Libor Hajsky/Reuters

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Modern Memories: The Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968

It was a year of manic tumult. Students revolted in Paris and other global capitals; the Tet Offensive permanently impaired the US war effort in Vietnam, at least on the home front; Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both felled by assassins’ bullets in the United States. “What is hard to convey,” reflected Todd Gitlin, “is the texture of shock and panic that seized the world a half-century ago. What is even harder to grasp is that the chief political victory of 1968 was the counter-revolution.”

Such is the impulse of the revolutionary impulse: in its aftermath come the countering forces that either absorb the reform or repulse it with fanaticism. In response to the student revolt of May came the triumph of General De Gaulle’s rightist party. In Latin America, the spirit of Che Guevara was repulsed by authoritarian military regimes with Washington’s backing. In Prague, socialism with a human face, as it came to be termed by the Slovak Alexander Dubček, bore witness to the monstrosity of Soviet tanks supposedly sent to put down counter-revolutionary tendencies. The converse was true.

Again, Czechoslovakia found itself at the mercy of real estate holders that did not own them, but felt free to dispose of them. Neville Chamberlain’s ghost, grasping the worthless paper that was the Munich Agreement of 1938, seemed to be riding again. In a terrifying historical redux, the territory so vital to various currents in European history found itself engulfed in another intervention, an experiment of power and punishment.

What railroaded the Czechoslovak experiment with socialism was its misstep to the tune of other states bound by the Leonid Brezhnev’s law on how the ideology would develop. The Prague Spring became the pretext for a most ominous adumbration to other members of the Warsaw Pact, the alliance established to counter NATO forces to the west: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern to all socialist countries.”

Subsequent scholarship on the motivations for the invasion has not shifted much. Big picture politics can be given a retrospective fit of grand sophistication and foresight. Often, short sighted fear remains the great motivator. The decision to invade, surmised Kieran Williams in a review of emerging Russian literature in 2012, “was a civilian, political decision driven by concern for the survival of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia and for that country’s attachment to the Soviet bloc, lest it involve into yet another maverick such as Yugoslavia, Albania and Romania.” A nagging interpretation – that the Soviet Union wanted to militarise a state it had formally withdrawn its forces from in 1945 as part of a geopolitical ploy, persists but remains speculative.

Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank in Prague.

Then came a period of forgetting, or at least the regime-controlled amnesia of normalisation. New layers of checks and audits were imposed at the workplace; employees were harassed and laid-off; controls on the press and free speech re-tightened. But the memories started re-awakening in the sparks of Charter 77, the tunes of The Plastic People of the Universe, and the thaw that would end the Cold War, the Velvet Revolution being the natural successor to the Prague Spring.

Five decades on from the invasion finds the Czech Republic troubled. Democratic stubbornness finds itself in an uneasy tease with ethnonationalism. The tensions posed by anti-EU sentiment across several central and eastern European states, dressed up as the muscular assertions of independence, afflict the continent. A fear of Russia eats away, as do concerns about irregular arrivals. But even within the Czech Republic, all is not uniform. The Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman finds more comfort glancing east to broody Moscow and rising Beijing than west to the working firm of Brussels.

Zeman’s conspicuous lack of interest in speaking at any commemorative event on August 21 was noted with dedicated agitation. A former advisor to the late President Vaclav Havel, Jiří Pehe explained to RFE/RL that speaking about such commemorations was nigh mandatory for the President. “Although this is not embedded in the constitution, the president has a job prescription…to speak on such an important anniversary.”

Some opponents hung red boxer shorts from their windows as modest measures of protest. (This pants driven revolt has been an ongoing drama of Zeman’s tenure culminating in a burning event on June 14 when he set aflame a pair of enormous underpants at a press conference. The guerrilla artist collective Ztohoven, it should be said, inspired this unhinged display when it attached a large pair of red boxer shorts to the presidential standard’s flagpole in 2015.)

As ever in the tangle that is central European politics, Zeman’s reticence also had another sting. The Slovak leader Andrej Kiska, for one, did not let the opportunity to speak on 1968 pass, a fact that raised fraternal eyebrows of envy across the border. His themes were tried and familiar: supposedly friendly states mounting an unjustified invasion, all having the appearance of “an inconceivable terrible film.” Then came the imperative message: “It is the duty of contemporary democratic politicians to defend our freedom and our right to make decisions about our future without concerns that the said decisions will be trampled by brutal force.”

Robert Malecký of the E15 daily was beside himself at this fact, suggesting that Zeman’s snub was tantamount to handing the podium to the Slovaks to speak on behalf of both nations. Fifty years on, the potency and poignancy of the event remain, though it faces a new struggle against forgetting. The blood has long dried; a good number of the current generation see little contemporary relevance in the heroism of those who perished before the tanks of the Warsaw Pact. The political classes disagree: be wary of external forces, goes this message. Be ever warier of betrayal.