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Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Dubcek’s Failings? The 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia


Continuing the theme of protest and rebellion, this article considers ‘Operation Danube’, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Here, Rebekah Young discusses the failure of Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to create ‘socialism with a human face’ and explores the complex decision-making process, mistakes and miscalculations that resulted in military intervention in August 1968.


Dubcek’s Failings? The 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia


By Rebekah Young.


During the night of August 20-21, 1968, the joint forces of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. This was the biggest military operation in Europe since the Second World War as up to 200,000 troops from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary occupied Czechoslovakia in ‘Operation Danube’. Launched in response to the reform movement led by Czechoslovakia leader Alexander Dubcek (known as the ‘Prague Spring’), the Warsaw Pact invasion was preceded by several months of negotiation and preparation. As Jiri Valenta argues, the Soviet leadership decided to intervene in Czechoslovakia ‘only after a long period of hesitation and vacillation’.[1] During the course of 1968, the steady escalation of Dubcek’s reform programme first disquieted and then alarmed Moscow, finally persuading Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that Soviet interests were seriously compromised by the threat of ‘counter-revolution’ in Czechoslovakia. In particular, Dubcek’s failure to respond to numerous warnings and ultimatums issued between April and August 1968 seems to have played a vital role in influencing Brezhnev’s decision to sanction military intervention.


Alexander Dubcek and ‘Socialism with a Human Face’.


Alexander Dubcek became leader of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party on 5 January 1968. When he assumed the leadership, Dubcek faced the challenge of revitalising the public standing of the Communist Party; the previous leader Antonin Novotny had been widely criticised for his inability to redress the ‘political discontent of the people’ and the ‘declining activity and interest’ of communist party members. On 5 April 1968 Dubcek  published his Action Programme, a series of proposed reforms which aimed at improving economic conditions in Czechoslovakia and sanctioned a higher degree of liberalisation, promising greater freedom of speech, movement, association and greater political participation by non-communist organisations. The power of the police, military and judiciary were also to be curtailed.


Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek – his attempt to create ‘socialism with a human face’ sparked the 1968 Prague Spring.


Dubcek’s Action Programme was an experiment in reform from above. It was Dubcek’s intention that the Communist Party would retain its ‘leading role’ in Czechoslovakia, but he hoped that by encouraging a more open exchange of views and a higher level of political participation, he could narrow the gap between the Party and society, revitalising communism and enabling the party to gain greater legitimacy and public support, thus creating ‘socialism with a human face’.[2] The Action Programme was hardly a revolutionary document; it intended to strengthen state socialism and posed no fundamental challenge to the Soviet Union and its satellite states. While Dubcek aimed to redefine the role of the communist party, he did not seek to abandon it. In particular, the programme emphasised orthodoxy in foreign policy, stressing a continued commitment to ‘fighting the forces of imperialist reaction’ and stating that ‘the basic orientation of Czechoslovak foreign policy ….revolves around alliance and cooperation with the Soviet Union and the other socialist states’. Throughout 1968, Dubcek continued to emphasise that Czechoslovakian commitments to the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries would not change.[3]


However, Dubcek’s proposals had the potential for considerable movement away from the orthodox Soviet model, diluting the ‘leading role’ of the communist party in state and society. Jiri Valenta even refered to the Action Programme as the ‘Magna Carta of Dubcek’s new leadership’.[4] The Action Programme thus sparked Soviet concerns, as Moscow began to monitor developments in Czechoslovakia carefully.


The Prague Spring: April-August 1968


Developments in Czechoslovakia between April-August 1968 led to rising alarm in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the East European bloc. On 4th May Dubcek visited Moscow, where certain aspects of his Action Programme were criticised and he was cautioned by Brezhnev to ensure that any reforms remained ‘within acceptable bounds’.


The abolition of censorship in Czechoslovakia, allowed a level of freedom of speech unheard of elsewhere in the communist bloc. This was a matter of great concern for the Soviets. Dubcek’s decision to encourage political debate opened the floodgates of free expression and inevitably led to criticism of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power and past brutality. This is perhaps best illustrated by Ludvik Vaculik’s ‘Two Thousand Words’, which was published in June 1968. The article supported Dubcek and the continued role of the communists in leading a ‘democratic revival’ in Czecholsovakia and rejected the use of ‘improper or illegal methods’ against the Party. However, Vaculik was extremely critical of the Party’s past record, criticising high levels of repression, stating that the  Party had gone from ‘a political party and ideological grouping into a power organisation’ led by ‘power-hungry egoists, reproachful cowards and people with bad consciences’. Vaculik believed the government had ‘forgotten how to govern’ and called for the resignation of those who had previously misused their power.[5]


Vaculik’s plea inspired widespread support in Czechoslovakia and sparked serious concern from the Soviets. The Two Thousand Words hinted at the potential for action from below that could destroy the leading role of the party and the Soviet leadership condemned the article as ‘an anti-socialist call to revolution’.[6] This was one of the catalysts for convening a Warsaw Pact meeting in July, which Navratil believes ‘marked the point of no return for Soviet policy on rolling back the Prague Spring’.[7]


The Soviets were also increasingly concerned about Dubcek’s apparent willingness to dilute the leading role of the communist party with moves towards political pluralism; proposals to increase the involvement of non-communist organisations within the political sphere and plans to vote on further political ‘restructuring’ at the 14th Czechoslovakian Party Congress at the end of August. Galia Golan believes that the increasingly politicised nature of Dubcek’s reforms was a crucial factor, arguing that, ‘it was the democratic nature and content of the Czechosovak experiment … which precipitated the invasion’.[8]


Perhaps most importantly, the Prague Spring posed a wider security issue, with fear of demands for reform triggering a ‘domino effect’ elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Other East European leaders began to press Brezhnev for a hard-line intervention in Czechoslovakia to minimise any damage to their own country. In particular, the Ukrainian, Polish and East German leaderships began complaining about the danger of ‘contamination’. In Ukraine, people began to openly voice their long standing discontent with Soviet domination and express solidarity with Dubcek and the Czechoslovakian people. Polish leader Gomulka was particularly angered by public criticism in Prague about Polish anti-Semitism, while East German leader Ulbricht strongly opposed any suggestion that the Czechoslovakian Communist Party might give up its monopoly of power.[9] Minutes from a secret meeting of the ‘Warsaw Five’ in Moscow on 8 May 1968 demonstrate that Gomulka and Ulbricht took the most hard line stance, repeatedly insisting that a ‘counterrevolution’ was underway in Czechoslovakia and emphasising the need for outside military intervention.[10] However, Brezhnev remained reluctant to send tanks into Czechoslovakia, hoping to coerce Dubek to keep his reforms within ‘acceptable limits’ instead.


Moscow’s Warnings: Mistakes and Miscalculations


When the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Dubcek expressed complete shock at this ‘unexpected’ turn of events, declaring ‘On my honour as a communist, I declare that I did not have the slightest idea … that anyone proposed taking such measures against us’.[11] However, the available evidence indicates that Soviet pressure on Dubcek to reverse his reform programme intensified between April and August 1968 and that Brezhnev repeatedly warned Dubcek about the possibility of outside intervention if he did not act decisively to bring the Prague Spring back under control. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Prague Spring was Dubcek’s failure to heed Brezhnev’s warnings. Instead, he remained seemingly oblivious to the increasingly dangerous position he was in, despite the precedent set by the earlier Soviet invasion of Hungary to prevent escalating reform in 1956, with Hungarian leader Kadar knowingly warning Dubcek ‘Do you really not know the kind of people you are dealing with?’[12] (For more on the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary see the previous blog post HERE)


‘Fraternal Cooperation’ – Dubcek and Brezhnev embrace. However, relations between the two deteriorated as Brezhnev became increasingly frustrated by Dubcek’s unwillingness to bow to Soviet pressure and halt his reform programme.


A series of meetings held during the summer of 1968 illustrate a slow but steady course towards military intervention. On 14-15 July an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Czechoslovakia resulted in a letter claiming that ‘hostile forces’ in Czechoslovakia posed a serious threat and emphasising the ‘solidarity and general assistance of fraternal socialist countries to defend Czechoslovakia and uphold the socialist system’.[13] The letter was sent to Dubcek (who had been absent from the meeting) but he dismissed these criticisms. Between 29 July and 1 August a further series of meetings were held between the Czechoslovak and Soviet leaderships at Cierna nad Tisou, where Dubcek bowed to sustained pressure and promised a series of concessions including a halt to political reform and the re-imposition of a higher level of censorship. However, after the summit Dubcek ‘continued his course as if nothing had happened’, despite dispatches from the Czechoslovak Ambassadors in Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest reporting on a ‘steady military build-up’ under way in the Eastern bloc.[14] Cierna nad Tisou can be seen as a crucial tipping point: had Dubcek acted decisively to regain control over the reform process after the meeting, invasion may have been avoided. Tigrid believes this was a ‘tragic misunderstanding’ on Dubcek’s part, while a CIA Intelligence Memorandum dated 21st August 1968 observed that ‘Cierna proved only that the Czechs had not understood … that they should put their reform movement into reverse.[15]


On 3 August the Bratislava Declaration further emphasised Warsaw Pact commitment to ‘strengthening and developing fraternal cooperation among the socialist states’, and vigilance against any attempts to weaken the leading role of the communist party.[16] The stage was set for intervention. Records of two telephone conversations between Brezhnev and Dubcek on the 9 and 13 August mark the final point of no return for Moscow. An increasingly frustrated Brezhnev explained to Dubcek that the situation was now ‘very serious’; accusing him of failing to adhere to the agreements reached in Cierna and Bratislava; rebuking him for his lack of action and ‘deceit’ and stating that ‘independent measures’ would be employed to defend socialism. Dubcek merely requested more time, arguing that rapid changes to restore domestic order were impossible during such a complex process.[17]




On August 17th, the final decision to launch Operation Danube was made. This came after much deliberation between Brezhnev and the other Warsaw Pact members. The invasion was the result of a fragile balance of conflicting ideas. By August 1968 Dubcek’s failure to slow the pace of reform in Czechoslovakia convinced Brezhnev that some form of intervention was required.[18]While Brezhnev was initially reluctant to send troops in to Czechoslovakia Dubcek’s seeming refusal to limit his reform programme despite repeated warnings and ultimatums, coupled with pressure from other East European leaders left little choice but to take decisive action. Dubcek had clearly underestimated the warnings of the Warsaw five, who believed that he had lost control over the Prague Spring. He failed to convince them that he had the power and initiative to prevent a counter-revolution and was ultimately considered too ‘unreliable’ to maintain socialism in Czechoslovakia.


Warsaw Pact troops entering Prague, 21 August 1968.


VIDEO:  Soldiers and Eyewitnesses remember the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia:


About the Author:


Rebekah Young has recently completed her BA (Hons) in History at Swansea University. During her final year of study Rebekah specialised in East European History and researched and wrote her History Dissertation about gender differences in the Gulag camps. Rebekah is planning to study for an MA in History at Swansea University in 2013.


[1] Jiri Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia 1968: Anatomy of a Decision (John Hopkins University Press, 1979).

[2] Jeremi Suri, “The Promise and Failure of ‘Developed Socialism’”, Contemporary European History 15, 2 (2006), 146; Grzegorz Ekiert, The State Against Society (Princeton University Press, 1996), 122

[3] Tigrid, Why Dubcek Fell (London: Macdonald, 1971), 56; Ben Fowkes, The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), 125

[4] Jiri Valenta, Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia 1968: Anatomy of a Decision (John Hopkins University Press, 1979).

[5] Ludvik Vaculik, Two Thousand Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists and Everyone (27 June 1968) – available online @

[6] Grzegorz Ekiert, The State Against Society (Princeton University Press: 1996), 142-143.

[7] Jaromir Navratil, The Prague Spring 1968,: A National Security Documents Archive Reader (Central European University Press, 1998), 177

[8] Galia Golan, Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia (Cambridge, 1973), 238

[9]University of New Orleans Center Austria International Symposium on the Occasion of the Ten-Year Anniversary of Center Austria, Summar of Proceedings from ‘Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968’, April 3-4 2008, available online via (15-03-12), 2.

[10] Jaromir Navratil, The Prague Spring 1968,: A National Security Documents Archive Reader (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998), 132.

[11] Dubcek quoted in Ben Fowkes, The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, (Macmillan, 1995), 133

[12] Fowkes, B, Eastern Europe 1945-1969: From Stalinism to Stagnation (Harlow: Longman, 2000), 79.

[13] The Warsaw Letter – approved by the USSR, Bulgaria, the GDR, Hungary and Poland and sent to the Czechoslovak authorities (14-15 July 1968) available online @

[14] Jaromir Navratil, The Prague Spring 1968,: A National Security Documents Archive Reader (Budapest: Central  European University Press, 1998), 298.

[15]Tigrid, Why Dubcek Fell (Macdonald, 1971), 93; CIA Intelligence Memorandum ‘Soviet Decision to Intervene’, 2 August 1968, available online via The OSA Digital Archive of 1968: ;

[16] The Bratislava Declaration – signed by the USSR, Hungary, Poland, the GDR, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia (3 August 1968) – available online @

[17] Transcripts of Telephone Conversations between Brezhnev and Dubcek, 9 and 13 August 1968, available @ and

[18] Ben Fowkes, The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, (Macmillan, 1995), 128-129.

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