Secrets recounted of STASI operations in former Czechoslovakia

Photo: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht publishing

It’s probably widely accepted these days that all countries spy on each other, even states on their so-called allies. And a book presented in Prague this week about the former East German secret police, the STASI, shows how it was true of the fraternal Communist countries of the former Eastern bloc, including former Czechoslovakia, as well.

Photo: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht publishing
East Germany’s notorious secret police, the STASI, was one of the biggest and most feared in the Communist bloc. So it was perhaps not surprising that it would want to extend its operations beyond its borders and take in other Communist countries as well so that it could keep an eye on its citizens abroad and on developments in socialist ‘brother ‘ countries as well.

And as German historian Christian Domnitz’s book Cooperation and Control - The work of the STASI in other Socialist countries recounts, former Czechoslovakia was an important and significant outpost for the STASI’s operations.

Domnitz’s former colleague at the STASI records agency Georg Herbstritt explained the circumstances surrounding the expansion into Czechoslovakia:

“Actually in Czechoslovakia, the STASI established an outpost in 1965. The background is that in 1961 the Berlin Wall was constructed, so the inner German border was closed. More and more East Germans tried to find other ways to flee, to escape, to West Germany. So the East Germans tried to look at how it was possible to flee via other countries and that led to the fact that the STASI installed such groups, in Bulgaria in 1962, Hungary in 1964, and Czechoslovakia in 1965.”

Georg Herbstritt,  photo: archive of STASI records agency
The STASI operatives worked in Prague, Karlovy Vary, Bratislava, and even in Slovakia’s High Tatras during the holiday season. The overwhelming aim was to keep an eye on East German citizens where they might meet up with West Germans and to prevent them fleeing to the West. The STASI appeared to believe Czechoslovakia western border was particularly porous and in particular focused on the triangle of spa towns in West Bohemia.

But they also took an interest in internal Czechoslovak matters as well, especially when Prague appeared to be drifting away from what East Berlin believed to be the correct Communist orthodoxy. Given their limited resources, the STASI, often had to call on their peers in the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB, for help. And this was not always happily given. Georg Herbstritt again:

“Generally speaking, I would say that the StB accepted the STASI presence in Czechoslovakia but they didn’t like it really. They caused a lot of trouble, a lot of work, and it did not help the Czechoslovaks really.”

STASI operatives abroad often could not speak the local language and were not necessarily tuned in to the local culture and that was probably another source of resentment.

Towards the end of the 1980’s the STASI in Czechoslovakia turned away from focusing on preventing fellow citizens from escaping across the border and concentrated on counter espionage, but by then there were signs that the regime at home was in deep trouble and that the STASI’s days could be numbered.