Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

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. Vera Machutova woke one August night in 1968 to the thunder of Soviet tanks surging through this Czech city on the East German frontier. Forty years later, with the Czech Republic now a democracy within NATO and the European Union, Machutova is troubled by the conflict in Georgia, whose army was routed last week by Russian forces that pushed deep inside its territory. The banner reads, “Entry forbidden to unauthorized personnel”. Picture taken August 21, 1968. To match feature CZECH-RUSSIA/INVASION REUTERS/Libor Hajsky (CZECH REPUBLIC) – GM1E48I1OC701

On 20–21 August 1968, Czechoslovakia was jointly invaded by four Warsaw Pact countries: the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. About 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops (afterwards rising to about 500,000), supported by thousands of tanks and hundreds of aircraft, participated in the overnight operation, which was code-named Operation Danube. Romania and Albania refused to participate, while East German forces, except for a small number of specialists, were ordered by Moscow not to cross the Czechoslovak border just hours before the invasion. 137 Czechoslovak civilians were killed and 500 seriously wounded during the occupation.

The invasion stopped Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring liberalisation reforms and strengthened the authoritarian wing of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). The foreign policy of the Soviet Union during this era was known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.

People throw Molotov cocktails and stones at Soviet Army tanks in front of Czechoslovak Radio station building in central Prague during the first day of Soviet-led invasion to then Czechoslovakia August 21, 1968. AP – In this Aug. 21,1968 file picture, Prague residents carrying a Czechoslovakian flag and throwing burning torches, attempt to stop a Soviet tank in downtown Prague, Czechoslovakia as the Soviet-led invasion by the Warsaw Pact armies crushed the so-called Prague Spring reforms. In August 2008, the ex-communist country will mark the 40th anniversary of the Prague Spring challenge to Soviet domination – bold pro-democracy reforms that the Kremlin swiftly and brutally crushed. Experts say Russia’s threat of a military response if the U.S. and Czech Republic ratify a missile defense system is mostly bluster. But for Czechs, the timing couldn’t be more jarring. – AP REUTERS/Libor Hajsky (CZECH REPUBLIC) – GF2E45J1BUZ01

Public reaction to the invasion was widespread and divided. Although the majority of the Warsaw Pact supported the invasion along with several other communist parties worldwide, Western nations, along with Albania, Romania, and particularly China condemned the attack. Many other communist parties lost influence, denounced the USSR, or split up or dissolved due to conflicting opinions. The invasion started a series of events that would ultimately see Brezhnev establish peace with U.S. Richard Nixon in 1972 after the latter’s historic visit to China.

The legacy of the invasion of Czechoslovakia remains widely discussed among historians and has been seen as an important moment in the Cold War. Analysts believe that the invasion caused the worldwide communist movement to fracture, ultimately leading to the Revolutions of 1989, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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) . – PM1E45J17KL01
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)

History continuously repeats itself.

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