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Ludvik Svoboda was born near Bratislava in 1895. A soldier, he escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1939 and became the commanding general of the Czechoslovak Army Corps attached to the Red Army during the Second World War. Svoboda's troops helped to liberate Kosice, Brno and Prague in 1944 and 1945.
Eduard Benes became president of Czechoslovakia but in the 1946 general election the Communist Party won the largest number of parliamentary seats with 38 per cent of the votes. Klement Gottwald set up a National Front government but caused great controversy when under the orders of Joseph Stalin, he rejected Marshall Aid.
In 1948 Svoboda joined the Communist Party and served in Gottwald's government as Minister of Defence. Although disliked by the Stalinists he remained an important political figure in Czechoslovakia. He was helped by the support he received from Nikita Khrushchev.
In the early 1960s the country suffered an economic recession. Antonin Novotny, the president of Czechoslovakia, was forced to make liberal concessions and in 1965 he introduced a programme of decentralization. The main feature of the new system was that individual companies would have more freedom to decide on prices and wages.
These reforms were slow to make an impact on the Czech economy and in September 1967, Alexander Dubcek, secretary of the Slovak Communist Party, presented a long list of grievances against the government. The following month there were large demonstrations against Novotny.
In January 1968 the Czechoslovak Party Central Committee passed a vote of no confidence in Antonin Novotny and he was replaced by Alexander Dubcek as party secretary. Soon afterwards Dubcek made a speech where he stated: "We shall have to remove everything that strangles artistic and scientific creativeness."
During what became known as the Prague Spring, Dubcek announced a series of reforms. This included the abolition of censorship and the right of citizens to criticize the government. Newspapers began publishing revelations about corruption in high places. This included stories about Novotny and his son. On 22nd March 1968, Novotny resigned as president of Czechoslovakia. He was now replaced by Svoboda, who was a strong supporter of Dubcek.
In April 1968 the Communist Party Central Committee published a detailed attack on Novotny's government. This included its poor record concerning housing, living standards and transport. It also announced a complete change in the role of the party member. It criticized the traditional view of members being forced to provide unconditional obedience to party policy. Instead it declared that each member "has not only the right, but the duty to act according to his conscience."
The new reform programme included the creation of works councils in industry, increased rights for trade unions to bargain on behalf of its members and the right of farmers to form independent co-operatives.
Aware of what happened during the Hungarian Uprising the government announced that Czechoslovakia had no intention of changing its foreign policy. On several occasions he made speeches where he stated that Czechoslovakia would not leave the Warsaw Pact or end its alliance with the Soviet Union.
In July 1968 the Soviet leadership announced that it had evidence that the Federal Republic of Germany was planning an invasion of the Sudetenland and asked permission to send in the Red Army to protect Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, aware that the Soviet forces could be used to bring an end to Prague Spring, declined the offer.
On 21st August, 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by members of the Warsaw Pact countries. In order to avoid bloodshed, the Czech government ordered its armed forces not to resist the invasion. Svoboda and Alexander Dubcek were taken to Moscow and soon afterwards they announced that after "free comradely discussion" that Czechoslovakia would be abandoning its reform programme.
In April 1969 Dubcek was replaced as party secretary by Gustav Husak. The following year he was expelled from the party and for the next 18 years worked as a clerk in a lumber yard in Slovakia. However, Svoboda remained in office until ill-heath forced him to resign in 1975. Ludvik Svoboda died in 1979.
(1) Statement issued by Alexander Dubcek's government on 21st August, 1968.
Yesterday, August 20, 1968, around 11:00 p.m., the armies of the Soviet Union, of the Polish People's Republic, of the German Democratic Republic, the Hungarian Peoples Republic, and the Bulgarian Peoples Republic crossed the borders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It happened without the knowledge of the President of the Republic, of the Chairman of the National Assembly, of the Prime Minister and of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of CPCz, and of all these organs.
The Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPCz was meeting in these hours and was discussing the preparations for the Fourteenth Party Congress. The Presidium appeals to all citizens of our Republic to keep calm and not to resist the armed forces moving in. Therefore neither our army, security forces or the People's Militias have been ordered to defend the country.
The Presidium believes that this act contradicts not only all principles of relations between socialist countries but also the basic norms of international law.
All leading officials of the state, of the CPCz and of the National Front remain in their functions, to which they were elected as representatives of the people and of the members of their organizations, according to the laws and other statutes valid in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
Constitutional officials convene for immediate session the National Assembly and the government of the Republic, and the Presidium of the CPCz convenes a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the CPCz to deal with the situation.
(2) Alexander Dubcek, Hope Dies Last (1992)
I did not know then that President Svoboda and other high-ranking Czechoslovak officials had arrived in Moscow in the early afternoon and were in the Kremlin. Nor did I know that the Soviets had already talked with them at length. In fact, Svoboda and his group had arrived voluntarily: to come to Moscow was Svoboda's idea. According to reliable witnesses, it had occurred to him a day after the invasion, when he was under severe pressure from Ambassador Chervonenko to legitimize the "Workers' and Peasants' Revolutionary Government."
Some historians and political analysts have viewed the presidents decision as tactically wrong and damaging to the cause of national resistance, but I don't look at it that way. Seventy-three-year-old Svoboda was not a politician but an old soldier through and through. His main concern was to avoid bloodshed between an unarmed populace and the army of occupation. He felt that something had to be done fast. Whether he considered options besides going to Moscow I do not know. Later he told me that he had said to Chervonenko that he would rather shoot himself than legitimize the junta led by Alois Indra.