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Socialism Could Never Have a Human Face
It was on this day in 1968, fifty-four years ago, that the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, one of its colonies in the “Warsaw Pact”, which had embarked on a program of liberalising reforms. The Czech leadership did not intend to depart from the socialist path, merely to soften its edges—and ran into the brute fact that this was not possible.
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CONQUEST AND COUNTER-CONQUEST
Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and demolished democracy within two months. In March 1936, Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, the buffer zone with France set down in the Versailles Treaty. Had there been a serious Allied response, German soldiers were under orders to retreat. There was no response. To the contrary, in August 1936, Hitler’s regime was internationally lionised at the Olympics. Hitler duly emboldened and his enemies correspondingly demoralised, Germany was able to use more subtle methods than the failed July 1934 Nazi coup attempt in Vienna to absorb Austria into the Reich without a shot being fired. Then came the turn of Czechoslovakia.
Within two weeks of the Anschluss, Nazi agents among the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, the border zones of western Czechoslovakia, began political agitation, claiming to be persecuted by Prague and demanding “autonomy”. Hitler began military mobilisation within weeks and the Czechs tried to negotiate a resolution without war. With no support from the Great Powers—Britain, France, or the United States—the Czechs tried to give in by the autumn, only for Hitler to raise further demands, triggering political turmoil within Czechoslovakia as the population reacted to this national dishonour. The Great Powers finally did get involved—to pressure the Czechs into surrendering the Sudetenland, through the infamous Munich Agreement, signed on 29 September 1938 between Germany, Britain, France, and Mussolini’s Italy.
Hitler had made a speech in Berlin on 26 September 1938 that is often remembered for his claim that the Sudetenland was his “last territorial demand” in Europe, a claim British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took seriously. Read in full, however, the speech could not have been plainer about Hitler’s intentions: Hitler declared Czechoslovakia to be a fake state, based on a “big lie”, with its borders drawn by “foolish or crazy so-called statesmen” after the Great War, leaving Germans trapped under a “radical system of oppression”, and despite all this there had been “truly endless German patience” in seeking a peaceful solution.1
In March 1939, the German conquest of Czechoslovakia was completed, with the Slovak zone split off and administered by a puppet regime under a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jozef Tiso. Within a fortnight, a Franco-British guarantee was extended to Poland: they had finally understood what they were dealing with, but their appeasement delusions had wasted all the time needed to be in a position to do anything about it. Unexpectedly, Hitler, who had risen to power fighting Communists in the streets, and Stalin, whose intelligence apparat used the Soviet “anti-fascist” status as a recruitment tool in the inter-war years,2 then signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact on 23 August 1939, ostensibly a “non-aggression” accord, but with a Secret Protocol providing for a carve-up of Europe through aggressive war.3
In September 1939, the Nazis and Soviets began their war by abolishing Poland, though curiously the Franco-British war declaration in response only applied to Germany.4 In early 1940, during the Soviet attempt to conquer Finland, there was a brief moment when Britain and France considered providing support the Finns and directly attacking the Soviet oil facilities in the Caucasus: Soviet energy was literally fuelling the Nazi war machine these states were at nominal war with, so these were seen as much as anti-Nazi as anti-Soviet measures, but the moment passed.5 By June 1940, the Nazis had invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, while the Soviets had invaded Manchuria (Japanese-occupied China), Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Romania (Bessarabia)—seven countries a piece.6
In the summer of 1940, Britain was thrown off the Continent at Dunkirk and the terror-bombing of the blitz began; much of Europe lay under totalitarian rule; and most of the remaining nominally independent countries were in one camp or other. The only major state that was properly neutral was, perhaps fittingly, Spain,7 where the Soviet takeover in the mid-1930s had been thwarted, partly with assistance from Germany and Italy. Hitler had one of the most unpleasant meetings of his life trying to use this debt to sway General Franco, but the Caudillo wanted no part of Hitler’s war: his country was exhausted. Spain’s refusal to join the Axis proved crucial in scotching the planned invasion of Britain.
In the race to break the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hitler struck first, invading the Soviet Union in June 1941 across a front nearly 2,000 miles long, with nearly four million men. At a stroke, the political landscape had changed: no longer was Stalin a co-aggressor with Hitler. Now, facing what the Germans directly described as a “war of extermination” (Vernichtungskrieg), with the beginnings of the mechanised slaughter of Jews—the so-called “Holocaust by bullets” at Babi Yar and elsewhere—the Soviets were the victims and, if only by default, allies. The Japanese attack on the Americans in December 1941, itself partly the handiwork of the Soviets,8 and Hitler’s subsequent insane decision to declare war on the United States, drew the lines of the war from that point.
The American Lend-Lease program—direct and by backfilling British stocks—was crucial in providing the margins that stopped the Soviets going under in 1941,9 and perhaps that was defensible. But the supplies only escalated after the Soviets turned the tide in 1943.10 The simple fact is the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, and even Winston Churchill for most of the war, entirely lost their senses. When Stalin dissolved the COMINTERN, the coordination body for international subversion, in May 1943, it was for the perfectly sound reason that no Communist government in America or Britain could better serve Soviet interests than the ones in place.11 Lend-Lease continued to underwrite the Red Army as it raped and massacred it way across Eastern Europe, displacing the Nazis in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and eastern Germany, enslaving the populations and looting resources (especially in Germany) that brought the impoverished and partially industrialised Soviet Union up to a place where it could go toe-to-toe with the U.S. superpower in the long Cold War.12
THE SOVIET INVASION OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA
As the Soviets conquered eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, they took special care to liquidate the non-Communist, anti-Nazi resistance forces—those who had resisted totalitarianism once were likely to try again—as well as certain categories of people that Marxist theology marked for elimination, notably social democrats, the liberal intelligentsia, and businessmen.13 This made the task of imposing clone regimes much easier.
Czechoslovakia held out fractionally longer than the other Captive Nations, and was an exception in another way, too: generally, in the areas the Soviets captured from their former Nazi allies, they avoided the overt use of violence, creating a democratic façade, a coalition or “united front” government, where the Communist Parties and particularly the local KGB replicas held all real levers of power, then gradually used “salami tactics” to cut away the non-Communist elements.14 But Czechoslovakia succumbed to Communism through a coup in late February 1948, and this was marked two weeks later, on 10 March 1948, by an incident that attracted international attention: the discovery of the one non-Communist in the Cabinet, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, dead in the courtyard outside his Ministry in what was officially ruled a “suicide”. Nobody was in any doubt about the reality. A grim joke popular among Czechs was: “Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. So tidy that, when he jumped out the window, he remembered to close it behind him.”15
The Czechs were quickly made to feel what it meant to be in Stalin’s Empire, with the importation of the Vozhd’s demented antisemitic campaign, the last thing he did before his stroke that nearly ended in something truly horrifying. What it did lead to was bad enough—the purges, show trials, and executions of Jewish officials. In Czechoslovakia, the best-known victim was Rudolf Slansky. In 1955, Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet colonies in eastern Europe were herded into the Warsaw Pact, Moscow’s parody of NATO. Where NATO was a voluntary alliance of states looking for collective security against Communism, the Warsaw Pact was a compelled association of occupied states providing for collective action to prevent states escaping Communism.
Over the next two decades, despite the wave of decolonisation elsewhere in the world, the Soviet Union was never called upon to relinquish Czechoslovakia or the rest of eastern Europe, nor was “anti-colonial” protest raised as Moscow started capturing states in the third world, from Ghana to Cuba, any more than it was about Red China’s conquest and settlement of Tibet. As was once said, the United Nations was “dedicated to the decolonisation of any part of the world not under Communist control”.16 The Czechs were subjected to the full measure of institutional Revolution, indoctrination, and the accompanying pervasive Terror that is necessary to enforce a doctrine as alien to the human experience as Communism on a society.
By the 1960s, the Soviets had become deeply alarmed by Western “ideological subversion” in the East: through Western broadcasts like the BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, scientific exchanges, tourism, and other people-to-people contact, the KGB had detected an uptick in the number of people in the East who had gotten the idea life in the West was better. There was considerable fury in Moscow Centre that its colonies were not doing a better job of supervising visitors and containing their ideological contagion.17
In Czechoslovakia, the long-time First Secretary, the 63-year-old Antonin Novotny, was so unreconstructed a Stalinist that even the Centre had come to see him as a “nuisance, rather than a bulwark against revisionism”.18 Soviet Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev visited Prague in December 1967, at Novotny’s request, but Novotny was bluntly refused Brezhnev’s help against his rivals. Novotny was forced out and replaced by the 46-year-old Alexander Dubcek on 5 January 1968. When the Centre first noticed the reformist drift in Prague, they thought “Our Sasha” must be being manipulated by “bourgeois elements”; when they found Dubcek was driving the reforms, they felt personally betrayed, which partly fed into the harsh reaction.19
The “Prague Spring” that Dubcek proposed was not meant to undo socialism or the one-party system; it was meant to strengthen it by making its rule less objectionable to normal people. The ideas proposed included: loosening restrictions on travel, administrative decentralisation (the Czech and Slovak Communist Parties were allowed to split), weakening the state control of the economy, and providing more consumer goods to people. Where Dubcek was most obviously playing with fire was proposing some political reforms—like relaxing limits on free speech and the media—that the Centre recognised as profoundly dangerous to the whole system. When the Centre saw on television the results of the near-collapse of censorship, with protesters supporting Dubcek on May Day openly holding posters reading, “Long Live the USSR—But At Its Own Expense”, a line had been crossed: a blatant counter-revolutionary provocation such as this could only mean the triumph of heresy was imminent.20 Dubcek allowing other ideas, about reining in the powers of the secret police and even allowing multi-party elections, to become part of the public conversation only steeled the KGB’s determination to “rescue” Czechoslovakia.
The first discussion of an “intervention” in Czechoslovakia was on 21 March 1968 at a meeting of the Politburo, proposed by Petr Shelest, the Ukrainian Communist Party boss, who said the fate of the whole “socialist camp” was in the balance: it was urgent to find and empower “healthy” (pro-Moscow) elements in Prague, and “military measures” would be needed as part of this package. Shelest was supported vigorously in this by Yuri Andropov, who had been made chairman of the KGB in May 1967. Andropov, as Soviet ambassador in Hungary during the uprising in 1956, had been crucial in persuading Nikita Khrushchev to send the tanks, and in coordinating events on the ground in Budapest to bring down Hungarian Communist leader Imre Nagy.21
The KGB ran PROGRESS operations in Eastern Europe to track how well Communism was taking, and “correct” any unpromising developments. This included keeping statistics on “harmful attitudes” and “hostile acts”, categories that were usually used interchangeably and covered everything from liking pop music to actually expressing anti-Communist ideas.22
The innovation of the PROGRESS operations during the Prague Spring was the major use of Illegals in a Soviet Bloc country. The Illegals were all disguised as Westerners, and tasked with both intelligence gathering and active measures. Even within the First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB, the use of Illegals in this way in Czechoslovakia was known only to a handful of people.23 Andropov ordered in March 1968 that fifteen or more Illegals be deployed to Czechoslovakia within two months—“more than had ever been despatched to any Western country in so short a period of time”.24 The Illegals were to infiltrate the alleged “counter-revolutionary” groups that had come into existence during the Prague Spring, and begin cultivating “healthy” Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCz) officials to be on standby to take roles in the government the Soviets would install after the invasion.25
Of course, the KGB would not leave something like discovering the existence of counter-revolutionary organisations to chance: the Illegals that were part of a parallel operation, codenamed KHODOKI (GO-BETWEENS), were tasked with fabricating evidence of links between Czechoslovak “Rightists” and Western special services, as well as publishing especially provocative attacks on the Soviet Union in the Czechoslovak press. Fictitious “Prague Spring” groups were created and the KGB Illegals would then present themselves as CIA or SIS/MI6 agents, and offer aid, including weapons, to suspected ideological deviants to see if they would accept. This was all designed to justify the Soviet invasion as a reaction to a Western-backed counter-revolutionary conspiracy (or “colour revolution”, as Moscow would say these days).26 Even years after the Soviets were back in total control in Prague, TRUST-type operations would be run, just to test the loyalty of officials and intellectuals.27
The Politburo meeting on 19 July 1968—the same day Pravda had its first report on Western intelligence providing weapons to Czechoslovak counter-revolutionaries—ended with a decision by Brezhnev to try for a final meeting with Dubcek before any “extreme measures”. The 29 July-1 August meeting obviously went nowhere. Andropov had furiously opposed even this last effort to avert the use of force, arguing for immediate action. The KGB had also stepped up its active measures, both within Czechoslovakia—where American weapons donated to the Soviets in the Second World War were “found” in Prague and where it seems the KGB had plans (not told to the Politburo) to murder the wives of officials and blame it on counter-revolutionaries—and within the Politburo itself, where Andropov beginning to slant and withhold intelligence from Brezhnev to conform with his own understanding of the situation as a grand confrontation between Western imperialist subversion and the True Faith of Communism.28 That Andropov had been given “absolutely reliable” information by Oleg Kalugin, who later defected, that the Americans had nothing to do with events in Prague was neither here nor there in a cosmic struggle of this kind.29
Wanting the invasion to appear “multilateral”, the Soviets brought in the four “reliable” Warsaw Pact colonies—Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland30—for a meeting on 18 August, and, just after midnight on 21 August, the largest military operation in Europe since 1945 began, with a quarter-million Communist troops sent into Czechoslovakia, instructed that they were there to counter a NATO coup or even invasion. Not everything went to plan—when does it ever for Moscow? There was a serious misunderstanding about how popular Dubcek was, even within the CPCz: the puppet government that was waiting in the Soviet Embassy was unable to just walk into power. Dubcek was taken to Moscow, where he was lectured in the Kremlin by Brezhnev about the coup attempt he had allowed to develop, with “underground command posts and arms caches”, though Dubcek was assured that he was not being accused of personal involvement in the conspiracy—unlike Nagy, who had been executed for treason in June 1958.31
Dubcek and the other Czech leaders were made to sign the Moscow Protocol five days later that “officially” revoked the Prague Spring and began a period of what the Soviets called “normalisation”: re-instituting censorship of “anti-socialist and anti-Soviet expressions” in the media, purging reformist officials, banning independent groups, and restoring the “socialist economy”. The Protocol also gave pseudo-legal cover to the Soviet occupation as necessary until such a time as the threats to “the gains of socialism” in Czechoslovakia and the security of the “Socialist Commonwealth” from “militarist, revanchist, and neo-Nazi forces” had been “eliminated”, designating this an internal affair in which United Nations involvement was “categorically reject[ed]”.
Despite the glitches, the Soviets ultimately prevailed quickly: there were Red Army divisions already in key positions in the capital, and the Czechoslovak army essentially stood aside after Dubcek warned against a “military defence” that would lead to a “senseless bloodbath”. Of the one-hundred or so Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops killed, the overwhelming majority—ninety-plus percent—were accidents and suicides. The Czechoslovak casualties were 150 or so civilians killed, and 500 wounded, resisting the Soviets in peaceful protests over about eight months until Dubcek was forced to formally resign in April 1969. The depth of the hatred the Czechoslovaks felt towards the Soviets for what they did was so intense that a member of the Czechoslovak KGB clone, the State Security (StB), posted to the United Nations, encouraged the Czechoslovak ambassador there to bring the invasion to the assembly and publicly protest, a flagrant violation of the Moscow Protocol.32 “Normalisation” was difficult in Czechoslovakia: rooting out “revisionism” and finding “healthy” forces to rule the country took years.
Within the Soviet Union, there was—in what will doubtless seem very current—alongside “substantial indifference”, considerable popular support for the invasion:
[M]any people evidently took pride in the exercise of Soviet power. … It was one of the attributes of being a superpower. A Russian … was vacationing at Sochi in August 1968 … “The people down there were really very happy with what happened,” he recalled. “Finally,” they said, “our troops have gone into Czechoslovakia. We should have done that a long time ago.” … “They believed in the huge, wild lie that the Soviet Union had to invade Czechoslovakia to help the people there.” … Another friend … found himself sharing a hospital ward with a civilian chauffeur who had been a tank driver in Prague during the invasion. … [The driver] had no qualms [about the tanks firing on civilians], he said, “because they were all Fascists”.
For the Soviet intelligence apparatus, the picture was a less rosy. The Soviets were able to find agents in the West right down to the end, but the post-1968 numbers and quality were notably reduced: after Kronstadt, Holodomor, Yezhovshchina, the Doctor’s Plot, the suppression of East Germany and Hungary in the 1950s—somehow this was just one too many. The Soviets’ “fraternal” Parties generally stood with Moscow, though the “Eurocommunism” heresy that emerged in the 1970s was partly an aftershock of the Czechoslovak invasion. The invasion also caused serious problems within the officer cast. The Illegals who had seen the West, of course, knew too well that the Soviet explanation of the invasion was a lie, and many either drifted away or were fired. For others, like Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer at the Embassy in Denmark, the invasion was the final straw, and he became an agent in place for the British, working to destroy the Soviet system from within at the risk of his own life.33
The slogan Dubcek and his colleagues adopted at the Presidium meeting in April 1968, laying out their intentions, was: “socialism with a human face”. This was not the uprisings in East Germany in 1953 or in Hungary in 1956 that intended the overthrow of the Communist governments, yet the Soviets could not accept it, and the truth of it is that the Andropov and the KGB “hardliners” were right: there is no such thing as an acceptable level of “ideological subversion” in such a system.34 Dubcek’s program had a logic within it that led to the collapse of socialism as surely as direct rebellion. If a little liberalism is good, more must be better. Mikhail Gorbachev proved this two decades later with his “New Thinking” that brought the roof in on the whole Communist Empire.
The echoes of what was done to Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968 are with us to the present day, not only the lesson that revolutionary governments like that in Iran are incapable of “reform”, but in Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, nurtured in the KGB and from the most Sovietized layer of Russian society, has cast his invasion as a response to NATO aggression, went to considerable lengths to stage provocations that “showed” Ukraine was a threat to Moscow that could not be dealt with by means short of force, and completely misread how popular this would be within the invaded country.
Of course, some will see comparisons between Ukraine at the present and what happened to Czechoslovakia in 1938-39: using agents to stir up domestic trouble that is then presented as a “civil war”, claiming to protect ethnic “compatriots” who are trapped within—and are being persecuted by—a fake state that is really part of the Motherland and was only removed by an illegitimate historical accident during a moment of weakness, using the invasion as a bid to recover a great power status lost during the last war, and democratic states that appease too long and then have to play catch-up.
Post has been updated
Lewis Copeland, Lawrence Lamm, and Stephen McKenna [eds.] (1999), The World’s Great Speeches: Fourth Enlarged, p. 483.
Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew (1999), The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, p. 165.
The Secret Protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, to the absolute horror of the Soviets, first made public in March 1946 at the Nuremberg Trials, during the testimony of German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. The Soviet government finally publicly admitted the existence of the Secret Protocol on 18 August 1989.
There was one case where the British (unknowingly) attacked both the Nazis and Soviets at once, a Royal Air Force (RAF) raid over Berlin on 13 November 1940, that sent German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his guest, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, scurrying into a bomb shelter. See: Sean McMeekin (2021), Stalin’s War, p. 205.
Stalin’s War, pp. 133-55.
Stalin’s War, p. 177.
Stalin’s War, pp. 187-88.
Stalin’s War, pp. 377-80.
Stalin’s War, pp. 368-69.
Stalin’s War, pp. 518-19.
Stalin’s War, pp. 489-90.
Stalin’s War, pp. 625-29.
Anne Applebaum (2012), Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, p. 8.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 247.
James Hornfischer (2022), Who Can Hold the Sea: The U.S. Navy in the Cold War 1945-1960, p. 120.
The line is William F. Buckley’s. Begins at 9:12, “A Firing Line Debate: Resolved: That the Senate Should Ratify the Proposed Panama Canal Treaties”, 13 January 1978. Available here.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 249.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 250.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 250.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 253-54.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 251. Andropov was the truest of true believers: an uncorrupt, dedicated, and ruthless servant of the cause of bringing Communism to the entire world. In Budapest, in 1956, Andropov’s colleagues later recalled with some awe how he held his nerve as things collapsed around him—managing to simultaneously run active measures to convince the Hungarian leader, Imre Nagy, that the Red Army was pulling back, while coordinating with Moscow for the Army to come in and with Moscow loyalists in the Hungarian Communist Party to bring about Nagy’s overthrow [The Sword and the Shield, p. 251]. Andropov could get lost in conspiracy theories, notably in 1983-84, by which time he was General-Secretary, when he was convinced that U.S. President Ronald Reagan was planning a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union and burned enormous resources searching for “evidence” of this non-existent plot [Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew (2005), The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, p.403]. Still, Andropov made some effort to reduce the KGB practice of telling leaders what they wanted to hear—or more precisely, telling him what he wanted to hear. By the 1970s, Andropov would increasingly make the decisions about what the ailing Brezhnev and other Party leaders needed to know. A classic case was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: Andropov believed this was a necessary step to advance Communism, despite the unpromising facts when it came to how an occupation would go, so he simply withheld facts and presented a picture to the Politburo that was so deceptive it amounted to an active measure [The World Was Going Our Way, pp. 399-403].
The Sword and the Shield, p. 249.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 252-53.
The Sword and the Shield, p.252.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 252-53.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 255.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 264-66.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 255-56.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 256.
The one “excluded” Warsaw Pact state was Romania, since the Soviets used that state and its ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu, as a portal into the West—particularly for bank loans and other equipment and resources that were scarce in the East—by portraying it as having a semi-“independent” course from Moscow. The idea was to seduce the West into the belief that by cultivating relations with Ceausescu—and providing him with cash—Romania could be drawn away from Moscow. It largely worked. This was also very helpful for the KGB in dealing with international terrorists: it meant those activities run by Ceausescu were even more “deniable” than what the East Germans were deputised to do.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 257.
The Sword and the Shield, p. 259.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 259-61.
“Ideological subversion” was the term used by Andropov, for whom this became a personal fixation, to describe dissent in all its forms—political, religious, nationalist. Writers like Andrei Sakharov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn got more KGB resources devoted to them for obvious reasons, but this did not mean there was neglect of even so tiny a group as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Soviet Union’s relatively small number of Jews became an obsession that even Brezhnev thought was unhealthy. But it worked [The Sword and the Shield, pp. 311-17]. The Dissident movement was broken by the early 1980s, and the Soviet population was firmly under control. Gorbachev’s attempt to “reform the unreformable”—the keep the system the Cheka/KGB had built, but without the KGB playing the role they always had in maintaining it—unravelled the Empire he ruled [p. 333].