Guidebook lifts lid on little known haunts of the secret police

Photo: Academia Publishing House

Guidebooks are fairly common fare in Prague during the height of the tourism season. But one with a difference which has come out and takes the visitor and local both near the tourist hotspots and off the beaten path. It is in fact a guide to the sites used by the Communist-era secret police in the capital. The author is Prokop Tomek, an historian at the Prague’s Military History Institute and an expert on many aspects of the workings of the former secret police and intelligence service. I asked him first of all where the inspiration for the book first came from.

It is important from an historic point of view to know where history took place.

“It was many years ago when I worked at the Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, which was part of the Czech police. The original intention was very simple because it was very hard to the find the places where communist crimes took place. That was important for the investigations and punishment of these crimes. The buildings where the state security service was active was part of the secret information and access to it was limited. So, the intention was quite simple. I must say that I think it is important from an historic point of view to know where history took place because we are then able to better imagine how such history look and we are better able to understand such history.”

Prokop Tomek, photo: Jana Chládková, Czech Radio
How many buildings did the StB [the communist era secret police] eventually have in Prague and the area?

“It is about 100 buildings. It was difficult to find some huge administrative buildings in Prague so after WWII the StB was forced to use many different small buildings. Sometimes this was better for concealing its operations. There were many buildings and we can see administrative buildings, some places of detention, there were also hidden flats and apartments where secret service officers met with collaborators, their agents. So there are many different kinds of places where the state security service was active.”

Property portfolio

And did they get most of these in 1948 or after the war or did they develop and acquire more buildings as time went on?

Typical street in Prague Bubeneč, photo: Krokodyl, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
“I think most of the buildings were acquired after World War II. It was, we could say, a happy time for the state security service because there were a lot of nice buildings, villas, almost in the diplomatic and residential area, in Prague Bubeneč for example. That was a heritage from the Germans or Jews. These buildings were empty and the state security service could use them.”

And afterwards, was there any particular period where they expanded more or was it quite gradual?

For the intelligence service, which was part of the state security service and was acting abroad, a huge complex was built in the 1970s in Prague 8. But a lot of the space the state security service occupied was in older buildings. For example, not many people know that the most important building for the state security service was the former Masaryk dormitory, it was a student dormitory, in Prague 6 and it was taken by the state security service after WWII. It was the centre of the counter intelligence activities of state security.

In the worst period of state terror, Prague Bubeneč was the centre of the state security service.

And among the buildings were there any surprises that you came across?

“We usually think of the state security service and connect it with Bartholomějská [one of the main police headquarters in Prague] but it was not the most important place for the state security service. After WWII that was Bubeneč. It was a very nice part of Prague. In the 1950s, in the worst period of state terror, Prague Bubeneč was the centre of the state security service. It was there that there was the building of the Ministry of National Security which existed only between 1950 and 1953, the worst time. Now people don’t know where this building was.”

Spy holes

British Embassy, photo: Kristýna Maková, Czech Radio - Radio Prague
Were some buildings selected to spy on certain people…There was one building next door to the British Embassy for example. Was that just by chance or was it there to keep an eye on the diplomats coming and going?

“That is another example of another type of building of the state security service. There were a lot of offices or rooms in the buildings near the embassies, almost in the nicest part of Prague in Malá Strana. And there were cameras, huge network where they were hidden. It is interesting that they were hidden in the public area. They were focused on diplomats and also on Czech citizens who had some connections with foreign diplomats. It was part of the work of the state security service to block all connections between citizens in the country and the West. That is one aspect of the work of the state security service which is very important and which I think people do not now remember.”

Prague Ruzyně prison, photo: Czech Radio - Radio Prague
And are most of the buildings still used by the state in some way or have they gone back into private ownership?

“It depends. If these buildings were taken by the state after WWII then they were given back to the owners. But I think many of the buildings are still used by the state and the police. We are in a very different position to Berlin, for example. In Berlin, the former Stasi [East German secret police] buildings became museums. But Prague Ruzyně prison [where many were interrogated and interned in the 1950s] is still in use until now. So, there are only a few places in Prague where people can go [to the building] and feel the atmosphere. We are at the moment only allowed to be on the outside of these places and try to describe them but we can’t go in and create some place of remembrance.”

The tower (left) of St. Nicholas Church, photo: Kristýna Maková, Czech Radio - Radio Prague
Are you pushing for some kind of building that could act as a museum or place of remembrance or that would reflect the activity that went on there?

“In Prague there is, for example, the tower of St. Nicholas Church, and there was there an observation post of the state security service. This place has been recreated into a small museum by the City of Prague. It was in its original condition. But it is quite rare to find a place that has not changed since the time of the state security service.”

Has your book been quite successful and are you happy that you did it?

Photo: Academia Publishing House
“I am happy that I did it. I had a lot of good reactions from people and I think that this books works as a guide for people. I think this book opened up people’s minds and offered them an opportunity to see Prague in a different way. Since I published this book I found some new information regarding this issue and so I plan to do something new about this topic.”

That might come as an update of the existing guide or as part of a new public in the existing series of books in Czech about various aspects of Prague which have now disappeared.