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21 August 2021

22 August 2021

Yesterday was an anniversary of a defining event from my childhood and more importantly, a defining event for our continent, largely ignored by the media amid the chaos of Afghanistan.

Still: one this day in 1968, more than half a million troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia to put a violent end to the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček’s reforms begun in January 1968, an attempt to create “socialism with a human face” by retaining the socialist economy but giving people freedom of speech, freedom to travel, and other elements of a decent life that we in Western Europe had enjoyed since 1945 and before.

This was not something the Soviet Union could accept, and after unsuccessful attempts to get Dubček to change course, the matter was resolved militarily. The Czech people resisted bravely but there is only so much people with bare hands can do against tanks, and in a few weeks darkness descended once again on the country.

My personal memory is this. In September 1968 I started second grade in Wrocław, the city in south-western Poland where I lived. On a sunny day in late September we schoolchildren were commandeered out into the streets of Wrocław to greet our returning soldiers, who were coming home after “saving socialism” in the neighbouring Czechoslovakia. We were equipped with little Polish flags and told to wave them as the army rolled by.

Even though I was just 7 years old, my parents had told me enough for me to know that this was all a lie. During the following years, they continued to educate me to counter the propaganda I was fed at school–I still remember nightly sessions of listening to Radio Free Europe at home, despite the persistent attempts by the authorities to jam the broadcasts. And less than 4 years later we left all that behind and emigrated to Denmark.

In retrospect, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was the beginning of the end of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but it would take another 21 years for the system to collapse, with untold suffering and misery endured by those on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. That is why this is an anniversary that needs to be remembered.

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