Marty Mullins for KOSMAS: Prague Spring on the Periphery

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Prague Spring on the Periphery: Eastern Slovak Steelworkers React to Reform and Invasion in 1968

Utilizing recently-declassified documents, period newspapers and eye-witness interviews this article exposes the untold story of how Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring reform era (commemorating its 50th anniversary in 2018) and ensuing Soviet invasion occurred distinctly in Slovakia’s second city of Košice and its surrounding region. Košice was the fastest-growing urban center in Czechoslovakia from 1961-1967, its population tripling from 1950 to 1961 primarily due to the migration of individuals employed at the steel mill, which was teeming with over 17,000 workers by 1968. By examining labor reactions at the Eastern Slovak Steelworks both before and after the invasion, this piece illuminates the impact that blue-collar citizens on the country’s periphery made during this seminal moment in Cold War history.

“Meetings have been taking place at factories to oppose factory directors. … At the Košice metallurgical combine [Eastern Slovak Steelworks], … the director, Cde. Knižka, was accused of receiving an excessively high salary, of owning a new car, of having a private room in the recreational facility, and of other such things. Newspapers all over the country covered this in full, and as a result, Cde. Knižka reached the point where he suddenly had a heart attack in Bratislava.”
–Report from Yurii Il’nytsk’kyi, First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party’s Transcarpathian Oblast Committee, to Petro Shelest, First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, April 30, 1968.

“The largest factory VSŽ [Eastern Slovak Steelworks] is preparing a general strike if Dubček does not appear today on the radio or on television. Other factories are joining their appeal which is threatening paralysis of the entire business life.”
–Košice Municipal Police Report, August 22, 1968.

The eastern Slovak experience of the 1968 Prague Spring and subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion and its response contribute to a holistic understanding of this turning point in Czechoslovak history. The region’s distinct participation in Czechoslovakia’s reform era reached its ultimate culmination when more casualties were recorded in Košice than in any other Slovak city during the August 21, 1968 incursion. Ironically, the Soviets and Brezhnev himself had personally freed the city in 1945 only to return twenty-three years later as oppressors.

Thanks to the expansion of Eastern Slovak Steelworks or VSŽ (today U.S. Steel), Košice had become the fastest-growing city in Czechoslovakia from 1961-1967. Many of the city’s 236,000 inhabitants were employed at the steel mill by 1968. Some were conspicuously bold in their support of Dubček before and after the tanks rolled into Liberators’ Square. Mass gatherings of workers demanding change within the factory and in town forced VSŽ Director Michal Hanka to blame the “democratization process” as the culprit causing a dip in production rates in the months prior to August 1968.

Yet even after the intimidating soldiers were present, Košice steel workers threatened strikes, publicly observed the anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising, willingly gave their names to reporters as they pledged support to Dubček in newspaper interviews and voluntarily worked Saturday shifts to ensure no lack of production due to their protesting against the invasion. While other newspaper presses were occupied with Soviet troops, Eastern Steel went to press twice daily in the early days after the invasion, with a readership that extended far beyond eastern Slovakia. Such significant steel worker participation both during and after the 1968 Soviet invasion reflects a high degree of civil society among Košice’s working class. Perhaps it is appropriate that in 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of these seminal Cold War events and the centennial of the inception of Czechoslovakia, the account of those on the eastern periphery is brought to light.

1 Krajské oddelenie Štátneho Štatistického Úradu, Štatistika o hlavnom meste Slovenska Bratislave (Štatistická ročenka) 1968, (Bratislava: EPOCHA, 1968), 46-47. Štefan Šutaj, “Ethnic Development in Košice after 1945,” Studia Historyczne 4 (2013), 471.
2 Jaromír Neuhort, “Ohováraním sa družba nepestuje,” Ocel’ východu, Sept. 13, 1968.
3 Quoted in Mark Kramer, “Ukraine and the Soviet-Czechoslovak Crisis of 1968 (Part 2),” in Cold War International History Project, eds. Christian Friedrich Ostermann and Kathryn Weathersby (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Winter 2003-2004), 284.
4 “August 1968, Situačná správa Mestskej správy VB Košice odoslaná 22.8.1968,” Ústav pamäti národa (ÚPN), Bratislava, Slovakia

About the author:
Marty Manor Mullins completed her Ph.D. in East Central European History at the University of Washington in 2013. With funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in conjunction with the Fulbright Program, she conducted research for her dissertation in Košice, Slovakia, a city where she has lived and worked for 7 years. Her published work focuses on Košice and eastern Slovakia’s experience of Czechoslovakia’s 1948 Communist takeover, 1968 Soviet invasion, and 1989 Velvet Revolution.

A regular participant at the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) Conferences, she serves as Officer at Large for the Slovak Studies Association. Dr. Mullins currently teaches at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana.