Arts / History / Library

The Congress that was all but cancelled!

Source: Geotimes; 13(9), Nov. 1968, p.11 © 1968 American Geosciences Institute and used with their permission

Fifty years ago this week the 23rd International Geological Congress had just started meeting in Prague.  Over 4000 geologists were making their way to the capital of Czechoslovakia, which that year seemed to be enjoying a relaxation in the political regime. Although, as the Congress approached, the political situation was becoming more tense, with Russia threatening to tighten its grip again, our Foreign Office advised that travel to the country could go ahead.  Many geologists arrived ahead of the opening date of 20th August 1968 to attend the various pre-Congress field trips, which were a great success.

The Congress was opened by the Czechoslovak President, Ludvik Svoboda at a meeting of the IGC Council on Monday 19th August, with the opening ceremony in what is now known as the Exhibition Centre, attended by delegates the following day.  This was presided over by the President of the Congress, Josef Svoboda, with a welcome address being given by the Prime Minister, Oldřich Černík.  Papers were presented and official meetings of the Congress and its sub-committees met as planned that day, but overnight the Russian tanks rolled into Prague and put an end to the ‘Prague Spring’ and to the 23rd IGC.

Josef Svoboda wrote in the preface to the General proceedings, published in 1970, with understandable understatement given the ongoing political situation in Czechoslovakia, “The tragic events of August 21st strongly interfered with the successful course of the Session [Congress], which unfortunately had to be prematurely closed.”.  An attempt was made to continue for a couple of days, but on 23rd August the congress was formally closed.

Not everyone had arrived by Day 1, but a full list of delegates is given in the General proceedings and shows that around 150 UK were due to be there from the UK, many staying in the massive International Hotel on the western edge of the city. A report in The Times [1]the following day about the battles on the streets of Prague actually mentions the IGC, which it probably not have noticed if everything had gone according to plan!

Peter Kent and Peter Sabine along with Kingsley Dunham gave a report of the Congress to a meeting of the Geological Society in December 1968[2], recounting the events and how arrangements were made to leave Prague. Most were taken by coach from their hotel to the main station and were able to get on a train bound for Germany.

Other stories have emerged from those who attended the Congress and this short account may encourage others to reminisce. Hugh Torrens, for instance, recounted a tale of the late Peter Sylvester-Bradley, a Quaker and ardent pacifist, having driven to Prague in his old Land Rover, who proceeded, at some personal risk given the nature of his vehicle, to drive round tossing roses, that he had managed to purchase, into the muzzles of the Russian tanks’ guns!

In spite of the fact that very few papers were ever presented, the full set of proceedings, abstracts and field guides were published between 1968 and 1970, which can be consulted in many libraries, including that of the Geological Society.

Meanwhile in London the BBC’s season of Promenade Concerts was in progress and on Wednesday 21st August the State Orchestra of the U.S.S.R. was making its Proms debut with Mstislas Rostropovich as soloist. This was not good timing and Joan Chissell reported the following day in The Times[3] that “… it was lamentable that a certain section of the audience chose to shout slogans at innocent Musicians no doubt just as sickened by Kremlin idiocy as we are.” The soloist’s encore, it seems, did much to diffuse the situation.

Geologists had to wait until 1972 for the next meeting of the IGC, held in Montreal, when, if they kept to their promise given at the closing of the 23rd ICG, Czechoslovak geologists were invited to attend without payment of the conference fees in recompense for their suffering in 1968.

The Czech Cultural Centre in Kensington currently has an exhibition entitled: Make Love Not War or We’ll Kill You; Prague Spring 1968 in Cartoons which runs until 2 September 2018.

Wendy Cawthorne, Assistant Librarian at The Geological Society

Further reading

Dudek, A. (ed.) (1970) Report of the Twenty-third Session [International Geological Congress], Czechoslovakia, 1968: general proceedings. 227p.

Schneer, C.J. (1995) The geologists at Prague: August 1968. History of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Earth sciences history; 14(2), pp. 172-201.

Thurston, W. (1968) In Prague: 1. International Geological Congress. Geotimes; 13(9), Nov. 1968, pp.10-12

[1] Farnsworth, C. (1968) Angry Czechs set Russian tanks on fire in the streets. The Times; Issue 57336, Thurs. 22 Aug., pp.5.

[2] Kent, P.E. & Sabine, P.A. (1969) Prague – 1968 [reporting to the Geological Society at their

Ordinary Meeting, 11 December 1968]. Proceedings. Geological Society of London; 1658, pp.219-224.

[3] Chissell, J. (1968) A notable debut. The Times; Issue 57336, Thurs. 22 Aug., pp.11.



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