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Sensing a rare opportunity, he quickly initiated a series of reforms to bring about a socialist democracy, lifting censorship and freeing artists and other political prisoners, and beginning the Prague Spring.
In April of that year, Dubcek launched an "Action Programme" of liberalizations that included increased freedom of the press, a switch of emphasis from industrial to consumer goods, and the possibility of a more democratic multi-party government, essentially ending Soviet control over the nation. It also planned the federalization of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic into two equal nations, Czech and Slovak.
Iron Curtain to Velvet Revolution - Communist Prague Walking Tour
That spring and summer, liberalizations escalated, including anti-Soviet opinions appearing in the press, something unheard of previously. In addition, new unaffiliated political clubs were being created, whereas in most Soviet-controlled countries non-Party affiliations were strictly banned.
The Fall of Spring All this changed on the morning of August 21st, , when the Warsaw Pact invasion, led by the Soviet Union with forces from five Pact countries Romania abstained , brought about normalization, disguised as massive rolling green machines bearing artillery. Dissidents and artists who had been allowed more freedom than ever before were now being persecuted or arrested, including the famous Plastic People of the Universe.
Riots broke out, protests and violence were common, but eventually this subsided and the censorship and regulation of a communist system returned. They also feared weakening the position of the Communist Bloc during the height of the Cold War.
Before the tanks rolled in in August, a series of negotiations were held between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in July at Cierna nad Tisou, near the Slovak-Soviet border.
The Czechoslovak Party delegates pledged their loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and promised to curb "antisocialist" tendencies and control the press and dissidents more effectively, while the Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops.
Iron Curtain - Prague - Reviews and Photos
Significantly, the Soviet Union declared its intention to intervene in a Warsaw Pact country if a "bourgeois" system in theory anything but strict communist control was ever established. After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops left Czechoslovak territory but remained along Czechoslovak borders. During the night of August 20th, between 5, to 7, tanks rolled in, accompanied by Warsaw Pact troops ranging from , to , in number.
The tanks occupied the streets while the troops sought out the "antisocialist" elements, often with the use of police sticks and guns, leading to the death of 72 Czechs and Slovaks and hundreds of wounded. Dubcek himself, along with several of his colleagues, was arrested and taken to Moscow, where he miraculously escaped severe punishment in the end, and was even allowed to return to office.
PRAGUE'S IRON CURTAIN - The New York Times
Protest including a student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire was accompanied by emigration, as hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks escaped to the West. Even today debate ensues about the tragedy, as well and the necessity and legality of the invasion. In reality, the invasion was a form of coup that had been in the works that whole summer, finally cumulating in the invasion.
Meanwhile, resentment remains to this day towards the countries that supplied troops that invaded Czechoslovakia though the five Pact countries had little choice in the matter.