25 years since opening of Communist-era surveillance archives to public
This December marks a quarter-century since the opening up of Communist-era State Security Service archives to victims of surveillance in Czechia. The move made it possible for Czechs to look up whether they were followed by the Communist secret police and who exactly informed on them.
The State Security Service, or “StB” as it is known in the Czech Republic, was formed after the Second World War in 1945. It quickly became controlled by the Communist Party and its power and size began to grow rapidly after the Communist coup d’état of 1948. Throughout its history, the StB maintained hundreds of thousands of files on various people living in Czechoslovakia, surveying both real and perceived enemies of the state through its extensive web of informants.
Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, members of the State Security Service tried to destroy many of these documents, but the sheer volume of files meant that they were not always successful. The service was abolished in January 1990.
Historian Libor Svoboda from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes told Czech Radio that, in the years immediately after the revolution, many Czechs were curious to find out if they had been surveyed by the StB and who had informed on them.
“There certainly was demand for this sort of information, and some of it came out through various leaks. That was not ideal, because leaks like that could be manipulated on various levels. There was pressure to prevent such information only reaching the public through leaks and to make it possible for anyone who felt that they had been a victim of the regime to check and potentially find out which of their colleagues informed on them.”
Some people even argued that making such information public would be a relief to the informants themselves, as it would rid them of their bad conscience.
The opening up of the archives led to many nasty surprises. For example, surveillance victim Věra Souradová told Czech Radio that she was shocked when she looked into the documents.
“I found a lot of people in those lists whom I considered to be my friends. It felt like a betrayal. One of those who informed on me was more or less my life mentor, a person whom I trusted completely and considered to be my moral crutch. What was even crazier was that he would, for example, come to us when he was experiencing marital problems. He would come and cry his heart out, we would try to comfort him and he would then go tell the police what we were saying about politics while doing that.”
Another law, enacted in March 2003, made it possible for the wider public to access the official lists as well. The Ministry of Interior opened up documentation on 75,000 people who had been State Security Service informants. Their files can still be found in the records of the State Security Services Archive in Prague.