A tank burns on Vinohradská
March 19, 2009

The everyday occupation: 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion

New English-language translation looks at the details of the ’68 Warsaw Pact invasion

The 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia has been documented many times before, but a new English translation of a book by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes not only breaks new historical ground but brings the history to a whole new audience.

Even a cursory glance at Victims of the Occupation: The Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia: 21 August-31 December 1968 draws one in with an extensive collection of photos. There are the standard pictures of tanks rolling onto Wenceslas Square, but more eye-catching are the subtle shots, from street signs vandalized by Prague residents so invading soldiers would lose their way to a butcher shop in Liberec that painted “Dnes: ruský svině” (Today: Russian swine) on its front window. Other images are decidedly less light-hearted, including a color image of pedestrians trapped under a runaway truck on Vinohradská, complete with crimson spilled blood.

The book aims to capture “the context of military presence in everyday life,” says Vítězslav Sommer, a historian who worked on the project.

The text begins with an introductory chapter laying out the political background and a general chronology of events. The bulk of the book, however, is dedicated to poignant photographs and a breakdown of the invasion experience in specific places, often off the path beaten by historians who have come before.

The book is divided into sections geographically: Prague; Central, North, South, West and East Bohemia; South and North Moravia; and East, Central and West Slovakia.

All the sections end with a list of victims and the stories of how they died, some with mugshot-style photographs. This personal catalog of deaths is, as the title indicates, a primary purpose of the book.

“We wanted to show what the actual police violence looked like,” Sommer said.

Researchers concluded that 14 new names needed to be added to the previously accepted number of 94 fatalities from the invasion and occupation. The original Czech version of the book was completed in six months of furious work so as to meet the deadline of Aug. 21, 2008, the 40th anniversary of the invasion.

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes was established in February 2008. It is best known for discovering a police report last year that named Milan Kundera as an informant. While an October 2008 report on this in the weekly Respekt generated a flash of international media attention, the real work of the institute is decidedly less sexy.

“It is not like Indiana Jones,” Sommer said.

Much of the historical work requires digging through thousands of pages of bureaucratic documents from the communist regime and, as the foreword to the book indicates, wading through “Orwellian newspeak.” This book required scores of interviews, both to verify facts and “to give it a human dimension, allow it to have a face,” Sommer says.

“We tried to have as many sources as we could and, from that, come up with a single story,” said Milan Bárta, who worked on the introductory chapter and six of the chapters about specific regions.

Historians, by definition, seek to keep emotion out of their work, and a neutral, analytical perspective for the four who worked on this book (Lukáš Cvrček and Patrik Košický, also) was made easier by the fact that none was born before 1973. Nonetheless, personal stories from interviews brought out personal feelings. Bárta himself tells the story of a man who went to a town hall on his daughter’s wedding day to fill out the necessary paperwork. Returning home, the man was shot in the head by a Soviet soldier.

The decision to translate the text into English was based on two key factors.

“Partly because of the EU presidency,” Bárta says. A second reason is that, as other post-communist states begin to examine their own pasts, books written in a common language become more important.

“We want this to be a truly multinational institute [that encompasses] all the former Soviet satellites, including Russia,” Bárta says.

While last year’s flurry of public events and historical exhibits commemorating the 40th anniversary reasserted these events in the public consciousness, there are still more volumes to be written on 1968 as at least half the story remains left untold. As Bárta says:

“All the materials in the Russian archives are still secret.”

Victims of the Occupation: The Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia: 21 August-31 December 1968
Copyright 2008, The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
Hardcover, 192 pages
Available from the Institute,
ISBN 978-80-87211-12-0

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