Preface: Interviews with Czechoslovak Generals of the Cold War Era
The second in the series of oral history interviews with former Warsaw Pact generals, the Czechoslovak collection published here highlights some of the significant differences among the alliance’s member states as well as their military. Unlike Poland, the largest of Moscow’s involuntary allies as well as the one with the most pronounced anti-Soviet tradition, Czechoslovakia was a smaller, but strategically most exposed country, whose historical traditions had been most consistently pro-Russian and pro-Soviet. At the same time, it was not a nation where the army enjoyed high respect and affection, as was the case in Poland even under communism. But neither did the lack of a strong military tradition preclude a substantial degree of professionalism of the high Czechoslovak military during the Cold War, particularly prior to 1968, the year when the Soviet military intervention crushed the “Prague Spring” and with it much of the country’s officer corps.
by Vojtech Mastny
The watershed year marked the Czechoslovak military in a way no other Warsaw Pact member state was marked. It sharply divided the officer corps, including the generals whose testimonies are published here, into those who had been active before 1968, many of whom had subsequently become victims of the Soviet intervention and speak accordingly, and those who made their careers after that year as beneficiaries of the intervention. Few of the latter agreed to be interviewed, and among those who did candor has been exceptional rather than typical.
The primary value of the interviews is in the light they throw on Czechoslovakia’s role in Soviet military planning prior to 1968, when its army was assigned to bear the brunt of any confrontation with NATO because of the absence from its territory of Soviet or other Warsaw Pact troops. Conversely, the stationing of Soviet forces there after 1968, amid doubts about the reliability of the Czechoslovak army in the event of war, reduced the country’s strategic exception and with it also the importance of the information that could be supplied by its highest ranking officers.
All the same, the interviews make for fascinating reading. Unlike their Polish or East German counterparts, most of the Czechoslovak generals were willing to speak without inhibitions about the secret operational plans to which they had been privy. Some of their testimonies provide the most authoritative and illuminating views that we have on the 1964 war plan discovered and first published by the PHP, which has prompted a spirited discussion about its significance on this website. Another intriguing topic is the deployment of Soviet nuclear warheads on Czechoslovak territory, whose very presence there appears surprisingly in doubt according to the recorded testimonies. Little doubt remains, however, about the severity of the economic strain that membership in the Warsaw Pact imposed upon Czechoslovakia, forcing it to maintain a military establishment way out of proportion with the country’s resources.
The introduction by Karel Sieber describes in detail the manner in which the interviews were conducted, their accomplishments as well as their limitations. In addition to the original transcripts, published in full, a topical selection of the highlights appears here in an English translation. The translated portions amount to about one-seventh of the total length of the interviews. Deleted passages are indicated by dots and references to the pages of the respective interviews allow any reader familiar with the Czech language to consult the full texts.
For possible publication on its discussion forum, the PHP welcomes readers’ comments about the collection.