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Invading Czechoslovakia: The Brezhnev Doctrine in Practice

Replacing Antonin Novotny as First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, Alexander Dubcek sought to incorporate swift political reforms. After his predecessor failed to quell the rebellious nature of the youths and intellectuals or find any acceptable ways of utilizing these passions for communist objectives, Dubcek implemented a different approach to gain support from the Czechs. Dubcek announced an “Action Program,” policies designed around allowing political freedom and reducing the existing laws on secret policing and economic freedoms. Dubcek hoped that is new program would generate support throughout the country, as well as being viewed as an acceptable twist from the old Communist laws based on those from the Soviet Union.

dubcek
Picture of Alexander Dubcek. It says: “I am with you, be with us!”

Instead of calmly adopting these new policies and celebrating what they achieved, as Dubcek may have hoped, Czechs eagerly embraced the new reforms. Soon, workers councils were established and calls for strikes in certain economic sectors emerged. Members of academia pressed their viewpoints, hoping to achieve in greater social change. While the situation was not complete chaos for Dubcek and his people, Brezhnev and the Soviet Union disliked the Western-lite reforms that were implemented and were determined to reverse them.

The Soviet Union expressed great fear over Dubcek’s reforms. They realized he had little power of reasserting control and with other Soviet intellectuals beginning to support the policies Dubcek put in place, they knew they had to act. Brezhnev unleashed the full power of the Soviet bloc upon Czechoslovakia in order to end the political revolution. Many Soviet Bloc states feared that the political changes in Czechoslovakia could extend to their own nations, Communist leaders throughout Warsaw Pact states supported an invasion. As did Communist hardliners within Czechoslovakia, believing that Dubcek’s experiment had gotten out of hand and threatened socialist rule over Europe. Calling upon the Warsaw Pact forces, minus Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia who supported Dubcek’s efforts, Brezhnev gave the Soviet forces the go-ahead to reassert standard Communist laws in Czechoslovakia. The invasion was not met with wide-spread armed resistance, though there were many angry and sometimes violent demonstrators, as hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Pact troops occupied the country and reversed its new laws.


Warsaw Pact tanks making their way through Czechoslovakia.

The invasion proved to damage the international reputation of the Soviets throughout the world. The Brezhnev Doctrine, which argued that it was the duty of Communist countries to invade its neighboring Communist states if they were acting anti-socialist, was viewed as very unpopular by even Communist sympathizers in the West. Brezhnev's invasion of Czechoslovakia created a credible persona that other states throughout Eastern Europe had no real autonomy, that their sovereignty was an illusion created by their Soviet puppet masters. Video footage of the Warsaw Pact forces flooding into Czechoslovakia flooded the televisions around the world, showing people that the Russian Communists did not even tolerate their own allies drifting too far away from the Soviet Union's desired policies. To counteract this image, Brezhnev would be required to spend political capital trying to calm the international outrage by making numerous peace deals with Western powers, including improving relations with the United States.

Sources:
Lewis Siegelbaum, “Crisis in Czechoslvakia,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.
Sergei Kovalev, The International Obligations of Socialist Countries, Pravda, 26 September 1968, 4.
Vasil et al. Bilak, Letter to Brezhnev, translated by Mark Kramer, August 1968.
Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History, 3rd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
“I Am With You,” Poster of Alexander Dubcek, 1968.
“Tanks in the Streets,” Paul Goldsmith, Czech Center, New York, 1968. HO/AFP/Getty Images

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19 Responses to “Invading Czechoslovakia: The Brezhnev Doctrine in Practice”

  1. nickrunk says:

    I think it is interesting how this situation did not devolve into revolution a la Hungry 1956. I guess the protesters probably knew that in the end they would be crushed. Good post!

  2. Tom Ewing says:

    The post shows how the Soviet decision to invade Czechoslovakia was motivated by two imperatives: to crush a potential rebellion against Soviet control and to send a message to other satellites that no dissent would be tolerated. The latter message was intended to intimidate regimes into suppressing their own dissenters in order to avoid a Soviet intervention.

  3. Grayson Lewis says:

    If there was ever any doubt about the servile nature of the non-Soviet members of the Warsaw Pact or Comecon, Hungary ’56 and Czechoslovakia ’68 dispelled all illusions.

  4. Majidu Host says:

    Civil protest is all it takes to restore sanity here. Hope peace finally find its way.

  5. klea says:

    History has the power to prevent the reoccurrence of revolution which was destructive instead of building.

  6. Fouad says:

    It’s surprising to know that the invasion damaged the international reputation of the Soviets throughout the world but wasn’t met with wide-spread armed resistance.

  7. Kevin says:

    I keep wondering if our politicians learn from history.

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