Fifty years ago, during the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, the citizens of Czechoslovakia enjoyed a few brief, tantalising months of liberation from some of the worst effects of Soviet domination. The reforms introduced by Alexander Dubček, the country’s incoming First Secretary, under the banner of ‘Socialism with a human face’, brought a new openness to daily life, with greater press freedom and a relaxation of restrictions on travel.
All that was to change, however, on the night of 20/21 August, when 200,000 troops from five Warsaw Pact countries marched in to reintroduce a more authoritarian style of control under what became known as the ‘Moscow Protocol’.
The understandable bewilderment, anger, and fear felt by many ordinary Czechs as the clampdown took effect is captured in an extraordinary set of images taken by a young photographer in Prague. Josef Koudelka, a theatre photographer who had never covered news, was engulfed in the momentous events taking place in his home city, and documented them over the coming days and weeks.
In images such as the one reproduced here, disbelief and despair show on the faces of onlookers, while youths carrying national flags climb on to the tanks to shout their defiance.
There was, despite the crushing of his reforms, a request from Dubček to react without violence, and the resistance movement, although urgent and angrily defiant, did not in the main endanger life – instead, pots of paint were thrown at tanks, while road signs were moved to bamboozle and disorientate the incoming troops.
Tragically, the non-violence of the protesters was not always answered in kind: 72 Czech and Slovak citizens were killed during the invasion, and Koudelka himself was shot at by soldiers while taking pictures. But the experience and mischievously creative spirit of the 1968 resistance is credited with inspiring the later success of the Velvet Revolution (1989), which restored democracy to the country after more than 40 years.
Only a few images from those tumultuous days of August 1968 emerged in the West at the time, smuggled out of Prague before reaching the offices of Magnum, the renowned photographic agency.
Koudelka’s pictures would eventually be published in The Sunday Times magazine in 1969, credited anonymously to ‘Prague photographer’ to protect him and his family from reprisals. Koudelka fled his home country in 1970, going on to become a French citizen and one of the most admired photographers of his generation. He did not return to Prague until 1990.
This is an article from the July 2018 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.