The invasion of Czechoslovakia exactly 50 years ago is a reminder of the important lessons of the past, which shape our world today, writes Peter Hellyer
History is not just a dusty irrelevance. Within it lie the seeds of today's world, together with its successes and failures
On the night of August 20, 1968, a quarter of a million troops from the Soviet Union and most – though not all – of its Warsaw Pact allies, invaded the then-united Czechoslovakia to crush the short-lived "Prague Spring". It was a defining moment in modern European history yet one which I suspect is now little remembered and little understood, except in Central and Eastern Europe.
In the half-century that has followed, the Soviet Union itself has disappeared, as has the Warsaw Pact, while the continent has witnessed other, much more bloody conflicts that occurred as a result of the disintegration of Yugoslavia into six separate states.
Other more recent strains on Europe have included the impact of the inflow of refugees from the conflicts that have resulted from the so-called Arab Spring – more widespread than that of Prague – as well as the wave of economic migration from Africa. These have contributed in no small measure to the worrying xenophobic and anti-Islamic populism that has emerged over the last few years, from Hungary and Austria westwards to Britain. Europe today is very different from the continent of 50 years ago.
I remember well, though, those events of August 1968. A few days before the invasion, I was in Prague, meeting some of the young Czechs and Slovaks who were celebrating the joys of the freedom to which they had been introduced after a couple of decades of Soviet domination and Communist rule. As a visiting British Young Liberal, I was privileged to be invited to speak at Prague’s newly-established equivalent to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, to offer our greetings at a time of heady excitement.
Returning to London, I was stunned a few days later by the news of the invasion and promptly went back with friends to Austria in an abortive effort to re-enter Czechoslovakia. That quixotic attempt came to an end at the Gmund railway station on the Austrian-Czech border, as downcast and nervous border guards pointed along the platform to the Soviet troops on the Czech side and told us that we could go no further.
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As I have written previously, the August 1968 invasion was one of a series of events that raised hopes and dashed dreams, not just in Europe but elsewhere in that remarkable year. The May "evenements" in Paris, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet offensive in Vietnam – memories of these, as well as of the Czech invasion, are fading.
That’s not just because of the passing of time but also, perhaps, because in today’s world the focus of attention is increasingly on the "now", the immediate.
The pace and volume of the 24-hour news cycle in this increasingly interconnected world presents everyone with an avalanche of information, which can often shake our ability to stand back, to reflect and to separate the relevant from the trivial. In that process, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of historical events, not just during the period when they occurred but of their continuing importance today.
On the eastern edge of the European Union, for example, those events of August 1968, with the lessons they offer about the nature of relationships with, and the geopolitical ambitions of, the colossus of Russia to the East, remain a factor in current political life.
Going back a little further, the history of the Baltic states over the last century, from achieving independence from a collapsing Russian empire in 1918 to being swallowed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and then regaining independence in 1991, is of fundamental importance to the way in which these states assess current challenges to their continued viability.
History is not just a dusty irrelevance. Nor should it be perceived as boring. There lie within it the seeds of today’s world, the successes and the failures. Here in the UAE, for example, a key event in the country’s history also occurred 50 years ago, the February 1968 meeting between Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, then respective rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, at which they both agreed to come together in unity and to invite other emirates to join them. Little noticed then outside the country, it is now acknowledged as an historic moment, relevant far beyond our borders.
Fortunately, here in the UAE, following the guidance provided by the Founding Father Sheikh Zayed, the significance of the past to the country’s present and future is well-recognised. In this Year of Zayed, in particular, there is no escaping the efforts being made to underline the value of history and to acknowledge the contribution of those who played their part.
I wonder, though, to what extent the relevance of history is more widely understood, outside the UAE at least, beyond the rarified realms of politicians and historians. To me the invasion of Czechoslovakia, like other events that year, remains important, not just because of the personal impact it had upon me but because it helps me to try to understand some of what I see today.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture