On August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact tank rolled into Czechoslovakia. As Soviet troops shot at the radio building, Czechoslovak radio appealed for calm. The invasion had come on direct order from Moscow to put an end to the Prague Spring - the attempt by the Czechoslovak Communist Party, led by Alexander Dubcek, to introduce "Communism with a human face", to become more independent and loosen the tight grip of the Soviet Union. Protests in the streets of Prague and other towns and cities, left dozens of people dead and hundreds injured at the hands of the occupying troops.
Since those days, thirty-six years have gone by, but the wounds remain. Should the state be doing more, by granting financial compensation to those who were injured and the families of those who died?
The Czech Centre for the Study of Democracy and Culture, together with the Institute for Contemporary History, recently held a conference on the theme "Victims of the events of 1968 and 1969. Compensation: yes or no?" Historians, politicians, and people who lived through the Soviet-led occupation and the years that followed came together to discuss whether the Czech state had done enough to compensate those who suffered after the 1968 invasion. Marek Benda is a right-of centre opposition Civic Democrat, whose father, Vaclav Benda, used to head the Bureau for the Investigation of Communist Crimes that was set up after the Communist regime fell:
"After 1989, the state proceeded to revoke some of the unjust court rulings made during Communism, in an attempt to undo the wrongs of the Communist period. Hundreds of thousands of court rulings were revoked through new laws and others - many thousands - through the so-called rehabilitation court proceedings of 1990-1994. That was what I would call the 'moral satisfaction' phase. Part of that phase was also financial compensation - albeit just symbolic."
Over the years people suffered in many different ways, but, especially at the time of the invasion, this suffering took its most brutal form at the hands of the occupying troops themselves. Now a group of Civic Democrat deputies is working on a draft proposal to pay compensation to people who suffered directly under the hands of Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops in the period between 1968-1991 (the year when the last Soviet troops went home). Hynek Fajmon is a member of the European Parliament:
"We are talking about three categories of people; those who have been killed, those who have been injured and those who have been raped. In these three categories, we propose some compensation for these cases. In case of those victims killed by Soviet soldiers, we are talking about compensation for their relatives."
Marek Benda: "It all started at the end of the 1990s when a group of MPs proposed to do more to honour Czechoslovaks who joined the RAF to fight the Nazis but faced further persecution from the Communists after the war just because they had once fought in the West. That's when people from the left came in and said that those who fought internally and helped the Soviets during WWII should also be awarded. Then, we thought if those who suffered during the Second World War should be compensated, we also have to consider political prisoners under the Communist years. So, the most recent draft proposal is just a mere continuation of this idea. It involves people who died or were injured but did not fit into any of the categories mentioned because they were never part of a specific group."
The draft law proposes to release up to 400 million Czech crowns out of the state budget. But how many people are to be compensated? Oldrich Tuma is the head of the Institute for Contemporary History:
"The victims of the Soviet occupation, ie of the events of August 1968 themselves, roughly total some one hundred people who died and several hundred who were wounded plus some more who died from traffic accidents, or being crushed by Soviet tanks, or at the hands of Soviet soldiers, who committed many crimes while being in Czechoslovakia. But generally it involves some one hundred people who were killed and about one thousand who were wounded."
But while some believe the Czech state is beginning to come to terms with the Communist past, others, including Ivo Zemlicka are sceptical. His brother, Josef, died a senseless death at the age of sixteen, when he was struck by a bullet fired by a Soviet soldier, aimed at someone else on August 21, 1968. Although his family was given financial compensation, Ivo Zemlicka would much rather have seen those responsible being punished:
"After the Velvet Revolution, the Communist Party ostensibly stepped down. But if you take a look around you whether on the political scene, the cultural scene, or even the business sector, you still find those people occupying either the same or similarly important posts. It is then difficult to believe that there is a political will to put things right. The most recent example is Karel Hoffman. He was released after a mere twenty-six days, despite being guilty of a very serious crime. This is as though the state was laughing in my face and that of the entire nation."
Karel Hoffman, who Ivo Zemlicka refers to, was the communist official who gave the order for Czechoslovak Radio to stop broadcasting on the 21st August 1968, as radio journalists refused to support the invasion. Earlier this year, Karel Hoffman became the only communist functionary to be found guilty of a crime connected with the 68 invasion, and sent to prison. But less than a month later, he was released due to ill health. To many of those who suffered most at that time - like Ivo Zemlicka - this came as a slap in the face.
Marek Benda and Oldrich Tuma say that the ability of the state in trying to right the wrongs of 68 and the years that followed is limited:
Marek Benda: "In 1990, it was very clear to all that we were not able to put right all the wrongs of the Communist regime. The regime was guilty of many crimes - it imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people and killed thousands. It prevented hundreds of thousands or even millions from studying and had many, who had to feed their families, thrown out of their jobs. It's impossible to count how many people suffered and were hurt. Even if we had all the treasures of the world, we would never be able to compensate them for what they had to go through. It was therefore always clear that we could only partially put things right."
Oldrich Tuma: "It is also a problem of how much the Czech state can afford and let's hope that in the future the economic situation will be better and we can return to some aspects and the state will be able to pay more. Someone at the conference also said that there was an intention to prepare other similar laws dealing with people killed or wounded at the borders while trying to escape Czechoslovakia, or those whose health was severely damaged while they were detained for interrogation. So, the whole question even on the political level has not been closed yet and something can still be done."
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