECH REPUBLIC)

“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.

via The Atlantic/The New York Times

(Original Caption) 8/26/1968-Prague, Czechoslovakia-: This young Czech girl lets her feelings be known as she shouts “Ivan GO Home!” to soldiers sitting on tanks in the streets of Prague.

Thousands of protesters are seen crowding at Wasceslas square in down town Prague, Czechoslovakia, August 1968, demonstrating against the Russian invasion. Some fighting is reported in the capital after the Soviet Union and four Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country August 20, 1968. (AP Photo)

Soviet Army soldiers sit on their tanks in front of the Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968. REUTERS/Libor Hajsky(CZECH REPUBLIC)

(Original Caption) Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia: Czech youths with the national colors pinned to their chests demonstrate in the streets here following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The banner they are carrying reads: “Never Again with the Soviet Union.”

(Original Caption) These shots show Czechoslovakia army trucks taking youngsters around the city as Soviet tanks halted on the outskirts and began siege of Czech army barracks. The youngsters wave Czechoslovakian National flags and chant national song and patriotic slogans.

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