Hilmar Pabel

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The year 1968 began uneasily in Czechoslovakia. The previous October, a group of students in Prague’s Technical University staged a demonstration to protest electricity cuts at their dormitories; their shouts of “More light!” were a pointed rebuke towards the stifling rule by the Communist party. So, when the new year came, the party yielded by electing a new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček.

The 47-year old was a compromise candidate — Dubček had carefully cultivated his bland and ambiguous personality for years. Now, finally with power, he changed positions. A reform program — timid by international standards, but ambitious in the eyes of Communist cadres — was launched to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The flowering of freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities followed, but it was brief. A worried Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

On the first day of invasion, German photographer Hilmar Pabel took the photo above of a distraught woman carrying a photo of Dubcek and Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda. Pabel was a man whose stature as a humanist photographer would have been greater had he not been a propagandist for Nazism during the Second World War. In a photoessay for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Pabel documented Jews living in the Lublin Ghetto as shifty and avaricious: living in dirt and hiding consumer goods and foods in the cellars.


After the war, Pabel was briefly imprisoned for his work, but got out to work with Red Cross to photograph children displaced by war to help them reunite with their parents and family. By the 50s and 60s, his reputation has recovered, and his works were published by Life, Paris Match, and Stern.  In 1961, he was the recipient of the Cultural Prize of the German Society for Photography, followed by two World Press Photo awards. Two photoessays he filed from Vietnam (Story of the Little Orchid, 1964 and Thuan Lives Again, 1968) were widely praised, although some critics scoffed that he was reaching back into his propagandist past to portray American army hospital staff as Good Samaritans.


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Prague Spring

josefkoudelka-watch-1968On Wenceslav Square



In 1968, Alexander Dubcek, the new leader of Czechoslovakia, initiated a reform program to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The resulting freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities led to a period of euphoria known as the Prague Spring. Encouraged by Dubcek’s actions, many Czechs called for far-reaching reforms including neutrality and withdrawal from the Soviet bloc. To forestall the spread of reforms, the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

A photographer of Gypsies and theatrical life, Josef Koudelka recorded this invasion. His pictures were smuggled out of the country with the help of his collaborator Czech photography critic and curator Anna Farova, and published with the initials P.P. (Prague photographer) to spare his family any possible reprisal. (The photographs would not be published under Koudelka’s name until 1984, following his father’s death.) The highly dramatic pictures showing Russian tanks rolling into Prague and the Czech resistance became international symbols and won ‘‘anonymous Czech photographer’’ the Overseas Press Club’s prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal.

In 1970, Koudelka left Czechoslovakia on a three-month exit visa in 1970 to photograph gypsies in the West and took political asylum in England.

The End of the Prague Spring


“Shoot!” screamed the man in thee blue overalls; Emil Gallo, a municipal plumber in Bratislava, shouted abuse at the crew of a Soveit T-55 tank and tore his shirt open, ready to give his life. The photo, almost a sister image to the Tank Man photo that came out from Beijing 31 years later, was one of the most iconic images of the Prague Spring.

On August 21, 1968, tanks from Russia and four other Warsaw Pact countries rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring – a period of political liberalization under Alexander Dubcek. Ladislav Bielik, the photographer who captured the scene, works for the local newspaper Smena. Together with his colleagues, he printed a clandestine edition of the newspaper with this photo on the front page. A copy of the film reached the German Press Agency on the same day, and the photo was published around the world, although often went falsely or non attributed.

After the revolution failed, Bielik remained in Czechoslovakia, but this meant the end of professional career for this newly-married photographer. He hid his 187 shots from the Revolution in his cellar so well that even the secret police which searched his house several times could not find them. He was dismissed; he continued to work but his photos were not ‘good’, declared the communists. He ended up as a sports photographer and was killed tragically in Budapest in 1984 at a car race. His family rediscovered the negatives after the Fall of Berlin Wall.

As for other players in this drama, Dubcek was forced to withdraw from the public life but lived to see the collapse of the Evil Empire he once opposed. Gallo, a father of four, committed suicide three years after the photo was taken for personal reasons. For other photos Bielik took during the Prague Spring, see here.