The liberalisation process of Czechoslovakia commenced on 5th January, 1968, when Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovakia Communist Party. Dubček was an advocate of profound social, economic and political changes – this led to the Prague Spring. However, this “socialism with a human face” soon became a threat to the ruling party. The opposition was becoming bolder and bolder in its demands and a manifesto entitled Two Thousand Words, authored by Ludvik Vaculik, who was encouraged to write it by employees of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, and signed by many prominent people from the worlds of culture and politics, was also of no little significance. In the document, disquiet with conservative communist members remaining in the party was expressed, as well as an urge for even more sweeping reforms involving active participation of the general public. Czechoslovak communists, obviously, found this distressing. Moscow also began expressing its concerns about the stability of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia more vigorously.
During a meeting of leaders of the Warsaw Pact in Dresden in March 1968, the situation was openly referred to as the “Czechoslovak counter-revolution.” The Prague Spring was spoken of in the worst terms by Walter Ulbricht and Władysław Gomułka. The latter, himself faced with student strikes, zealously voiced the concurrence of his political opinions with those of Moscow. Subsequent meetings of the “Warsaw Five” (without representatives of Czechoslovakia present) took place in May and June 1968. It was then decided that military exercises, codenamed “Szumawa,” would take place within the territory of Czechoslovakia from 18th June to 2nd July to exert pressure on the leaders of the country. Those became a prelude to the largest military operation in Europe since the end of WWII.
After operation “Szumawa” was over, the transfer of the 24th Guards Motor Rifle Division (24 Gwardyjska Dywizja Strzelców Zmotoryzowanych) from the region of Lviv commenced and the division was then to be deployed in the Cieszyn, Bielsko-Biała, and Pszczyna region. The armies of Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Hungary, and Bulgaria, all gathered near the Czechoslovakia border, commenced "Cloudy Summer '68" (“Pochmurne lato 68”), a military operation which was then smoothly transformed into Operation Danube. Iwan Jakubowski, a Soviet marshal, was in charge of the entire operation, his command centre located in Legnica.
Initially, the intervening forces consisted of 250,000 soldiers and 4,200 tanks but the total number of soldiers and tanks involved in the operation eventually increased to 450,000 and 6,500 respectively. There was a Polish military contingent there as well, consisting of 24,000 officers and soldiers, 647 tanks, 566 transporters, 191 cannons and mortars, 84 anti-tank guns, 96 anti-aircraft guns, 4,798 cars, and 36 helicopters. Such great involvement of Polish forces made this the largest post-war operation of the Polish People's Army until December 1970.
Following the plans prepared for the invasion, the troops of the Warsaw Pact were divided as follows:
• Army Group North, commanded by Iwan Pawłowski (with the command centre in Legnica) was to enter Czechoslovakia from the territory of the German Democratic Republic and Poland, taking over the northern and western part of the country, paying particular attention to occupying the Karlovy Vary-Plzeň-České Budějovice triangle. The North Group consisted of the 1st and 11th Soviet Guards Tank Division (1 Gwardyjska Armia Pancerna and 11 Gwardyjska Armia Pancerna) and the Second Polish Army (2 Armia Wojska Polskiego) – created on the basis of the Silesian Military District and commanded by Florian Siwicki, brigadier general.
• Army Group South, commanded by Konstantin Prowałow, colonel general (command centre in Mátyásföld near Budapest), was to enter Czechoslovakia from Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, and Transcarpathian Ukraine, aiming to occupy Slovakia and southern and central Bohemia, including Prague. This force included the 20th and 38th Soviet Guards Army (20 Armia Gwardyjska and 38 Armia Gwardyjska), attacking from GDR, and 36th Soviet Air Army (36 Armia Lotnicza) and 8th Hungarian Motor Rifle Division (8 Dywizja Strzelców Zmotoryzowanych).
The intervention was also supported by Soviet airborne forces, i.e. 7th and 103rd Guards Airborne Divisions (7 Gwardyjska Dywizja Powietrznodesantowa and 103 Gwardyjska Dywizja Powietrznodesantowa). Their tasks included the taking-over of Prague and Brno. Interestingly, certain troops of the National People's Army of GDR which were supposed to take part in the Operation and enter Czechoslovakia, i.e. 7th Dresden Panzer Division (7 Dywizja Pancerna z Drezna) and 11th Halle Motor Rifle Division (11 Dywizja Strzelców Zmotoryzowanych z Halle) did not actually take part in July 1968, despite having been mobilised for it. There were only a few German officers and a group of soldiers from the 2nd Communication Troop (2 Pułk Łączności) at the command centre of the Warsaw Pact military forces.
On the night of 20th/21st August, 1968, intervention forces entered Czechoslovakia. An unsigned letter published by the Soviet press was used as a pretext for the operation. In the letter, Czechoslovak leaders asked USSR for help, also in the form of a military intervention. The letter was at first considered a fake but a copy of it received by Václav Havel in the 1990s was signed by representatives of the Stalinist faction of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Armed operations in Bohemia and Slovakia raised numerous voices of protest, the most dramatic and tragic of them being the self-immolation of Ryszard Siwiec, a former soldier of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium (Stadion Dziesięciolecia) during a national harvest festival (dożynki ogólnokrajowe).
Operation Danube was a success in political and military terms. Despite social opposition and manifestations, the voice of the Prague Spring was silenced. Additionally, a contingent of Soviet troops remained in Czechoslovakia. The invasion resulted in 500 casualties among the Czechs and Slovaks and around 400,000 people emigrated from the country in two subsequent waves. As for military losses sustained by the Warsaw Pact: 12 soldiers were killed and 25 were wounded. Non-combat losses: 90 people killed or subsequently deceased and 62 people wounded or injured.
Polska a Praska Wiosna: udział Wojska Polskiego w interwencji zbrojnej w Czechosłowacji w 1968 roku. Pajórek L. Warszawa 1998.
Wokół Praskiej Wiosny. Kamiński Ł., ed. Warszawa 2004.
Praska Wiosna. Kwapis R. Toruń 2004.
This article was prepared in cooperation with Historykon.pl. Polish version available at: http://historykon.pl/inwazja-ukladu-warszawskiego-na-czechoslowacje/