Communist secret police operations under the spotlight thanks to Andrej Babiš affair

Foto: ČTK

Last week’s decision by a Bratislava court that Czech finance minister Andrej Babiš was falsely described as being an agent of the Communist era secret police has sparked a lively debate about the apparent clearing of his name. Part of that debate focuses on how the StB functioned and whom it recruited. We look at the working of the StB in former Czechoslovakia and the ongoing arguments about the Babiš’ affair.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
Andrej Babiš described himself as a vindicated man last week after a Slovak court said the state body tasked with safeguarding and analysing the former files of the secret police, the StB, had wrongly fingered him as a former agent with the codename Bureš. Babiš’ recruitment was supposed to have occurred in the early 1980’s when he was working for a state export company, Petrimex, in what would have been a prized and prestigious position. Babiš’ said approaches to him by the secret police were made but he fended them off.

The court decision, is being appealed by the Slovak Nation’s Memory Institute, but has in the meantime put the spotlight again on how the secret police functioned and the reliability of their archives.

The Czechoslovak secret police was born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World Two as a domestic police agency that was almost immediately hijacked by the Communist Party. The so-called 1948 coup, in part caused by the protests by other parties at Communist control of the police, meant that the secret police were given free rein to use the most brutal measures at its disposal to stamp out opposition in all parts of society. Many of the methods were learnt first hand from Soviet instructors or remembered from the not so distant Nazi occupation.

But in a deeply divided society there were also many who were prepared willingly to help the police and Communist Party in the belief that they were building a better future. The Czechoslovak secret police was a relatively lean and mean machine in terms of numbers and collaborators compared with the system build up for example in neighbouring East Germany.

Clear figures are difficult to come by, but many historians reckon that around 100,000 agents and police collaborators were functioning at the peak in the late 1950s and early 60s. That number dropped to around 15,000 during the Prague Spring before doubling in size to around 30,000 in the years of normalization that ended abruptly with the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Igor Lukeš,  photo: Czech Television
US-based historian Igor Lukeš says that the East German secret police, the Stasi, were clearly in a different league but the role of the StB should nonetheless not be underestimated. “Comparing anything or anyone to the Stasi is really a sort of worthless task because the Stasi were almost completely unique. According to some estimates they had one informer in every 10 or 20 East German citizens. That was a truly totalitarian monster, which of course did not prevent the collapse of Communist in East Germany ultimately. I think that the StB was not as influential or omnipresent or omniscient as the Stasi but I think it was still influential although one should not forget that both the Stasi and StB were instruments, tools in the hands of the ruling party. ”

Reporter and historian Adam Drda says one of the reasons for the difference between the secret police East German style and Czechoslovak style may be that the Czechoslovak communist party and secret police could build, at least in the early days, on some of the popular sympathy that had given the Communist Party election victory in 1946. He adds that alternative structures in society, such as the Catholic Church in Poland, were also a lot weaker and were broken earlier here.

Mikuláš Kroupa is a journalist and the director of the Post Bellum institute which records the recollections of those who suffered and profited under Communism. He has interviewed dozens of past agents and some former secret policemen. Kroupa says that after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 and the dismantling of the Prague Spring thaw that followed, there could be few illusions that the Czechoslovak Communist Party was serving the Czechoslovak people and national goals. In a massive weeding out, those who disagreed with the invasion were expelled from important posts. Even the secret police was temporarily weakened with some of its key technicians, such as those who eavesdropped on targets, being forced to leave.

Mikuláš Kroupa,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
Kroupa says the gaps were fairly quickly filled and a new organisation recreated, primarily aimed at clamping down on any form of domestic public dissent or disorder, even the wearing of long hair or western clothes, but without the most brutal methods of the 1950s. In this sort of climate, he says no-one could be under any illusions of whether they were collaborating in some way or not. “After 1968, every citizen in the country knew that the government of this country, the structures of individual companies and that the apparatus of the state were collaborating and under the direct orders of Soviet Bolshevism. Everyone who wanted to build a career in this society was in one way or another a part of this totalitarian regime.

“Everyone in the country had a two-way choice: they could collaborate with this regime, meaning that they signed the various notices, questionnaires, meet in various commissions, various examining committees and were part of that system; or they detached themselves from all that and said that personal careers were not important but individual freedom was. They decided to follow their own convictions, often at the price of persecution, and they filled the lowest types of jobs, such as stokers in heating plants and ordinary manual workers.”

He says a largely meaningless distinction is often made between those secret police agents who signed so-called pledges to be agents and those that did not. In many cases, he says that those that did not sign the pledges provided the police with much more and better quality information than those that did because they were on one hand deceiving themselves about what they were doing and for that same reason successfully pulling the wool over the eyes of those they were informing on.

StB Archive | Photo: Czech Television
Adam Drda says it is improbable that anyone in a foreign trade post, such as Andrej Babiš, would not have in some way cooperated with the secret police and intelligence service in some way or another. “I think that for someone who worked directly in the so-called nomenklatura or in those key sectors where it was necessary to be a member of the Communist Party and who had to make a Communist career under normalisation, these relations with the StB were basically a natural thing. It was not the case that someone had to be forced. ”

Anyone with ambition would have few second thoughts about cooperation in one way or another, adds Boston University’s Igor Lukeš. “If the first question is could one have been in a foreign trade state-owned company and have nothing to do with the foreign intelligence then the answer is ‘yes’ in theory. But one would have to be satisfied with playing a pretty mediocre role in the organisation. Anyone with any ambition in the field of foreign trade would have to both come into contact with these people and ultimately say yes to their approaches because one could not advance in the organisation, most likely one could not even be posted abroad, without certainly being in contact with these organs and doing favours for them. Whether one would be a fully recruited agent or some sort of trustee, who would perform just mundane tasks in the field of intelligence, that’s a different issue. ”

Mikuláš Kroupa adds that getting trade secrets and intelligence from the West was one of the main objects of the secret police and intelligence services and helping out in this direction would have been seen as natural adjunct to the job.

And so what of the possibility that the secret police files are full of flaws and names dreamt up by the police themselves so that they could impress their superiors or, perhaps, fraud their expense accounts? Adam Drda says secret police expense fraud was by no means unknown and some cases were punished, but he does not believe that the police would go the lengths of dreaming up fictitious agents. “What is of the utmost importance is that the StB was not some sort of adventurous secret intelligence service, it was above all a bureaucratic secret service which built up its archive to serve its own needs. So it is completely unreasonable to think that they would as a matter of course produce and put in false material on their own.

Adam Drda,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“One thing that can be said is that of course there are various types of mistakes and things that don’t make sense in the archives, but these stem largely from the shortcomings of the StB police officers themselves and not the intention to fabricate false material. They did of course produce false documents, but that was for use in various types of operations which are clearly indicated and it’s not the case that you could today find material on some collaborator that did not really exist. ”

Drda says fabricating agent names and function would have been like throwing a spanner in the machine with a very likely chance you would be found out. Kroupa is also adamant that the secret police files should be trusted as a pretty accurate record of what one important organ of the state was up to. I asked him whether fabricating agents was conceivable at all. “It is not likely at all. I have never personally come across such a case. In the 20 years that colleagues have been examining the secret police archives, there has been one case where apparently a person’s name was made up. But it is unthinkable that a person was entered in the files without at least meeting having taken place with that person. That would have been quite dangerous for the secret police agent or StB employee. He was liable to the public service law and if he was found out he could be charged or blackmailed and he would have been very well aware of that. ”

The Babiš affair has perhaps renewed some memories and interest in how the StB operated in former Czechoslovakia. But when the dust has settled, the overwhelming public reaction in the Czech and Slovak republics looks like being to let sleeping dogs lie and not dig too deep into uncomfortable chapters of history.