The greatest Czech spy and traitor of all time - Karel Zbytek?

Карел Збытек (Фото: Национальный архив Чешской Республики)

The Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia has had its fair number of top spies before the Second World War, during the conflict as well as in the post war and Cold War era. There is František Moravec, who created one of the most successful espionage networks for Czechoslovakia during the inter-war years and later took his skills into exile in Britain.

Karel Zbytek,  photo: Czech National Archive
Mention could be made of Otto Katz, also known as André Simon, who worked for the Soviet Union before, during, and after the Second World War before being, ironically, sentenced to death as a traitor by the communist authorities in a show trial in the 1950s. Or later, there was former StB agent Josef Frolík who fled to the United States and spilled the beans on his country’s espionage activities. Or Karel Köcher who also fled to the US, but in his case went to work for the CIA in the 1970’s and passed on their secrets back to communist Czechoslovakia.

But the name of Karel Zbytek would probably not feature on most people’s list of top Czech spies of the 20th century. Nevertheless, he has been described as the biggest traitor of that century and a new book published by former communist era military intelligence officer Olin Jurman seeks to lift the lid on at least in part on Zbytek’s life and claim to the title.

Unfortunately, the book entitled “Double Agent – the secret corridors of espionage” is in two parts with the first episode cutting off soon after Karel Zbytek fled to Britain in 1948. The second part is due to published at the start of next year.

Martin Fišer helped in editing Olin Jurman’s latest book and filled in some of the details:

“Actually he was in the end a double agent – working both for a Czech agency and a British agency. The first book ends with his arrival in England and, let’s say, the first days or weeks of his stay there. The second book though will mostly be concerned with the whole double agent thing, with his death and the fate of his family and things like this. So, from my point of view, the second part will be even more interesting than the first one.”

“Zbytek gave information about the organization to communist Czechoslovakia – that’s why he is described as the greatest traitor of all.”

Karel Zbytek’s claim to infamy has been partially detailed already elsewhere. Author Olin Jurman continues:

“He came to England in 1948 and in that year was created a Czech organization for spying on Czechoslovakia which was called CIO [ Czechoslovak Intelligence Office ]. At that time that organization was the most effective espionage organization in Europe, better than the English, better than the Americans, better than anyone else. They worked for M16. MI6 paid the bill and they worked for it. Karel Zbytek worked for the organization as one of the top officials until it was broken up. That’s in the second book. Zbytek gave information about the organization to communist Czechoslovakia – that’s why he is described as the greatest traitor of all.”

Historians had pieced some of the story together before the latest book. Karel Zbytek made his offer to work for the communist’s in 1956 when he approached their military intelligence officers in London. To boost his credibility, Zbytek is reported to have informed them of a top manager in the state insurance company back in his homeland, Josef Potoček, who was behind a network of British-run spies in Czechoslovakia operated by the CIO.

Josef Potoček,  photo: Security Services Archive
The CIO had offices in around eight European cities as well as outposts in Washington and Beirut. There were around 100 agents working for those offices, around half of whom had Czech or Slovak roots. The offices were tasked with making contacts with Czechoslovaks visiting the West, picking up the latest details on political and economic developments, and also trying to work out if the contacts could be turned into informers or could put the spy masters in touch with other sources back in Czechoslovakia. Working in this way, the intelligence and network rapidly developed and eventually counted around 50 agents back there.

Thanks to the information provided from 1956 by Zbytek, the Czechoslovak network was gradually uncovered and rolled up. Potoček was arrested in July 1956 along with a handful of his close associates. He was eventually tried and sentenced to death along with one of his closest aides in the network. Jail sentenced of up to 15 years were also handed out.

Among the information Zbytek, code named agent Light, is reported to have leaked is the fact that the British had obtained details of the design of the latest Soviet tank, the T-55. They were also informed about Czechoslovak moves to develop nuclear weapons with the aid of the Soviets, and about Czechoslovak military help to Egypt and its leader, Gamal Nasser. Author Olin Jurman continues:

“According to some historians at the Military Intelligence Office he was the biggest traitor our country produced because in England he betrayed the CIO which was working against the Communists here. He betrayed them to the communists.”

“Money was not at all his problem.”

Martin Fišer though believes the “biggest traitor” label is a bit black and white to describe the complex character of Karel Zbytek.

“I’d say that’s blunt. You probably know that there are many sides to every story. I think that the story of Karel Zbytek is very complicated. I suggest readers read it and find out for themselves. You know, who are we to judge anyone. It’s up to everyone to read his story and if they want to judge him they can do it themselves.”

He adds that there was little in Karel Zbytek’s early life and service to suggest the turnaround made in 1956 and decision to shop his espionage co-workers to the communist authorities.

“I don’t think so. All these are just pieces that come into the whole story. I would say that in the end the ultimate decision, which the second book will deal with, is that he just wanted to get back to his home, wanted to get back to his country, or to do something for his country.”

'Double Agent – the secret corridors of espionage',  photo: Brána publishing
Other historians pinpoint Zbytek’s apparent disillusionment with post-war Britain and the fact that the solidarity and collective spirit that he had witnessed during the years of the Second World War had evaporated with a selfish, class conscious, and deeply flawed society emerging to take its place.

Even so, the British apparently went to some lengths to reunite Zbytek with his wife and young child by bringing them over from Czechoslovakia. Olin Jurman:

“His wife had stayed in Czechoslovakia. It was only when Karel Zbytek got a top position in the CIO that MI6 was able to bring her to England together with their four-year-old child.”

The author says the first book dealing with Karel Zbytek has helped to uncover his espionage past going back decades earlier than had previously been imagined.

“No-one knew that Zbytek was an agent until quite recently even though it was years after he died. He was an agent during the first Czechoslovak Republic and on-one knew about that. He worked for the British intelligence service and went to some training schools for British spies before the Second World War. Immediately after the First World War he was in France. In the Second World War he was in our army in Britain and he worked in the intelligence section with General Moravec. After the Second World War he hunted down Nazi war criminals. Then there was the Communist putsch [in 1948]. He has two choices, if he stayed he would be imprisoned or he could flee.”

As for his take on the main motivation for Karel Zbytek’s conversion to the communist cause some have put it down to money and the relatively generous rewards he was given for his information, by the then standards of the relatively stingy Czechoslovak service of the time. Olin Jurman:

“Money was not at all his problem. He still had money from during the Second World War and one of his close friends was in the final analysis the banker to president Edvard Beneš. It was not about money at all or treachery in the strict sense of the word.”

“They never had the slightest suspicion who betrayed them because he was simply that capable.”

Even so, at the start of 1958 sold his London house and bought a pension on the Kent coast in a choice part of the seaside town of Folkestone. Olin Jurman says that in spite of the collapse of their treasured espionage network, the British never got near to fingering Karel Zbytek as the man responsible:

“The British would never have guessed who betrayed them. They never had the slightest suspicion who betrayed them because he was simply that capable and excelled in what he was doing. It was only years after his death in 1970 when some of our Czechoslovaks spies fled after the Prague Spring to the United States that one of them said it was Karel Zbytek who was the traitor, otherwise they would never have known.”

Karel Zbytek died in 1962 at his English seaside retreat.