On 21 August, 1968, Warswa Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, killing and wounding hundreds of Czechs, damaging property and quashing the country’s efforts to liberalise the communist system. Until now, many of the stories from the invasion have remained untold.
Victims of the Occupation, a book by The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which was recenly released in English, provides a historical, and often graphic, view of the events of the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. The book is the result of a research study by the institute. Its goal was to uncover the information that the Communist Regime had previously suppressed.
Through extensive research and study, Victims of the Occupation uncovers the stories of the invasion that left much of the Czech Republic in shambles. Milan Bárta and Vítězslav Sommer, two of the authors of the book, said in an email that the communists tried to suppress what happened on August 21, 1968, and it wasn’t until after the fall of communism that questions behind the invasion were able to be explored. They said that the book is “the first monograph that attempts to summarize these questions”.
What is most striking about the book are the images, which show how chaotic and gruesome the invasion became. Photos of blood-stained Czech flags and the rubble of buildings provide a close-up view of what went on during the invasion and its ramifications after. The photos are an essential part of understanding the violence of the invasion and seeing the scar it left on Czechoslovakia.
The book also includes photos and profiles for the victims who died during the invasion, which helps bring the historical events to a more personal level.
One of the witnesses is Jelena Laitová, the mother of Ivan Laita, a Czech car mechanic who died from being hit with shrapnel from a Soviet tank explosion. She told the authors of the book that on the anniversary of her son’s death, “two men used to go to the cemetery and check the grave to ensure that there were not too many flowers and that no provocations against the regime had occurred.”
In the months leading up to the invasion, Czechoslovakia had been experiencing a period of political liberalisation that came to be known as the Prague Spring. Czech reformist Alexander Dubček came to power in January of 1968 and began to loosen the laws of Czechoslovakia and grant rights back to the people. After failed attempts at negotiations with Dubček, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Warsaw Pact states, which included the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland.
According to the book, the invasion killed 108 people and seriously injured hundreds more. The main goal of the book then was to “describe the stories of concrete common people, not to make impersonal statistics. For that reason we tried to tell the stories of individual incidents and display also ‘the human elements’ of these events,” Bárta and Sommer said.
After the invasion, Czechoslovakia went through a period known as normalisation, and all the liberalisation efforts were turned back. The book details the backlash of normalisation, as well as the burden of getting though the invasion. Again, the photos are both a powerful and poignant look into the impact of the invasion on a country who now shouldered the burden of government oppression.
The project initially started as a summery of the victims but turned into an extensive academic publication. Part history book, part historical photo album, the book provides an in-depth discussion and understanding of what went on and a critical view towards the Soviets. The book’s depth lies in the details that bring to life an event that has been hidden from public scrutiny for a long time. What one can take away from reading this book is the mark that the invasion left on Czechoslovakia and the constant but often futile power struggle between the people and a government.
Both Bárta and Sommer believe their book is important to understanding the full scope and impact of the invasion. “We are convinced that military presence of occupation forces played an important role in life of Czech and Slovak society in 1968 and after,” they said. The true message of the book is to remember those who died for the freedom of democracy that came 21 years later with the Velvet Revolution.
“The aim of this book is to commemorate people, who died by the hand of occupation forces. It is concerned with events that are still alive in the memories of a huge part of the Czech and Slovak population,” they said.
Visit the book’s website to read more about the invasion and the victims that were affected.