Czechoslovakia, 1968 – A Nonviolence Case Study

Most people I know are at least passingly familiar with the nonviolent revolutionary work of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the American South and Mohandas K. Gandhi in India.  This is helpful to the degree that these struggles highlight the possibility of social change achieved through means of nonviolent action.  But the widespread impression that these two are the only or even the most significant nonviolent social actions is deeply misleading, for a number of reasons.

By focusing our attention on these two theaters, we get the impression that nonviolent movements require charismatic figures around whom to coalesce.  We might also get the impression that nonviolent movements can only achieve victory against “civilized” enemies (though I remain convinced that it’s a deep misunderstanding of British imperialism or American domestic policy to view either regime as especially gentle).

But during 1968-69, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Soviet Union forces in order to replace the pro-reform leader Alexander Dubcek with a party-line pro-Moscow figure.  A look at the methods of resistance here will provide an enlightening contrast to the movements of King and Gandhi.

An uncontested military victory

The Soviet Union bolstered an invasion force of 300,000 troops (against the entire Czech military of 175,000) from Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria, who invaded Czechoslovakia from the east, north and south, beginning at 11 p.m. on August 20.  The invasion continued overnight, quickly seizing Czech airports and using them to transport troops and light tanks into the country.

Within two days, the Soviet army occupied every major city in Czechoslovakia.  There were no casualties during the invasion phase.

Nonviolent resistance

Citizens were appealed to by radio “not to offer resistance to troops on the march,” and informed that the military had been instructed not to defend the country.  At 6:35 a.m. the next morning, Prague Radio appealed to the population to remain calm, not to offer violent resistance, but to meet the occupation with “passive resistance.”  The National Assembly met later that day and mentioned the possibility of a general strike.

The first act of outright defiance came from a Czech news agency, CTK, refused to broadcast a clearly false statement from the USSR that the invasion had been sanctioned by government officials within Czechoslovakia.  Instead, the radio announcers urged the citizens to engage the invaders with conversation as “our only weapon,” saying

Keep calm.  Let your weapon be passive resistance.  Don’t be provoked into bloodshed.  That’s what they’re waiting for.  Don’t be provoked.

In response, citizens flooded the streets, draping symbolic flags and banners around national monuments, and forming human blockades along routes the Soviet forces were traversing.  The blockades grew to include cars “accidentally” double-parked, and buses that “happened” to run out of gas during an illegal U-turn.  Leaflets were spread denouncing the invasion, and blood-covered Czech flags were hung for those protestors who had been fired upon by tank squads.

The invasion and resistance intensify

After First Secretary Dubcek addressed the nation, he was kidnapped by Soviet KGB agents, aong with the Prime Minister, National Assembly President and the National Front Chariman.  The Soviets could not, however, manage to coerce anyone within the Czech government to acknowledge the coup as a coup, and thus could not effectively replace the ousted leaders with a puppet government.  A writer for the New York Times observed the next day that “Twenty-four hours after the invasion began, the Kremlin knew it had blundered.  It had neither a compliant government nor a compliant people in Czechoslovakia.”

(To get your head around this, imagine the U.S. going into Iraq, and finding no cooperation among the local police, military or government after Saddam was taken from power.)

There was a clandestine meeting of the Fourteenth Congress in which it was officially stated that “Czechoslovakia will never accept either a military occupation administration or a domestic collaborationist regime dependent on the forces of the occupiers.”  The Congress demanded the departure of foreign troops, and called on citizens to perform a one-hour protest strike on August 23 at noon if interned leaders were not released by 6 p.m.

They were not released, and the strike occurred.  And then another.  Rail workers intentionally slowed, stalled and misdirected Russian equipment.  Uniformed police intentionally misfiled paperwork, overlooked resistance and at times worked actively with the resistance.  Resisters vandalized Soviet tanks, drawing swastikas and cartoons on them.  Graffiti was seen in many places reading, “Socialism yes, occupation no,” “Ivan, go home.  Natasha is in bed with Igor,” and simply, “Home, dogs.”

On the evening of August 23, news got out that the Soviet forces were planning to strike back against resistance, making midnight arrests and deportations against anyone known to be organizing strikes, protests or resistance radio.  In response, Czechoslovak Radio instructed citizens to paint over or remove street signs, house plates, name plates and highway signs.  The Prague responded with lightning quickness and became practically anonymous.  Witnesses recall that the only sign undisturbed was “Moscow – 1500 kilometres.”

Strikes became more common and more widespread, creating logistical nightmares for the Soviet forces.  Students and workers began performing sit-ins.  In the countryside, agricultural workers worked extra hours to support the resistance, donating tons of food to the strikers.  On August 26, the newspaper Vecerni Praha published a list of the “Ten Commandments” of resistance:

  1. Don’t know
  2. Don’t care
  3. Don’t tell
  4. Don’t have
  5. Don’t know how to
  6. Don’t give
  7. Can’t do
  8. Don’t sell
  9. Don’t show
  10. Do nothing

Following these simple maxims, the citizens continued to strike, protest, make a nuisance of themselves and at every opportunity offend, anger and argue with the invaders who were attempting to occupy an unwilling nation.

The effects of resistance on the invaders

Troop morale was incredibly low.  One tank crew “refused to obey an officer’s orders to disperse a crowd of people.”  Another report said that “some Hungarian troops are reported to have been made to operate without ammunition, because of their unreliability.”  There were even reports of a few suicides among Soviet officers just off the streets in Prague.  Whether that is believable or not, it is official record that the Soviets realized a morale and obedience problem, and rotated in completely fresh troops four days later.

And, in a shock to the watching world, the leadership of Czechoslovakia managed after four days of negotiation in Moscow to make a compromise, called the Moscow Protocol.  While the Protocol left a regiment of Soviet troops in the nation, it also returned Dubcek to power and permitted the Czechoslovak government to maintain its own rule and its own press, all outcomes that would have been impossible with military resistance.  Russia pulled the invasion troops out, and Czechoslovakia always remained the most free and outspokenly anti-Soviet nation in the USSR.

Out of a population of over fourteen million, about 70 were killed and 1,000 wounded in the resistance.  The nation achieved goals that clearly would not have come from armed resistance.  And twenty years later, a new nonviolent struggle began, and the Communist regime in the nation collapsed entirely.

Some thoughts on the case

I need to make it very clear that even though I am arguing here that nonviolence is a practical possibility, often more effective and always preferable to violent means, that is not why Christians are to be nonviolent.  I follow Stanley Hauerwas in saying as often as I can that Christians are not called to be nonviolence because we believe that nonviolence is a method to rid the world of war.  Rather, as followers of Jesus Christ in a world at war, we are formed into the kind of people who can’t imagine being anything other than nonviolent, even though that commitment may well make the world more violent.

That said, here are some thoughts.

  • In light of these kinds of scenarios, when can a nation truly say that their non-violent alternatives are used up, one of the prerequisites of a “just war”?
  • If nonviolence on an international scale can be effective with no funding, strategic consideration, or pre-planning, in what ways could we channel resources into nonviolent methods of social change?
  • How is this situation analogous to what is currently happening in Iraq?  Afghanistan?  Iran?
  • How can it be said in the aftermath of an event like this that violence is “necessary” in international relations?  What does that mean?

Prague’s 200 Days by Harry Schwartz
Waging Nonviolent Struggle by Gene Sharp
Czechoslovakia 1968 by Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts


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