Current Affairs People were surprised but not depressed, Czech PM Jan Fischer, then 17, recalls of Soviet-led invasion of 1968

21-08-2009 17:20 | Ian Willoughby

A memorial ceremony was held at the Czech Radio building on Vinohradská Street on Friday morning, marking the events of August 21, 1968. During the previous night, Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia, crushing the Prague Spring reform movement and the hopes of a generation. Czech Radio became a rallying point for resistance to the occupation; thousands of people gathered in front of the building, and bloody fighting ensued.

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August 21, 1968August 21, 1968 Among the dignatories who spoke at Friday’s ceremony was the Czech prime minister, Jan Fischer. Afterwards, I asked him what his feelings were on this important anniversary.

“It is actually a very important anniversary, and it takes me back in a very personal way to those days at the end of August 41 years ago, when I was 17.

“The tanks stood in front of this building where we are standing now commemorating those events, and it was a tragedy. The people who had come here at the time were looking around absolutely stunned by what was going on and what had happened during the night.

“We should appreciate the victims, we should commemorate them and not forget them. It is 41 years – it is a long time – and the message is absolutely clear, to avoid something like that.”

Jan Fischer, photo: Kristýna MakováJan Fischer, photo: Kristýna Maková Were you here yourself personally?

“I was in the neighbourhood. I was walking through the streets here in the neighbourhood of the Radio building and through other parts of Prague.

“It was paradoxical: people were surprised, astonished, puzzled, confused, but not depressed. The general atmosphere paradoxically was very good and positive, courageous, and it is also a positive message that humour was one of the weapons against the very well-armed occupants at that time.”

Did you know anyone who was killed or injured?

“Not personally, and not here in this building but I witnessed an event when a very young boy – he could have been 16 or 17, the same age as I was – was shot down terribly two or three days later, after the occupation had started.”

Photo: Kristýna MakováPhoto: Kristýna Maková Senator Jiří Dienstbier was to become the foreign minister in the first Czechoslovak government after the fall of communism in 1989. But 21 years earlier he was a leading reporter at Czech Radio. As the Soviets attempted to take control of the station, Mr Dienstbier and several other journalists played a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the occupiers, carrying on broadcasting – albeit briefly – from other locations. What were his strongest memories of that momentous time?

“When I was awakened by the airplanes over Prague – it was after midnight – I just got up immediately and went to the Radio building. We tried to keep the Radio alive, and we succeeded.

“The important thing was to survive on air until we received a condemnation of the invasion by the politburo of the Communist Party – voiced by the country’s leading officials, the prime minister, the chairman of Parliament and so on.

“When we succeeded we at least knew that we had fulfilled our task, because it was important to inform the nation and the world that no one invited the troops, no one asked them to come, and that it was an illegal act from all possible points of view.

Jiří Dienstbier (second left), photo: Kristýna MakováJiří Dienstbier (second left), photo: Kristýna Maková “We didn’t know how long we would be able to continue broadcasting. After they occupied the building here we were determined to continue– and it was possible only because we had the absolute support of the population – we soon re-established broadcasts from various secret locations and remained on air for a whole week.”

Did you personally know any of the people who died here at the radio?

“They were brave people. The street was full of people. They protected us for about two or three hours and the Russians couldn’t get into the building because of them. It enabled us to broadcast for longer and above all to organize secret broadcasting from different locations later.”

By the way, as part of extensive reconstruction work on the historic Czech Radio building on Vinohradská Street, plaques paying tribute to those who gave their lives in August 1968 were returned to its entrance ahead of Friday’s ceremony.

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