ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY… AUG 20
SOVIET TANKS ROLL INTO CZECHOSLOVAKIA ENDING “PRAGUE SPRING”
This particular commemoration has a special meaning in my personal not just in the world history. So here’s first a general overview, followed by a personal story…
And now, here’s my personal story about this day in history…
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THE SUMMER OF LOVE AND WAR
MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN MY PERSONAL HISTORY WERE SET IN MOTION ON THIS DAY
When the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring” supporters, I was in Baden, Switzerland, working as a summer student for the engineering design company AG Columbus. Baden is a small picturesque town 15 miles northwest of Zurich (map).
It was a perfect place for me to work recuperate after the excitements that had preceded my arrival there in early July.
Elizabeth and I visited Baden and the building in which I worked that summer of 1968 during our tour of Switzerland, Italy and Austria in 2009.
Like millions of others around the world, I was shocked at the brutality and raw power the Soviets displayed in the streets of
Prague after the Aug 20 invasion. But not too surprised.
Because only two months earlier, I was a firsthand witness to it, too.
In early June 1968, there was an anti-communist student uprising in Belgrade, my birthplace and capital of the former country of Yugoslavia. I was one of the leaders at the engineering faculty. That’s where we also faced communist guns, tanks and cordons of police and the military. But of a different kind.
In our case, they were a domestic breed – the communist dictator Josip Broz Tito’s police goons and army, rather than Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet ruler at the time.
Ironically, after a 12-day siege of the university buildings, we – the students – “won.” Technically. Tito blinked.
The communist dictator went on television to welcome the students’ criticism of the state and endorse our program of reforms. His promises defused the situation.
The majority of students are jubilant. Many danced a “kolo” (national circular group dance) in celebration. But after watching Tito’s speech, I sat in a chair in front my elder brother’s TV set and cried.
Because I knew that the old fox had outwitted the hens once again. Give them a little rope now and hang them with it later. Once the tens of thousands of students disperse and go home, Tito’s secret police would pick the leaders off one at a time.
Indeed, the state-controlled media, which had been silent about the student uprising despite Yugoslavia’s capital university buildings looking like medieval fortresses under siege for 12 days, performed a turn-about-face. They started to praise us, the rebellious students. – the unmentionables until that night. The riot police disappeared.
Slowly, things returned to status quo. As if nothing happened. As if some 70 of our fellow-students hadn’t become casualties of the struggle for freedom and democracy. Nothing changed.
TIME TO PACK MY BAGS AND LEAVE SWITZERLAND
So that evening, I believe it was June 15, 1968, in my mind, I started to make preparations to leave the country. Forever. I was not about to wait for that fateful knock on the door in he middle of the night. Nor did I want to join the communist party, which I had loathed all my life, just to save myself and gain privileges we all fought against.
But there was a problem. I had not yet graduated. But I was very close. I only had to pass a 2-3 more exams and write my thesis to get my university diploma. So I decided to lie low and at least temporarily leave the country.
Luckily, I was able to get my old summer job back in Switzerland where I had also worked as a summer student in 1967. By the time I left for Switzerland in early July, I had already passed those exams. So the only thing left was the thesis. Which I could do without having to show up at the university and thus call attention of the authorities to myself.
PERSONAL DILEMMAS, TWO HEARTBREAKS DURING THE SUMMER OF LOVE AND WAR
So back to Aug 20, 1968… Baden, Switzerland, and the news of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Many people across Europe were convinced that once the Soviets consolidate they power in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia would be next. Because the leaders of both countries had supported Dubcek and his “Prague Spring.”
In fact, secret documents released by the British Public Record Office on Jan 8, 2000 show that, by early September 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had made detailed contingency plans for military intervention in eastern Europe. If a ‘direct threat’ were made to Yugoslavia, the British government planned to arm Yugoslav guerrillas and send crack British Army units of the sort used during the Second World War to aid the partisans.
But I did not know that at the time. In fact, I did not know that until just a few hours ago when I started doing this research. What I did know is that the there was a clear and present danger of the Soviet invasions of Yugoslavia.
My fears were confirmed when I received a letter from my parents in Yugoslavia advising me not to come home in early September as I had planned. They said there were reports of Russian tanks and troops massing along the Hungarian border with Yugoslavia. And Belgrade is just over a 100 miles from Hungary.
DOUBLE SWISS HEARTBREAK AND ONE AMERICAN
My quandary was aggravated by the fact that, in the meantime, I had fallen in love with a Swiss girl. She felt the same way about me and wanted to marry me. She even gave me a golden ring to prove it. My co-workers at AG Columbus also urged me to stay in Switzerland, at least until the murky situation clears a bit more.
But I could not do that. I could not sit in the comfort of the peaceful and tranquil Switzerland and watch the Soviet tanks and troops do to my country and hometown what they did to Prague.
So I quit my job and bought a train ticket back to Belgrade via Munich. My intention was to volunteer for the army which, ironically, I was fighting against as a student only two months earlier.
My girlfriend was in tears. My co-workers, who were from all over Europe, not just Switzerland, came around rallied behind me. They all lined up to wish me luck on my last day at the office.
I remember one big Italian fellow hugging me and saying, “you just hang on and hold off the Soviet for a few days, and we will all come to help you.”
I chuckled inwardly. The Italians are better known as lovers than warriors. But I smiled outwardly and tanked him for his support.
While my heart was still aching over the tearful girlfriend I had left behind in Baden, a gorgeous tall blue-eyed blonde walked into my train compartment in Zurich and struck up a conversation with me. She was an American teacher who was transferring from a military base in Italy to another one in Germany.
She was the best antidote for getting over my heartache. We spent the entire five-hour train ride from Zurich to Munich in animated conversations. By the time we got to the Munich train station, it was close to midnight. She asked me to stay with her in Germany.
Without explaining the reasons why, I just said “no” with my eyes, smiled and and kissed her. And then I turned around to catch my Belgrade train.
Ah… 1968, the summer of love and war.
NO SOVIET INVASION AFTER ALL
As it turned out, the Russian never invaded. Maybe they found out about the British plans. After all, they had excellent spies. And if the British got into the fight, would America be far behind?
And I never got to volunteer because even the army reserves were sent back home shortly after I had arrived back home. So I spent the next few months in virtual shadows until I finished my thesis. On Dec 12, 1968, I was the first of my generation to graduate. A year later, I was back in Switzerland, this time to get a visa to emigrate to North America. Which I did illegally in March 1970.
I never came back. Not until the old-style communists were out of power. And when I returned for the first time after 20 years, they rolled out the red carpet for me. So it goes… ironies as well as lessons from history.
And now you know the rest of the story… of Aug 20, 1968
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