From Prague Spring to the Winter of my Discontent

10 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia - Flickr - The Central Intelligence Agency.jpg

The Prague Spring (Czech: Pražské jaro, Slovak: Pražská jar) was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), and continued until 21 August 1968 when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms.

On Sunday, August 18, 1968,at 4:30 A.M. I was called to the office of my editor-in-chief, Dr. Polz. This was unusual as was the request to bring casual clothes for at least three days, my camera bag, passport and other pertinent personal documents. When I arrived, the paper was buzzing with subdued excitement, our assistant editor-in-chief was alarmingly sober, junior writers were milling outside the glass enclosed sanctum sanctorium and I was ushered right into the presence of our Lord and Master.
"You know Prague, you speak the language, you are going there now", he announced peremptorily.
"I came home from Salzburg three hours ago, have not written up the review of last night's concert. I did not even wake up or speak to Tamara I interjected.

This needs a brief explanation: Since my last installment I had graduated, was now a Doctor of Journalism, had been properly installed as full editor and had done a one year stint as foreign correspondent in Moskow. I had written a much unheralded book on the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) talks, met politicians and artists, legal and dissident and had fallen in love with, imported into Austria and legally married a lovely Russian woman, Brigitte Tamara Krempush. I shall address this in another chapter.

Dr. Polz waved that aside." As of three hours ago, the Russians have begun moving some 650,000 armored troups against Czechoslovakia and it is believed that an invasion is imminent. You are going there, nobody here has any Czech or Russian, you know the city. They are readying the bus, pick an assistant reporter, wake up a photographer you like to work with, telephone your wife and write your last will but you will be out of here no later than noon".

God had proclaimed - I meekly followed. The "Bus" was an excellent 1966 Volkswagen Westphalia camper with the raised roof and the two liter engine. It was equipped a a mobile office with two desks, typewriters, a superb radio transmitter/receiver, a portable darkroom, miniature refrigerator, sink, two burner propane stove and even a curtained "Port-a-Potty. On the front and rear was a large sign "Austria Press Official". I was not certain that this would strike fear in the hearts of the Red Army but that is what I had.
I quickly rounded up some people I knew I could work with, talked to my wife who had informed me two weeks earlier that we were pregnant etc. The rest is a blur, I collected a large sum of money (in Czech, Austrian and American currency), signed for many things in triplicate and eventually we crossed the Danube on our drive straight up North. At the "Iron Curtain", a formidable strip of no man's land festooned with watch towers, we saw no unusual activity. Absent at the border station were the normal contingent of Russians, just some scared looking Czech border guards were there and they just waved us through. We got to Prague at four P.M. and checked in at a hotel near Wenceslas square that had been designated as press headquarters. It was a majestic old building at the historic square and in the coming days would allow us views of a lot that went on from its roof. A lot of the action to come was played out in this square!

When in doubt, an intrepid journalist follows two things: the noise and the signs to the bar. And there they were, an assortment of the typical old war horses with their khaki pants and bespoke war jackets who had been honed in the aftermath of the war, some had seen Korea, most had reported on the 1956 uprising in Hungary, all were well into their cups and deep into their war stories. As always, the loudest guys were the international correspondents from Reuters, United Press International, Agence France Presse, the German News Service and the BBC etc. The only regulars missing were the Jerusalem Post and the official Vatican paper "Osservatore Romano". I assume that most members of the assembled press corps had honed their skills of managing extensive expense accounts to an art form.
And here we were: Me in grey slacks and a blue blazer, our reporter Hans Heider in light brown slacks and an imitation leather jacket and my photographer Will Kohler in a lumpy seersucker suit of unknown vintage and provenance. Even his cameras had no dents, none of us had a war story to contribute and when it came to the professional consumption of alcoholic beverages, our combined knowledge had been gleaned from reading Hemingway. So we slunk into a corner booth and ordered steins of beer.
Eventually we were joined by my friend Anton Navratil, a local reporter and stringer for the Austrian Press Agency and my former fellow journalism student in Vienna. Now finally we learned what was going on, or at least what was rumored to be happening. The official Czech press bureau had been closed by the authorities and news came from friends and associates along border towns and cities.

He  told us: "It started as one of the regular military exercises and seemed to be focused along the Polish border.The Soviets were joined by a large number of their Polish contingent and did some of their normal maneuvering and mock battles but two days ago it was noted that the lines started shifting toward our northern borders. Over night massive tank and other mechanized Red forces arrived and now they seem to have an estimated 650,000 military surrounding the country. Dubcek spoke on radio an hour ago and urged that no protests or armed resistance should occur and expressed his hope that a crisis could still be avoided through diplomatic means".

On the main square there were a few hundred protesters as word about the Soviets had spread like wildfire. But the streets were peaceful and nowhere did I get a feeling of impending doom but I did notice that a lot of the smaller shops started to close up early, the outside seats and tables in front of the cafes disappeared and the city seemed to go quiet in the early evening light. Even the steady stream of barges on the Moldau river had found safe harbor and so the city went to an uneasy sleep.

This is an image of Wenceslas square (Wikipaedia) in 2014. It looked the same when we camped there in the hotel about five buildings up from left.

 Monday morning was grey and misty. We met at the hotel breakfast room at 6 A.M. and I convinced my companions to try the great Powidltascherln, a plum filled Austrian and Bohemian breakfast dish our cook had made for us every day if we wished. They are heavenly and look like this:

Traditional Tascherl are made from potato flour,egg yolks, milk, 250 grams of plumped up raisins, rum and 500 grams of plum compote, fried in clarified butter and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Now back to the reality, but I had to put this in because I still lust after good food even my esophageal cancer does no longer afford me anything that does not fit into the dreaded feeding tube...
Sorry about the detour!

After breakfast we walked down to the river made immortal by Smetana's masterpiece "Die Moldau". A superb rendition of this can be heard on Youtube. It is conducted by my life long Idol Herbert von Karajan:

This morning however, we could feel the unrest, there was nothing really tangible but the absence of the regular early morning walkers along the river, the stillness of the business district, even the traffic seemed to have slowed to a trickle. At about 8 A.M. the sun rose over the river and dispelled the mist and soon, the glory of this magnificent city lay before and behind and beside us in its great splendor. The castles, the steeples of churches, the brilliant architectural mix of many centuries just wanted peace. But on the outskirts of all of that beauty almost 125,000 soldiers were slowly approaching. We heard about it on the radio, one Polish station actually gave us positions of the approaching army until it was taken off the air.
Prime minister Dubjec was also on radio and urged calm and entreated his followers not to endanger their or other's lifes. President Ludvik Svoboda was in constant contact with Moscow and Leonid Breszhnev, Chairman of the U.S.S.R. Breszhnev proved unyielding. He had taken over after Stalin's death and was unyielding in trying to cement the absolute power of his regime in the face of any opposition. He issued statements that Czech loyal citizens had "begged Russia to help against the populist uprising of Alexander Dubjec's liberal reforms".

US President Lyndon Johnson said the invasion was a clear violation of the United Nations Charter and that the excuses offered by the Soviet Union were "patently contrived".

"It is a sad commentary on the communist mind that a sign of liberty in Czechoslovakia is deemed a fundamental threat to the security of the Soviet system," he said.

In Prague life went on, protesters were now more visible, pamphlets were distributed, there were some clashes between the ever present occupational Soviet soldiers but nothing that escalated to more than a war of words and some minor fist fights. Another uneasy night fell over the city but on the Tuesday morning, tension mounted. It became ever present in the city. Soviet soldiers were seen around the national radio station in Prague which would become a focus of the upcoming days. Czech Dubject loyals fortified the station which had begun a constant reporting from outlying cities and villages keeping the citizens informed of where the Soviet army was and as always urged calm and restraint.
However, the protests begun to escalate in Prague. And then, after an uneasy night where gun shots could be heard, the fateful Wednesday begun. BBC reports it almost word for word what I wrote home to my editors:

1968: Russia brings winter to 'Prague Spring'
Dozens of people have been killed in a massive military clampdown in Czechoslovakia by five Warsaw Pact countries.Several members of the liberal Czechoslovak leadership have been arrested, including Prime Minister Alexander Dubcek.
The Soviet news agency, Tass, claims "assistance" was requested by members of the Czechoslovak Government and Communist party leaders to fight "counter-revolutionary forces".
But in a secret radio address, Czechoslovak President Ludvik Svoboda condemned the occupation by Warsaw Pact allies as illegal and committed without the government's consent.
US President Lyndon Johnson said the invasion was a clear violation of the United Nations Charter and that the excuses offered by the Soviet Union were "patently contrived".
"It is a sad commentary on the communist mind that a sign of liberty in Czechoslovakia is deemed a fundamental threat to the security of the Soviet system," he said.
The Czechoslovak authorities have ordered their vastly outnumbered army not to fight and are appealing to the public for restraint.
Czechoslovakia's abortive path to freedom began when Mr Dubcek, a Slovak, became Communist Party leader in January.
A programme of wide-ranging democratic reforms had been gathering pace in the face of Soviet disapproval and the rebirth of social and political freedom became known as the "Prague Spring".
In the capital of Prague today, crowds of people gathered in the streets chanting support for Mr Dubcek and imploring the foreign troops to go home.
Much of the resistance was centred around the Prague radio station. As the day progressed, Czechoslovak youths threw home-made missiles and even tried to take on Russian tanks.
Reports say some tanks and ammunition trucks were destroyed, but Soviet troops responded with machine gun and artillery fire and at least four people were shot dead.
In the Wenceslas and Old Town Squares, hundreds of youths made barricades out of overturned lorries to try and halt the advance.
Soviet and eastern block commanders have now imposed an overnight curfew and are threatening to shoot on sight anyone caught breaking it.
All rail, road and airline routes out of Czechoslovakia have been closed as troops continue to enter the country - now estimated to number nearly 175,000 men.

My crew stayed on, unmolested but under house arrest for four days after which we were told to leave the country. I had produced almost 30,000 words of copy, we had shot 106 rolls of film, had sadly seen Jan Palach and Jan Sacik who had immolated themselves in protest. The square now has a memorial on the spot of their deaths:

And so we went back home, just three unimportant witnesses to yet another event of human tragedy but for me it was the beginning of the "Winter of my Discontent" if I may quote a Shakespearean king. I was dismayed that neither my own country nor any other European nation stood up for our Czech friends.Yes, they all gave lip service and eloquent editorials of condemnations were written. As always the Security Council did nothing. As always, Russia won and every other nation went back to making money. At least my dad gave preference in hiring to Czech guest workers of which there were at one time more than 5,000 cherished and hard working employees.
I continued to write my stories, fly my routes for the Austrian Airlines, now as a captain in Caravelle aircraft, a delightful twin engine jet which was sadly soon replaced by the larger four engined Boeing 707s. A good and ordinary life with a great wife and friend and eventually our brand new son Ruben Alexander. I should have been content but I was not. Europe had lost its luster for me. It hid behind the facade of former greatness, played the music of long dead masters, exhibited the paintings of venerated greats without replacing them with new energy. All literature taught was of writers of no consequence to nations in the presence of a post war divided world. Europe had once again put it's collective head in the sand and I longed for more. It took until 1973 for me to break completely with this tradition based illusion of grandeur. Eventually I will have to show you how I spent the interim years until September 3, 1973 when I arrived in the United States to stay forever. A large part of this decision stemmed from the death of my wife and one year old son who were killed by a drunk driver when they were on the way to pick me up from Vienna Schwechat International Airport.
The only family member who came to the funerals was my incredible grandfather!

So - if I have not bored you to death yet, hang in there with this old man's tale. Tomorrow you will meet Pablo Picasso, a story I have longed to tell.


Popular posts from this blog



Flashback: My first wife Brigitte Tamara