1968: Czechoslovakia

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The Independent Culture
ON THE night of 20 August 1968, the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia from the north, south and east. Parachutists and airborne troops seized Prague airport. Armoured divisions and motorised infantry drove into Prague and Bratislava, Brno, Ostrava and Plzen. The Czechoslovak armed forces were ordered not to resist. Alexander Dubcek and his colleagues, guilty of devising "Communism with a human face", were arrested and flown to an unknown destination.

Next morning, the population poured into the streets of Prague. They wept, waved flags and chanted in protest. They spat at the dusty steel sides of the tanks, and sang patriotic songs. The tank turrets were like pulpits. Around them surged an angry congregation of Czechs. The Soviet soldiers above them were hardly given a chance to preach - but there were some who answered the roar of accusations and made themselves heard.

A small, tanned soldier gave his view. "Listen," he said patronisingly. "You Czechs are just a tiny little country with tiny problems. We are a big country with big problems. So it's natural that you will never understand why we have come here."

Most of the occupiers were Russians. But there were East German, Polish, even some Hungarian units. In a meadow outside the town of Kolin, I found Polish tanks parked in a neat row. The officers' faces were ugly with rage and shame. "The Czechs had it easy in the war," they said shrilly. "Now they can learn what real occupation means!"

Civil resistance spread. In Prague, the city tramlines were used as a gigantic aerial for the clandestine broadcasts of Czechoslovak Radio. The walls disappeared under angry posters: "Zachvatchiki domoi!" - "Invaders, go home!" Street names vanished, like the names above doorbells, to frustrate the arrest squads. There was a curfew, and mysterious gunfire volleys in the dark. People gathered for brave curfew parties which went on till dawn, but nobody thought for a moment that the outside Western world would lift a finger to save them.

Stupidly, I quoted to a taxi driver the motto of Jan Hus: "Truth will prevail." I caught his small, grey eye in the cab mirror. "It most certainly will not prevail," he replied without heat. He was right for the next 20 years.