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People holding a Czech flag try to stop a Soviet tank with burning cars in the background
Soviet tanks on Prague's streets gave East Germans a rude awakeningImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Crushing a Dream

DW staff (win)
August 20, 2008

When Soviet tanks put an end to the reformist movement in Czechoslovakia forty years ago, many East Germans were shocked as their dream of a human socialism ended abruptly. DW spoke with two of them.


In the early morning of Aug. 21, 1968, when East German radio announced that "personalities of the party and the state of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (CSSR)" had called on the Soviet Union and other allied states to grant them "help, including help from armed forces," Hartmut Zwahr wasn't the only one choking on his breakfast.

People standing in Prague's Wenceclas Square
Thousands still demonstrated peacefully in Prague's main square on Aug. 20, 1968Image: AP

"My wife came into the kitchen and said: 'They've invaded,'" Zwahr said. "One had always feared that this was going to happen."

At the time, Zwahr was a 32-year-old historian with high hopes at Leipzig's Karl Marx University. He was fascinated by the attempts to renew socialism in the neighboring country. He's a member of Germany's Sorb minority, speaks Czech and regularly traveled to the CSSR, where he read local papers, which at the time were often sold out in Leipzig.

Sobering experience

Alexander Dubcek smiles and holds his hands in fists
Alexander Dubcek gave hope to East Germans as wellImage: dpa

During the summer of 1968, East Germans were clearly on the side of the CSSR's reformist leader, Alexander Dubcek. The invasion is a rude awakening after dreaming of socialism with a human face.

"It was sobering, it was a knockdown," Zwahr said, adding that Dubcek's democratization efforts had already led to the release of political prisoners.

"I began fearing the secret police," he said. "I stopped making friends in my field."

Zwahr said he led a double life during the months of the Prague Spring. At university, he functioned as it was expected of him as a good comrade.

But at night, he filled his diary with entries about party meetings, where die-hard communists led the way and Dubcek supporters kept quiet out of fear. He wrote about his internal conflicts, his heretic thoughts, political jokes and the frustrations of everyday life. Only decades later, he published his diary under the tile "The Swallow's Frozen Wings."

Typewritten protest

A Stasi prison cell
Becker's protest brought her to prisonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Hildegart Becker, a 17-year-old student in the East German town of Frankfurt (Oder) near the Polish border, also felt compelled to write during those days in August 1968.

Together with a friend and her sister, she used the typewriter of her father, a Protestant pastor, to compose a protest flyer against the invasion. She sent them to residents in her city after getting their addresses from the phone book. When she got to the letter K, agents from the Stasi, the former East German secret police, were already at her door.

"We'd sent out about 150 letters, but very few actually reached their recipients," Becker said, adding that she found out later in her Stasi files that many people turned the letters in to the authorities.

In a strictly controlled republic, actions like Becker's represented a wave a protest.

Between Aug. 21 and the end of November 1968, 1,290 people in East Germany were investigated for painting graffiti, distributing pamphlets or even just publicly criticizing the invasion, according to Stasi files. Those arrested included young workers, students, pupils, some of them the children of famous party and state functionaries.

Life-long memories

Becker ended up in prison for her actions. From her cell, she was able to hear the bells of her father's church. While she wasn't a member of East Germany's communist youth organizations, she still didn't see herself as an enemy of socialism.

"It had a certain attraction," she said. "That's why I thought: It can't be that they move in with tanks in socialism."

Democracy demonstration in Leipzig in 1989
East Germans followed their Czech neighbors in 1989Image: dpa

After three months in jail, Becker was released just in time to celebrate Christmas with her family. She was allowed to finish school and study civil engineering and theology. She became active in East Germany's democratization movement of 1989.

Hartmut Zwahr, on the other hand, became a respected social historian, who taught in Leipzig until 2001. His diary isn't the only thing that reminds him of the Prague Spring: His son's name is Alexander, just like 1968 socialist Alexander Dubcek.

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