Invasion 68: Prague

Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague. In front of the Radio Headquarters. Prague, Czechoslovakia, August 1968; from Invasion 68: Prague (c) Josef Koudelka

August 21, 1968. Hours after 30-year-old Josef Koudelka–then nascent career photographer–returned to Prague, having spent the past several years documenting the lives of Romanian gypsies, Soviet tanks suddenly cross the Czechoslovakian border. 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2000 tanks head to Prague and occupy the capitol.

“Our city is experiencing perhaps the most trying moment in our recent history,” the Municipal Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist party of Prague announces. The country, then under the sphere of Soviet influence, had been occupied by foreign armies several times before, but never by troops from allied, supposedly friendly countries.

According to the a statement issued by TASS, the Soviet Press Agency earlier that day, the USSR made an appeal to Warsaw pact countries for immediate assistance, including armed forces, “to the fraternal Czechoslovak people.” They said the request was made “because of the emergent threat to the socialist system and statehood provided for by the constitution of Czechoslovakia.”

The “threat” comes as news to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which broadcasts a statement calling upon “all citizens of the republic to remain calm and not to put up a resistance to the advancing troops because defense of the frontiers is now impossible.”

As tensions mount, ‘Prague’, the Free Legal Radio Transmitter, surrounded by Soviet infantrymen broadcasts a reiteration: “Friends… any resistance to the superior force is utterly futile. This is not defeatism; our only chance is in our preventing bloodshed, because bloodshed makes no sense at all in the present circumstances. Please remain calm, as calm as possible.”

Despite a largely passive and civil resistance, 72 Czechs and Slovaks loose their lives, hundreds others are wounded.

Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague. Prague, Czechoslovakia, August 1968; from Invasion 68: Prague (c) Josef Koudelka

Koudelka had never covered a news event at that point. He spent the first seven days of the invasion making a series of stunning, emotionally charged images in central Prague. The photographs he managed to have smuggled out of the country and a year later distributed anonymously by Magnum Photos. They earned him the Robert Capa Award, though he could not claim authorship until 16 years later when threats to his family had ceased.

Nearly 250 of these images were published, many for the first time, 40 years after the event in the monograph Invasion 68: Prague (Aperture 2008). Select photographs paired with related texts, including radio transcripts and eyewitness testimonies, are now part of a traveling exhibition opening in Porto Alegre, Brazil this Sunday, April 29, 2012 (at FestFotoFoA through May 27, 2012).

Protesting the Warsaw Pact troops invasion. Prague. Wenceslas Square, August 1968; from Invasion 68: Prague (c) Josef Koudelka

“The invasion of Czechoslovakia was meant ‘to restore order,’ to return a country that had broken off its chain to the position of an obedient vassal,” write Jiri Hoppe, Jiri Suk, and Jaroslav Cuhra in their introduction to the monograph. But, “urgent appeals were made to avoid violence,” and the tanks and assault rifles were “met by a wave of words and gestures.”

One mode of resistance was called the ‘anonymous town,’ in which “the names of streets, institutions, government offices and road signs were painted over with the aim of making it difficult or impossible for the soldiers to get their bearings in an unknown environment.” Substituted instead were wall scribblings with messages like, “Moscow – 1,800 km.”

Koudelka’s series, “is not a chronological record,” he writes, “although the historical sequence of events during the first week of the occupation is take into account. Rather, the intent is to evoke the atmosphere of those days.”

Exhibition on view:
Sunday, April 29, 2012–Sunday, May 27, 2012

Rua Sete de Setembro, 1028
Porto Alegre, Brazil