The morning after: A normally closed border crossing between East Germany (foreground) and Czechoslovakia has been damaged and left open; fresh tank tracks are visible. A group of Russian or East German soldiers stand on the Czech side. The road leads to a small village, then to Chomutov and Prague. Taken by George Cranstone, 21st August 1968.
It is 50 years since some 650,000 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, to reverse the reforms introduced there by Alexander Dubček in the “Prague Spring” of 1968. My own recollection of this event, on 21st August 1968, was seeing a newspaper headline as a 14-year old and witnessing the evident concern on my parents’ faces. But at the time of the invasion Agnes and George Cranstone and their three sons had a much closer perspective, and George has written this account of the family holiday which took a dramatic turn.
The young family of George and Agnes Cranstone were together making their way across Europe to spend the summer holidays with the parents and family of Agnes, who was born and educated in the town of Chemnitz in Saxony which was now situated in Eastern Germany since the division of the country following the end of the 2nd world war. The town of Chemnitz had been renamed by the East German Authorities to Karl Marx Stadt. The “wall” between east and west had been completed across the country and now East Germany or DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) was a state within itself. Local inhabitants fearful of the law were mindful of the consequences of any deviation such as crossing a street before the green light gave the “go ahead”.
Arrival at the East German border crossing was always time consuming what with passport and visa examination delay perpetuated by lengthy questioning and rigorous searching of the vehicle for illicit material such as comics or “shun” literature. All currency taken into the country had to be recorded and would be set against a similar request on exit back to the West. Once released from this interminable hold up one was “free to go”. However, one had to be mindful of speed limits because western currency was hard to come by in East Germany and charging westerners for exceeding the speed limit was a good collector of western money.
August 1968 was not so straightforward as we had experienced in previous years.
Upon arrival at the East German border we were informed that Karl Marx Stadt was “out of bounds to all foreign visitors”. No permission would be given for us to continue our journey to our expected destination. Fortunately, Agnes had an Aunt living in Thüringen also in East Germany not too far from the border and finally we persuaded the authorities to let us visit this Aunt and hopefully stay until we could get permission to continue on to our destination.
After a few days wait we had permission to continue to Karl Marx Stadt but were strictly told that we were not to travel outside of the town but to remain within its boundaries.
Having safely arrived at Agnes’s home it was always our plan to take some time at the family cottage up in the hills in Rubinau a small village in Erzgebirge bordering Czechoslovakia where some years before Agnes and I celebrated our Flitterwochen (honeymoon). Naturally, a young couple with small children in those days paid little attention to worldly events, neither was it beamed at us from news media, Twitter, Google or Facebook. We wanted to do what we had planned to do and have the children roam free in the fields and woods surrounding the cottage. So we went outside of Karl Marx Stadt taking Grandma Hess with us.
The journey up to the cottage went well but as we got nearer to the Czechoslovakia border we noticed that the woods on either side of the road were crammed with Lorries, tanks and soldiers. We passed this off as manoeuvres of the DDR army and carried on.
Midnight of the 20th August 1968 we were awakened by what we thought was thunder but in fact was lorries and tanks moving along the road towards the border to Czechoslovakia. Agnes’s Mother let out a scream “see suchen uns” (they are looking for us). All that night we watched from unlighted rooms the continuous movement of troops crossing the border.
The cottage and barn. The roof of the Cranstones' car is just visible in front of the cottage.
George and Agnes's sons Richard, left, aged 4, Peter, 6 and Stephen, 8, with his back to the camera, standing at the damaged border point. George recalls that many people came here from the village to view the damage.
By morning listening to the BBC through a crackling radio we heard that an invasion had taken place. Our green English car stood outside. It was quickly driven into a large barn beside the house. We then ventured not too far from the cottage for two days. There were still troops in the local woods and surrounding area.
Eventually, we had to visit the local village for some shopping and the distance meant that it could be reached only by car. Therefore we decided to return to Karl Marx Stadt and packed the car and set off. Not so far along the road was a temporally road block and immediately we were stopped and after much talking on the telephone by the officer in charge, we were escorted to an Internment Camp. After some interrogation we were allocated beds for the night together with others who had obviously misapplied the rules.
Next day we were instructed to go back to Karl Marx Stadt, report to the police station and be sure to leave East Germany by midnight that day. A watch was kept on the house in town to ensure that we left in good time for the border crossing with West Germany. The date was 25th August 1968.
The town of Chemnitz had its name restored after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The authorities mailed as many residents at home and overseas as possible to establish a vote for approval to revert to its original name. A huge carved stone head of Karl Marx still rests in the centre of Chemnitz today, known as the “Grosse Kopf” (big head) to the locals.
The same border point today: 50 years on and Germany has been re-united, whilst the former Czechoslovakia is now the distinct countries of Czech Republic and Slovak Republic.
Agnes in front of the cottage barn, where the family's car was hidden 50 years ago