History of Europe

1968:The SED and the Prague Spring

Last updated:2022-07-25

In 1968 troops from the Warsaw Pact countries invaded the Czechoslovakia and destroyed hope for "socialism with a human face". The SED supports the intervention in the background.

by Michael Bluhm

Wenceslas Square in Prague, August 21, 1968:Young Czech and Slovak demonstrators face Soviet tanks and shout their anger into the cannon barrels. The pictures go around the world and show how foreign troops are destroying the idea of ​​"socialism with a human face". They come from the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. The National People's Army (NVA) of the GDR is also at the ready, but the memories of the Second World War are too fresh - they stop at the border. Nevertheless, the SED supports the intervention in the background with all available means.

Dubček and his "socialism with a human face"

It was the third major attempt to emancipate itself from Soviet domination. June 17, 1953 in East Germany and the Hungarian uprising in 1956 were attempts to make Moscow's model of socialism more liberal. In January 1968, Alexander Dubček took over the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KPČ) and immediately started a course of reform. It was the first time that a powerful communist party put itself at the forefront of a reform movement.

Dubček's action program envisaged a relaxation of the planned economy, freedom of opinion and information and a socialism oriented towards people, a "socialism with a human face". The freedom of the press that was suddenly won ensured a critical public:newspapers and radio did not withhold information, artists criticized past misconduct and students protested against the Vietnam War, like those in Western Europe. In the long term, the one-party system in Czechoslovakia (ČSSR) should also be softened.

Resistance is growing in the SED

The developments did not go unnoticed in the GDR. The weakening of sole rule was a thorn in the side of the SED leadership around Walter Ulbricht, and public or even internal party discussions about the future of socialism were not desired. In the meantime, parts of the population were harboring hopes that the ideas of freedom and democracy could also find favor in the GDR - including many members of the SED.

The top SED functionaries meanwhile tried to sabotage the reform course in the neighboring country. So-called "healthy forces", ie opponents of Dubček's policy, should be won over and given material support. Party committees and companies on both sides exchanged views on the reforms, with the SED representatives increasingly acting as teachers - they saw each other ideologically "two steps higher". However, Ulbricht did not yet call for an invasion from abroad, at most military pressure.

The invasion is being prepared

Czechoslovakia tried to defend the freedom they had won, but the protests were violently suppressed.

The option of an invasion was considered by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from the start, but was prevented through negotiations with the CPČ. The risk was too great that the emergence of the Soviet Union as an uncompromising hegemonic power would lead to even more uprisings. That's why she looked for allies in the ruling fraternal parties of the Warsaw Pact, in Poland, in Hungary, in Bulgaria and also in the GDR. Together they formed the so-called "Warsaw Five".

Course setting in Dresden

On March 23, 1968, high party and government representatives of the "Warsaw Five" and the CSSR met in Dresden - the SED was also at the table. Here Dubček was treated like a criminal, accused of supporting the "counter-revolution" and calling for an end to the reform course. The Hungarian party leader even recalled the situation in his country in 1956 - in the end Soviet troops marched to Budapest.

The CPČ stood by its position. And so the political and military pressure on the Prague government increased with each passing month. The numerous consultations of the "Warsaw Five" and negotiations with the CPČ show that an invasion was merely the ultima ratio for the Soviet Union. But after a last unsuccessful talk in Bratislava in early August, the CPSU decided to invade. She had the power of decision and led the deployment of troops from the five other brother countries.

Invasion without NVA

On the night of August 21, 1968, the troops of the Soviet Union and its allies crossed the border and in just a few hours occupied the entire country. The KPČ offered no resistance. It was the largest military operation since the Second World War, and around 150 people lost their lives.

As much as the SED supported the invasion, the NVA was left out. The Czechs should not be additionally provoked by soldiers in German uniforms. The country was occupied by the National Socialists only 30 years ago, the memory was still fresh. Nevertheless, two NVA divisions stood ready at the border and awaited orders.

SED propaganda:radio station “Vltava”

The SED found other ways of support. Radio and television enjoyed great popularity thanks to the new media policy in the Czechoslovakia, and when they invaded they called for civil disobedience. The radio station "Vltava" started its program on the day of the invasion and was different from the start:it claimed that the CPČ had called in foreign armies to help in the face of counter-revolutionary forces. The transmitter was a creation of the agitation department in the Central Committee of the SED and was based in Wilsdruff near Dresden. It was only switched off in the spring of 1969 after massive protests from the CSSR.

Protests in the GDR

Many GDR citizens reacted to the military operation with rejection; they saw the people's right to self-determination trampled underfoot. Hundreds of people were arrested during smaller demonstrations. The SED tried to force approval through signature campaigns in companies and state institutions. But the images of Prague also shaped the GDR for years:the suppression of the "Prague Spring" showed the GDR population what happens if you deviate from the line of the SED.