ON THIS DAY    Witness      Graphics version >>   BBC News >>
Search ON THIS DAY by date   

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
1968: Caught in an international emergency

Soviet tanks rolled into the Czech capital on 21 August 1968.

The government of the USSR was responding to a democratic movement led by Prime Minister Alexander Dubcek, which it felt threatened Communism's grip on Eastern Europe.

Mr Dubcek had come to power in January and initiated his period of reform which became known as the "Prague Spring", but the new-found political and social freedoms did not last the summer.

The prime minister was flown to Moscow, forced to surrender to Soviet demands and was demoted the following year. All his reforms were annulled.

Your memories of the Prague Spring:

I was eight years old and on a camping holiday with my parents in Prague and Ostrava earlier that summer.

Cliff Richard had just won the Eurovision song contest with Congratulations, which boomed out endlessly from the hotel on the opposite bank of the Vltava from our campsite in Prague.

I remember walking with relatives (my grandparents were Czech) past Kafka's house on a scorching day and my mother's cousins saying things had never been so good, and praising Dubcek.

Later in the holiday I was sitting in our Morris Minor on the way back from Ostrava with the tent canvas drying over it in the morning. I heard my parents wondering what was happening, so opened the window and pulled the canvass back.

A seemingly endless line of Russian tanks was passing over a bridge visible from the campsite. When we got back, our English relatives were very relieved to see us. We had no idea that the news was full of the tense situation just before the invasion.

We next returned in 1972 and our Czech friends closed all the windows and curtains and played the final moments of Prague radio and wept. This was repeated on all the many occasions we visited, up to the late 70s.

I last visited them about five years ago and they played the tape again, but with the windows wide open.
Michael Gates, Finland

A small comment to Michael Gates' entry above; Cliff Richard did not win the 1968 Eurovision with "Congratulations"; he was beaten by one point by Spanish Massiel and her "La, la, la".

Funny thing is, Cliff's song went on to becoming a major hit im several countries, whereas no-one outside Spain really heard from Massiel again. Cliff entered in 1973 again ("Power to all our friends") and finished third.
Dan Ringby, Denmark

When I came in from summer class my 70-year-old landlady pointed to the TV wih tears rolling down her cheeks saying, "Look what they have done to Prague." I'll never forget this picture.
Kris Kerremans, Belgium

I was a teenager hitch hiking through Europe when the invasion took place. I was arrested in Bulgaria as the tanks moved into Prague and held in a railway station near the Yugoslav border together with about 40 other Western travellers. Our guards were "Dad's Army" style Bulgarian reservists armed with automatics.

They appeared to be confused about what they were supposed to be doing with us.


" We knew we were caught up in an international emergency "

Conal O'Donnell, UK

At one stage things started to look a bit ugly when a small group of US students began acting somewhat hysterically because they were going to miss their flight connections.

The guards didn't look as if they could cope with this kind of pressure in a disciplined way but the rest of the group managed to persuade the Americans to calm down because we knew we were caught up in an international emergency in which a missed flight was really an irrelevance.

After three days during which we slept rough and ate loaves of dry bread thrown to us by the guards we finally boarded a sealed train which took us to the Yugoslavian frontier where we were unceremoniously dumped.

The Yugoslavs were much friendlier ."NATO-good!"They kept repeating to re-assure us, giving the strong impression that they hoped the West would be brave enough to deter the Soviets from invading their country after crushing the Czechs.

From there it was straight back to the security of the UK as fast as one's hitch hiking thumb could carry one and the different kind of trauma of A-level results.
Conal O'Donnell, UK

My parents were attending the International Geological Congress meetings which were held in Prague that year; I was their 16 year old baggage tagging along.

We had just come from a week long geology field trip in the West Carpathians, and spent two lovely days as tourists in Prague when the tanks entered the city.

No matter how frightened my mother was I simply could not keep away from the windows and our view on Wenceslas Square.

All day on 21 August we were kept in the hotel by the manager, who felt responsible for the foreigners in his care.

The next day we did go out for a short walk around. I will never forget how young the soldiers seemed to be, or how angry the people of Prague were.


" When the car from the US embassy came, there was no warning. We left immediately and were put on a train leaving the country "

Roslyn Valentine Levy, USA

The street signs had been removed all over town very early in the invasion, adding to the confusion of the soldiers.

Even though the television and radio stations were shut down, and the newspaper offices closed, there always seemed to be citizens of Prague walking out of the small office across from our hotel with an armload of bulletins that had been hastily printed on someone's hidden mimeograph machine!

My father walked to the university to get news while my mother packed our bags. When the car from the US embassy came, there was no warning. We left immediately and were put on a train leaving the country.

We asked where it was going, and were told "We don't know exactly, it's going west". Eventually we ended up in Frankfurt.

It was only 2 days, but I will never forget what I saw.
Roslyn Valentine Levy, USA


Search ON THIS DAY by date   

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
^^ Back to top |