The view from Bucharest: Romania’s reaction to the 1968 Prague Spring and Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia

By William Hart

In the classic unsuspecting fashion, one of the Cold War’s most serious international flashpoints occurred on a mild, late summer’s evening across the rolling hills of Central Europe. In an unprecedented turn of events, the state socialist nation of Czechoslovakia was invaded and occupied by five members of Eastern Europe’s Warsaw Pact. Overnight of 20-21 August 1968, the Soviet Union (USSR) led troops from the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria to invade and occupy the entirety of Czechoslovakia, dropping parachutists in the interior and occupying central Prague with battle tank divisions.[1] However, what was the cause of this sudden interventionism in the heart of Europe?

The invasion was in response to Czechoslovakia’s 1968 state liberalisation, known as the Prague Spring, in which the Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček instituted a series of reforms entitled ‘socialism with a human face’. Including sweeping civil liberties, freedom of the press, freedom of travel, the opening of diplomatic relations with the West and a proposed ten-year transition to a democratic political system, the liberalisation was virulently opposed by the USSR as  it threatened the Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and suggested that the Czechoslovak government would prevent the USSR from positioning strategically valuable forward missile bases on the county’s western frontier. The Czechoslovaks did not militarily oppose the invasion and despite extensive public resistance, the occupiers quickly removed the government, reversed its reforms and implemented a hard-line socialist regime.[2]

However, a notable candidate was missing from this sudden invasion; Romania. The second largest of Eastern Europe’s Soviet satellite-states, a Latin island on Carpathian Mountains among a Slavic-dominated Eastern Europe, the country made for a curious absence. Unlike the majority of the Warsaw Pact, Romania, under its recently appointed dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, challenged and criticised the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, making a bold and impassioned speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building to an enthused crowd of around 100,000 Romanians, in Bucharest on 21 August, 1968.[3] This was designed as a continuation of Romania’s autonomous and non-interventionalist foreign policy, to secure Ceauşescu’s legitimacy as leader in a country torn apart by collectivisation and industrialisation and to present the country as a pariah Eastern European state, to form ties with the West.

Since the end of the Second World War, Romania had been distancing itself from the USSR. This began through cultural means, such as the removal of Russian place names and the re-Latinisation of the Romanian language in the 1950s.[4] Unreliant on Soviet oil, Romania also rejected participation in the USSR’s supranational Council for Mutual Economic Assistance integration programme in 1961, as it threatened to transform the country into little more than a raw materials supplier to the more economically advanced nations of the Soviet bloc.[5] Romania also rebuked the USSR through political means, for example in 1967, by establishing diplomatic relations with a variety of western states such as the United States, the United Kingdom and West Germany, while refusing to ratify the Soviet nuclear non-proliferation treaty in the same year.[6] Additionally, Romania maintained a military command structure independent of the Warsaw Pact, and refused to permit Warsaw Pact military exercises on its territory and limited Romanian involvement in foreign manoeuvres.[7] This was designed by Ceauşescu to distance Romania from the Warsaw Pact, in order to secure his domestic position and establish international partnerships with the West.

The criticism of the Czechoslovak invasion was a continuation of this policy, in which Ceauşescu pragmatically utilised the situation to his advantage. Indeed, only 96 hours after his 21 August 1968 speech, he promoted friendly bilateral ties with the USSR and noted that they shared only minor differences, such as ‘the Czechoslovak one’.[8] This position was concerning to the USSR, as it considered Romania’s stance a threat to its political stability and power hegemony.[9] Indeed, Romania was only spared Warsaw Pact invasion itself in the turbulent days around 21 August 1968 because it remained a repressive dictatorship, so failed to fundamentally challenge the Soviet Union’s preferred method of governance.[10]

Romania’s reaction to the invasion of Czechoslovakia was undoubtedly significant for itself and Europe, however the subject does not enjoy an extensive historiography. The topic’s first monograph was written in 2000 by Romanian historian Mihai Retegan and no others have subsequently been produced.[11] Most other topic research is found in older biographical accounts of Nicolae Ceauşescu, or in more recent works on 1960s social protest and discontent.[12] Despite its significance in defining East-West relations in the 1960s, the history of socialist Romania has also received little attention outside the county.

Therefore, is it not time to lend greater attention to the Cold War history of Eastern Europe? Study of the Cold War should not simply revolve around superpower confrontation, spies and missiles, but diversify to consider the critical role of smaller nations such as Romania. Indeed, at such a crucial moment for East-West relations and European political stability, considering the role of smaller states provides a fascinating new perspective on the world’s foremost political confrontation. It also presents an opportunity to better study Romanian history and understand the ways in which Ceauşescu secured his leadership and fostered closer connections with the West, despite the repressive brutality of the regime, one sufficiently stable as to remain in power until Romania’s violent revolution of 1989. Finally, as the spectre of Brexit draws ever nearer and Britain retreats into self-imposed isolation, historians in this country should be compelled to further study the history of our closest neighbours. By better understanding the European continent, we will foster a more effective understanding of ourselves and our role in Europe; hopefully, one day, re-embracing our productive and diverse role as a full European partner. To paraphrase the poet John Donne, no society is an island entire of itself; a lesson that Romania, although not the United Kingdom, appears to have learnt.

Photo Credit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceaușescu%27s_speech_of_21_August_1968?fbclid=IwAR2dAl7wfhQ7KXqqix3tNZi6qwnpq9Q3ZuaCgXpQnexKGpYdOSZV0jvLWTU#/media/File%3AAdunare_Piaţa_Palatului_August_1968.jpg

Bibliography

Bracke, Maud, Which Socialism, whose détente?: West European Communism and the Czechoslovak crisis of 1968 (Budapest; New York, NY.: Central European University Press, 2007).

Kramer, Mark, ‘The Kremlin, the Prague Spring and the Brezhnev doctrine’, in Promises of 1968: crisis, illusion and utopia, ed. by Vladimir Tismaneanu (Budapest; New York, NY.: Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 285-370.

Molloy, Peter, ‘Ghettos of the gods’, in The lost world of communism: an oral history of daily life behind the Iron Curtain, ed. by Peter Molloy, 2nd edn. (London: BBC Books, 2016), pp. 36-37.

Petrescu, Corina, ‘Performing disapproval towards the Soviets, Nicolae Ceauşescu’s speech on 21 August 1968 in the Romanian media’, in Between Prague Spring and French May: opposition and revolt in Europe, 1960-1980, ed. by Martin Klimke, Jacco Pekelder and Joachim Scharloth (New York, NY.: Berghahn Books, 2011), pp. 199-210.

Petrescu, Corina and Serban Pavelescu, ‘Romania’, in 1968 in Europe: a history of protest and activism, 1956-1977, ed. by Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth (New York, NY., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2008), pp. 199-207.    

Romanescu, Gheorghe, Pages from the history of the Romanian people, trans. by Augusta Caterina Grundbock and Mihai Vinereanu (Bucharest: Alcor Edimpex, 2011).

Stoneman, Anna, ‘Socialism with a human face: the leadership and legacy of the Prague Spring’, The History teacher, 49:1 (2015), 103-125.

Tismaneanu, Vladimir and Bogdan Iacob, ‘Betrayed promises: Nicolae Ceauşescu, the Romanian Communist Party and the crisis of 1968’, in Promises of 1968: crisis, illusion and utopia, ed. by Vladimir Tismaneanu (Budapest; New York, NY.: Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 257-284.

Zimmerman, William, ‘Soviet relations with Yugoslavia and Romania’, in Soviet policy in Eastern Europe, ed. by Sarah Meiklejohn Terry (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 125-154.

Footnotes

[1] Anna Stoneman, ‘Socialism with a human face: the leadership and legacy of the Prague Spring’, The History Teacher, 49 (2015), 103-125, (p. 106.)

[2] Ibid., pp. 104-107.

[3] Vladimir Tismaneanu and Bogdan Iacob, ‘Betrayed promises: Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian Communist Party and the crisis of 1968’, in Promises of 1968: crisis, illusion and utopia, ed. by Vladimir Tismaneanu (Budapest; New York, NY.: Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 257-284, (p. 257.)

[4] Corina Petrescu, ‘Performing disapproval towards the Soviets, Nicolae Ceauşescu’s speech on 21 August 1968 in the Romanian media’, in Between Prague Spring and French May: opposition and revolt in Europe, 1960-1980, ed. by Martin Klimke, Jacco Pekelder and Joachim Scharloth (New York, NY.: Berghahn Books, 2011), pp. 199-210, (p. 203.)

[5] William Zimmerman, ‘Soviet relations with Yugoslavia and Romania’, in Soviet policy in Eastern Europe, ed. by Sarah Meiklejohn Terry (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 125-154, (p. 135); Mark Kramer, ‘The Kremlin, the Prague Spring and the Brezhnev doctrine’, in Promises of 1968: crisis, illusion and utopia, ed. by Vladimir Tismaneanu, (Budapest; New York, NY.: Central European University Press, 2011), pp. 285-370, (p. 296).

[6] Gheorghe Romanescu, Pages from the history of the Romanian people, trans. by Augusta Caterina Grundbock and Mihai Vinereanu (Bucharest: Alcor Edimpex, 2011), p. 214; Peter Molloy, ‘Ghettos of the gods’, in The lost world of communism: an oral history of daily life behind the Iron Curtain, ed. by Peter Molloy, 2nd edn. (London: BBC Books, 2016), pp. 36-37 (p. 37); Maud Bracke, Which Socialism, whose détente?: West European Communism and the Czechoslovak crisis of 1968 (Budapest; New York, NY.: Central European University Press, 2007), pp. 143-144.

[7] Romanescu, Pages from the history of the Romanian people, p. 214.

[8] Corina Petrescu and Serban Pavelescu, ‘Romania’, in 1968 in Europe: a history of protest and activism, 1956-1977, ed. by Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth (New York, NY., Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2008), pp. 199-207, (p. 202).    

[9] Stoneman, ‘Socialism with a human face: the leadership and legacy of the Prague Spring’, p. 106.

[10] Tismaneanu and Iacob, ‘Betrayed promises’, p. 257.

[11] Mihai Retegan, In the shadow of the Prague Spring: Romanian foreign policy and the crisis in Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Iași; Oxford; Portland, OR.: Center for Romanian Studies, 2000).

[12] Petrescu and Pavelescu, ‘Romania’; Tismaneanu and Iacob, ‘Betrayed promises’.

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