The omnibus documentary film ‘Occupation 1968’ offers a rare glimpse into the invasion of Czechoslovakia from the perspective of common Warsaw Pact soldiers, as well as high-ranking Soviet officers, who took part in the military campaign that crushed the Prague Spring reform movement 50 years ago.
The anthology project comprises five 26-minute documentaries, each by a director from a former Warsaw Pact country – Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, and since the GDR and Soviet Union no longer exist, from Germany and Russia.
What emerges from scores of interviews with former soldiers and their loved ones is that when deployed to Czechoslovakia a half-century ago, if they at first believed in their mission – to fight against a sinister “counter-revolution” against socialism, backed by hostile Western countries – many did not upon their return home, despite being given an official hero’s welcome.
Former Russian officer: “I would like to raise this glass with the emblem of Russia to one thing: to the beautiful country where Czechs and Slovaks, amazing people, live. May they forgive us for obeying the orders of our leaders to enter that land. And these words burn in my heart until today: ‘Officer, I am very thankful to the Russian nation for saving me from the concentration camp. But what pains me is that you came here now uninvited.’ And for all of my life, and I am over 70, I have remembered those words.”
Exchanges in the film between a former soldier from Belorussia, Ilya Smolokovsky, and a former Soviet officer from Russia, Yuri Ermakov, who commanded ground forces in 1968, encapsulate the questions that many veterans of the invasion and occupation forces still ask themselves today: Was the Prague Spring in fact a ‘counter-revolution’? If so, was a violent intervention justifiable? Could I myself have killed if ordered to do so?
Former Belarussian soldier (Smolokovsky): “I can’t tell you even today for sure if it was a fight against the ‘counter-revolution’ or not. I think they had their own view, their own way, and their own principles how to build a socialist society as they understood it. Maybe it was not necessary to interfere. … I’m happy that there were no victims; that there is no blood on my hands. I was and I am prepared, maybe not physically, but at least mentally, to fight against any concrete enemy. But in that situation, I couldn’t see any enemy.”
At least 108 people were killed in Czechoslovakia during the 1968 invasion, however, and ‘Occupation 1968’ is dedicated to their memory. But the film mainly strives to show how most occupiers were themselves victims of a sort: reluctant pawns in an ideological battle, with little chance of knowing or truly understanding the circumstances that led to their deployment abroad.
What the soldiers would have been taught at the time was that “counter-revolution” is a core concept at the heart of Marx’s concept of class (or civil) war, and that the threat of it underpinned Lenin’s insistence on the need for violent revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Furthermore, Warsaw Pact soldiers had been told that the West was about to invade, and that theirs was a noble defensive mission. In Czechoslovakia, however, they found themselves condemned by locals as invaders, and confronted by ordinary civilians, not the armed fascists they had braced to battle.
Hungarian veteran: “It was early in the afternoon when we saw the protestors. They were young people, led by teachers, cheering for [Party Secretary Alexander] Dubček and [Czechoslovak] President Ludvík] Svoboda. We received order to fire above their heads if they would not disperse. If they again failed to do so, we had to fire into the ground, and if they refused for a third time, we were to fire into the crowd. Fortunately, the teachers told them to turn around, and they went home. But, you know, I couldn’t have fired into the crowd.”
The Czechoslovak pluralistic reform movement of 1968 that came to be known as the Prague Spring had gone far beyond any peaceful previous “democratisation” or “liberalisation” effort by a state behind the Iron Curtain. But while Dubček was working towards achieving “socialism with a human face”, he had no intention of breaking with Moscow.
In fact, on the initiative of the Czechoslovak premier, Oldřich Černík, a plan was drafted to set up detention camps for – as Dubček later admitted – “the political isolation of people in the event of open uprisings against socialism”. Dubček, Svoboda and Czechoslovak parliament speaker Josef Smrkovský, were due to approve the plan in August but were pre-empted by the invasion.
Still, even today, more than a third of Russians say the Soviet Union was correct to intervene in 1968, according to polling data by the Moscow-based Levada Center released on the 50th anniversary of the 20 August 1968 invasion. Almost half of respondents said they were unsure whether military action was justified, a reflection, said Levada, of a resurgence of “Brezhnev-era propaganda and stereotypes”.
Part of this reflects an effort to rewrite history, not least by President Vladimir Putin. A recent Russian state TV documentary called ‘Warsaw Pact: Declassified Pages’ revived bogus Soviet-era claims that a Nato invasion of Czechoslovakia had been imminent in the summer of 1968, and portrayed the Dubček reforms as a masked attempt to perpetrate a fascist coup under the cover of “the legend of a peaceful civilian uprising with the romantic name of the Prague Spring”. That documentary provoked a démarche from the Czech foreign ministry.
Hungarian veteran: “Our people were misled; they thought we’d believe that the West was about to invade and that’s why the Warsaw Pact’s soldiers had come. And if what Dubček wanted to do in ’68 had worked out, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The world would be a different place, because people would have greater freedom of thought and would be able to tell right from wrong. But back then, you could do only what the Communist Party allowed you to.”