Detective Karel Kalivoda – the Maigret of Prague

In this edition of Czech History, we look at the life of Karel Kalivoda, one of the most successful and famous Czech police detectives of the 20th century. A self-made man in principle, Karel Kalivoda worked his way up from ordinary rank and file to the head of Prague’s criminal police. He made a number of compromises to get there – but he always retained a degree of integrity unusual for the time and place.

The history of Czechoslovakia’s communist police force abounds with stories of oppression and injustice. But a closer look reveals that even during the most difficult times, there were people even inside the security forces who never betrayed their principles and remained focused on persecuting crime rather than the opponents of the communist regime. One of them was Karel Kalivoda, a criminal investigator, whom his colleagues sometimes called the Maigret of Prague, after the famous fictional French detective. That is also the title of his biography by the historian Martin Kučera.

“He was a great practical investigator. With his team, he was able to solve the vast majority of cases that appeared at that time. He was a very good organizer and manager of the criminal investigation service: and very importantly, he was the face of the criminal police. In the 1960s when the regime was more liberal, he often appeared in the media and he opened the police to the public which was unheard of. And finally, he was a good writer and speaker. All this made him a great detective.”

Karel Kalivoda, who was born in 1916 in the south Moravian town of Rousínov, only joined the police force after the end of the Second World War. Until then, he had a number of jobs, including a worker in a weapons factory, an office clerk, and he also ran the family tinsmith business for some time. But in 1946, mainly for existential reasons, he joined the criminal branch of the new police force in Mladá Boleslav, in central Bohemia.

After his initial successes, Karel Kalivoda was promoted and arrived in Prague in the early 1950s where he solved some of his famous cases. In a magazine story, he described the dramatic escape of a safe breaker. After he and his colleagues arrested him and were taking him in a car to the headquarters for interrogation, the man named Zedek asked them to pull over so that he could pee.

One of the officers got out first, followed by Zedek and another guard. The safe breaker calmly got out of the car but then suddenly broke away from his guard; he managed to get his right hand out of the handcuffs, jumped across the ditch and started running for his life. […] All of us immediately ran after him. We stumbled on the recently ploughed field; someone near me fell. We were all swearing, trying to catch up with him. In vain. He knew what was in store for him which made him run really fast. The distance between us and him was growing bigger and bigger. He would not react to a repeated call. I didn’t like to do it, but I put a round into the chamber of my revolver. A warning shot only made him run faster. Without any serious aiming I took another shot. Zedek collapsed on the ground and lay still. I was shocked, cold sweat breaking out all over me. My throat closed up with fear: you shot at a man! […] While I was standing there, others ran to him, turned him around and found that he was alive. He was murmuring something incomprehensible but was not hurt. We examined him and finally found where he was hit: the bullet bore through the sole of his shoe in between his toes and only scratched him. However, he was paralyzed by shock and could not even speak. I stumbled back to the car and suddenly felt terribly sleepy. With my eyes closing, I heard Zedek say, “oh my god, what a great shot you are.

As a member of the communist party which he joined after the war, and thanks to his successes, Karel Kalivoda slowly moved up the police ladder, and even studied in Moscow. But as Martin Kučera points out, he always preferred solving crimes to fighting the opponents of the communist regime.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“If Czechoslovakia’s criminal police was outstanding in any respect during the totalitarian era, it was mostly because of him. Not only because of him since crime solving is all about team work, but to a great extent because of him. His personal struggle for the autonomy of the criminal police from the regime, that was something exceptional and to this day underrated.”

For many years after the communist takeover of 1948, Czechoslovak police relied on people who joined the force during the “bourgeois” First Republic. Karel Kalivoda, who by then had worked with many of them for years, resisted political pressure and protected his colleagues who did not want to join the communist party.

“It was Karel Kalivoda who protected those “bourgeois” members of his staff. For instance, he was a life-long friend with the head of Prague’s criminal police Zdeněk Borkovec whose brother, Jaroslav, was one of the first people executed in a political trial, even before Milada Horáková. This is evidence of the fact that Karel Kalivoda thought and acted differently than many people in the police force at the time.”

In his biography of the famous detective, historian Martin Kučera described the conflict between Karel Kalivoda and the communist secret police, the StB. In more than two decades, the conflict was to end Kalivoda’s career in the force. But in the meantime, he managed to fight off all attempts aimed at his removal.

“The totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia was to a large extent schizophrenic. On the one hand, the ruling party needed its secret police against what they called external and internal enemies. On the other hand, they also needed the criminal police because it always serves the regime, too.

“Kalivoda had a long-term dispute with the secret police which several times nearly succeeded in having him removed. But he always enjoyed the support of top communist party leaders – until 1966, when he was finally forced to quit as the chief of the national criminal police and became the head of its Prague branch.”

Martin Kučera
In the 1960s, Karel Kalivoda’s independence went so far that he in fact interfered with the investigation of a political attack on the regime. At a time when the security forces still executed people who stood up to the regime, Karel Kalivoda saved the life of a young man who carried out an attack against the party’s armed troops, called People’s Militias.

“In November 1960, on the anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution, he planted a bomb in Old Town Square which killed two members of the militias which was a great shock. But what happened – one of the people at the rally called the criminal police although the secret police would normally be the one to handle it, since it was a political attack.”

Kalivoda and his team arrived at the scene, secured the remains of a bag where the explosive was hidden but did not report the attack to the secret police.

“Kalivoda immediately began searching for the perpetrator, and managed to arrest him within some 12 hours. He than handed the student to civilian prosecution, which most probably saved his life. He spent eight years in prison before being pardoned in 1968, and he left for Canada. We can therefore say that Karel Kalivoda knowingly saved the young man’s life”

Historian Martin Kučera, who as a student met Karel Kalivoda, says that his defiant nature and lack of respect for authority played an important role in his personal struggle against the secret police – although he certainly did not agree with what the young man did.

“He certainly did not approve of the attack but he was a humanist. He arrested the young man himself to see what kind of person he was. When he found out he was a 20- or 21-year-old university student, he though he couldn’t hand him over to the secret police because that would be the end of him. He had sympathy for the boy, not his act of course. Also, he enjoyed sticking it to the secret police because he was defiant.”

The liberalization of the 1960s paradoxically ended Karel Kalivoda’s star career. His backers among the political leadership lost their positions, and so did he.

“For a very long time, he was backed by president Antonín Novotný. But then in 1966, it became unbearable even for him because Kalivoda refused to crack down on students in Prague protesting publicly against the poor living conditions in their student halls. This was the last straw, and Kalivoda lost his position.”

Karel Kalivoda remained a member of the police in less prominent positions until 1976 when he retired. Although he lost his personal struggle against the secret police, he remained loyal to the communist regime even after the Soviet-led invasion. Martin Kučera, the author of Prague Maigret, says he never fully understood why.

“The confrontation with the communist regime soon suggested it would not be that easy but Kalivoda remained a member of the party, and he remained there even after 1968. I can only guess why he did so – I think he didn’t want to leave the party because he felt that if he left, it would negatively affect the level of the criminal investigation he built up. We have to realize that at this time, Czechoslovakia’s criminal police could compare with its counterparts in the west, and it was internationally renowned.”

Karel Kalivoda retired as a famous detective who earned the respect of many professionals in a number of fields. Martin Kučera’s biography offers an interesting insight into the life of the Maigret of Prague, whose life was proof that history can be much more complex than it appears.