How Czech intelligence abducted Czech and Slovak émigrés in the first years of the Cold War

Much has been written about crimes committed against Czechs and Slovaks by Czechoslovakia's Communist regime, which held power in the country for forty-one years. But chilling revelations continue to come to light, even today: recently the Czech press highlighted the role of the communist secret police, the StB, in the abductions (some well known, others less so) of around twenty Czechs and Slovak émigrés in the first years of the Cold War - individuals the regime perceived as a threat. StB officers, though not always successful, resorted to any means possible to achieve their goals and were without the slightest of scruples, says Prokop Tomek, a historian at the Interior Ministry.

"The KGB (formerly the NKVD) were an obvious role model for the Czech secret police and the early years of communism in Czechoslovakia were among the most brutal, targeting individuals at home but also abroad, individuals the regime saw as enemies. Two areas were more prone to see kidnapping operations: namely the zone separating East and West Berlin, and a less-than-sovereign Austria, which had a Soviet presence until 1955. That well served the StB's needs."

According to Prokop Tomek, most Czech and Slovak émigrés abroad recognised the risk but some, including former Social Democratic Party leader Bohumil Lausman - underestimated the StB's audacity and reach. The former Social Democratic Party leader who had stayed on as deputy prime minister following the fateful communist takeover before finally fleeing, was abducted in 1953.

Prokop Tomek,  photo: CTK
"Many émigrés put distance between themselves and Czechoslovakia but not everyone was fully aware of the danger. Bohumil Lausman is probably the most publicised example: he lived practically alone in Salzburg and was an easy target. His and other cases proved that being abroad did not guarantee safety.

Lausman's was a classic kidnapping like you'd see on TV or in the movies: they quietly slipped drugs into his drink and he was bundled into a diplomatic car and taken through Vienna and then onto communist Czechoslovakia. Diplomatic immunity was of course abused."

Once in Czechoslovakia, abducted émigrés like Mr Lausman were subjected to interrogation including the threat of psychological or physical torture. Many tried to save themselves by making public statements in favour of the regime. Bohumil Lausman's apparent reversal, Time magazine noted on May 31, 1954, was "proudly reported by Radio Prague" - then a source of propaganda for the regime. To this day Czech Radio has archive material from a press conference for domestic and international correspondents at which Mr Lausman spoke: the date was May 15th, 1954:

Bohumil Lausman,  photo: CTK
"As the chairman of this press conference said, I crossed the state border truly of my own free will on the 25th of December [1953] and gave myself up willingly to the Czechoslovak authorities. I will not now return to the subject. I do want to say I am thankful that my request to speak at this press conference was granted so that I could say something, at least something, about why I chose to return home willingly.

"Four years in emigration in Western Europe were, I must admit, real spiritual suffering but also political revelation. I was able to see American plans up close, and saw they would lead to new suffering and horrors for our people. That was the reason why I decided to leave Austria, where I spent the last year, and return. I did so despite a guilty conscience for heavy crimes committed against the Czechoslovak People's Democracy, both before my emigration and while I was abroad. But, in the end, in my case, a belief in justice and in forgiveness triumphed."

Even such words of "regret" and "atonement" weren't enough: Lausman received a lengthy prison sentence and was never freed again: he died behind bars under mysterious circumstances in 1963. Prokop Tomek at the Czech Interior Ministry explains all twenty or so abductees in Czechoslovakia suffered similar fates.

"The first thing abductees faced was tough interrogation, with the StB aiming to learn not only about their activities but activities of associates abroad and some were used for propaganda purposes, public statements in which they said, for example, that they had returned willingly. That helped further strengthen the image of the regime; the people did it in the hope of saving themselves. It didn't work. All were jailed. Some died in prison, while others survived to be let out many years later. Their punishment was severe. Those who later made it out of jail never again left Czechoslovakia."

The last known successful abduction took place in the 1960s, after which any similar such operations - including a decidedly "far-fetched" plan to nab renowned anti-communist Pavel Tigrid in France were dropped. They would have been far too risky. Prokop Tomek again:

"The StB always showed initiative but of course any such operations needed to be approved from the very top echelons of the Communist Party. In later years such plots became far less tenable and would never have gotten approval from Moscow. Any such operation would be incredibly risky: an abduction would be a slap in the face of the Helsinki Accords. Revealed, such an operation could threaten the delicate balance of relations.

"That was the case with Pavel Tigrid. Imagine if he had been abducted to Czechoslovakia in the mid-1970s: that couldn't have happened. Even if the West would not risk direct confrontation, it would be impossible to take something like this lightly. Such gangster-like methods could not be tolerated. That doesn't mean the StB didn't want to act, but even they knew such proposals couldn't be approved."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
In the end, says Prokop Tomek, the Czech Republic today still needs to come to terms with its totalitarian past. Long-forgotten materials are still being uncovered and it's a never-ending process. Says Mr Tomek, the worst thing in his view is that those kidnapped by the regime or their families never saw justice for broken lives. There's no ambiguity about how he and others view Communist Czechoslovakia and its operatives in the StB.

"What can one say? It was a terrible period. We have all kinds of examples of atrocity in history but I think that the Communist government in Czechoslovakia is comparable to other governments of terror. The worst part is that such things happened and the victims never saw any kind of justice. The thing that terrifies me most about the StB was their absolute disdain for promises, for the law, for any kind of proper behavior. They cut out any kind of human element and saw people just as 'problems' that needed sorting out."