The Světlana case: partisan fighters, agent provocateurs, and the Third Resistance in Czechoslovakia

'The Světlana case', photo: archive of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

The short-lived secret organisation Světlana formed in 1948 grew to become the largest anti-Communist group in Czechoslovakia, boasting several hundred members at its peak, operating in more than a dozen cells, mainly in Moravia. That’s one version of events. Many long believed that Světlana was not only infiltrated by the State Security force, or StB, but was in fact a creation of it – part of operations to ensnare “counter-revolutionaries”, those sympathetic to what is now known as the Third Resistance movement. Other questions remain as to whether it was an inherently violent group, or provoked into action for propaganda purposes.

'The Světlana case',  photo: archive of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
A new exhibition in Prague looks at the tangled history not only of the controversial anti-Communist resistance group Světlana active in the late 1940s but also of the battle for control of historical memory, where issues are rarely black and white.

Called “The Světlana case”, the exhibition was prepared by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (or ÚSTR) in cooperation with the Archive of the Security Services and the Czech National Museum, after sorting through more than 10,000 texts – from official reports and documents, to letters and transcripts of interviews by surviving members or their descendants.

Ahead of the exhibition’s opening to the public, I spoke to ÚSTR deputy director Ondřej Matějka. I began by asking him how long it had taken to put it all together, and what questions – if any – had been finally put to rest.

“It was about two years during which my colleagues did their research. The issue is that while of course there are many facts about this case were well known, there are also many questions. For example, on the interference of State Security (StB) in the organisation, where there are some opinions that the whole organisation was mostly something like a provocation of state security, which colleagues of mine have proved does not seem to be true.”

Just to clarify, meaning that it had been thought that the secret police – the StB – had actually started the organisation?

“Not started, but in the way the state security tried to fight the opposition by provoking violent actions. It’s not only the case of ‘Světlana’, also in other cases. Many of these groups of course were not keen on taking violent action – shooting communists or something like that. Because the situation after 1948 wasn’t a war situation, it was that of a more or less stable country …”

“But for the State Security, it was very good if they could make somebody to take some kind of violent action because then you could via propaganda portray these groups as terrorists, that they are very violent, and so on.”

“The use of violence was of course a very tricky point, actually, in this whole resistance movement. That’s why we do not necessarily finally learn which actions were provoked by the state security and which actions were somehow ‘authentic’ or somehow really coming from the movement or the group itself.”

Ex-Partisans v ex-partisans

'The Světlana case',  photo: archive of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
Světlana’s founders certainly were no strangers to violence. Most were former partisans – leftist guerrillas who had taken up arms against the occupying German army during WWII. So too were the main officers from the StB secret police who would go on to infiltrate and bring down the group.

But while both had fought for and believed in the cause of “building socialism” and an eventual communist utopia, the true members of the anti-communist resistance group had grown bitterly disappointed by the Stalinist government that took power in post-war Czechoslovakia – not least in how they themselves were treated with suspicion, rather than being honoured for fighting the fascists.

In fact, the short-lived group’s immediate aim was to build the organisation by recruiting new members and forming new cells, though there was a long-term belief that eventual armed conflict could prove necessary. There is compelling evidence that Světlana’s members stockpiled weapons and ammunition, and in exceptional cases, planned armed actions. They also helped anti-communists on the run.

Mainly, though, Světlana published leaflets outlining what its members saw as the failings – and crimes – of the communist regime, says Ondřej Matějka.

“There were some shootings with State Security, but it was not the intention of the Světlana group itself to shoot at communists. The mostly started with producing leaflets, an informational campaign about the crimes of communism, and so on. An interesting point is the core of the group were former partisans, meaning those who fought in the Second World War against the Germans in the woods and so on.

“And these former partisans, even though they were ex-soldiers, their intent wasn’t to start fighting with guns. They wanted to fight with ideas – explaining the communist crimes and so on. The shootings that did occur were the result of attempts by State Security to capture members of the group [such as] while trying to cross the border, and trying to arrest them.”

Josef Vávra-Stařík: anti-communist partisan or double agent?

Josef Vávra-Stařík,  photo: Lenka Plenka,  CC BY-SA 4.0
The group’s main founder, Josef Vávra, known as Stařík, was born in the Moravian city of Zlín. There is some question as to whether he had “infiltrated” fascist groups in the early days of the German occupation or had joined them in earnest and only later switched sides, and, regardless, whether he had exaggerated his role in the resistance later on in the war. But under threat of arrest by the Gestapo, Stařík did flee to Slovakia, where he later took part in the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazi puppet state.

Whatever his record during the war, Vávra-Stařík did later form a group in Zlín to help former Czechoslovak partisans, called Partokol, and then in September 1948 the anti-communist organisation Světlana – which he named after his own daughter – while living in exile in Germany, shortly after the communist coup, and later in France.

He was eventually kidnapped by the State Security and taken to Prague, in October 1949, where he was brutally tortured, accused of collaborating with the Gestapo, and of murdering Augustin Schramm, an ethnic German communist and agent of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

“Vávra-Stařík was actually one of the leaders of one of the partisan groups in the mountains in eastern Moravia, which was one of the regions where the partisan movement was very strong. And after the war – as a communist, as a leftist, definitely – he wasn’t satisfied with the political situation. Firstly, he wasn’t satisfied with the role the resistance fighters had after the war. They were frustrated that even though they had fought against the Germans really hard – because the resistance was not very strong in the Czech lands, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – and were real fighters, they should have been awarded, but…

They were rather not trusted…

“They were not trusted, exactly. And an organisation of the ex-partisans was created with its centre in Prague, and these people from the outer regions weren’t accepted. That was the start of the frustration. And then after 1948, after the coup d’état of the communist party – ‘Victorious February’ – he saw many, many problems in the way that the communists in Czechoslovakia ruled. Vávra-Stařík wanted to remain a communist, but was an admirer of Tito’s Yugoslavia, their way of communism, of ex-partisans, especially – who were very strong. Theirs was definitely a communist way but not serving the Soviets. That’s why he took action and started to organise this group.”

Eventually, Vávra-Stařík was executed by the communists, in August 1953, although he never “confessed” to the murder of Augustin Schramm, and even though the StB did not recommend such a harsh sentence. Yet questions persist, at least in the popular imagination, as to which side of the ideological struggles – both before and after the war – Vávra-Stařík and his comrades were really on.

“The Světlana case: The transformation of the image of the Third Resistance” exhibition will be installed at the National Memorial atop Vítkov hill in Prague’s Žižkov district until 1 April 2019.

The picture is further muddied because apart from fabricating evidence, and putting out disinformation, in some cases the Security Service also ruthlessly sacrificed their own agents so as not to blow their cover or in order to advance some particular narrative of events.

Is it clear how early on this group was infiltrated by the StB agents or sympathisers?

“That’s one of the things that’s not definitively clear. It was very early. But the leaders of the group weren’t StB agents – they of course somehow tried [to infiltrate the group], but the Světlana leaders were authentic leaders. Of course some members of the group were connected to the State Security, but not the leaders. You know, their fate was a very harsh one. Vávra-Stařík managed to leave the country, but he was kidnapped and brought back to Czechoslovakia, and then executed. He was hanged.”

“The reaction of the regime was very brutal. Over 400 people were arrested; I think 25 were given life-long sentences; and there were some 18 executions. And you have to take into account that this was in one region, actually [Moravia]. It was not in the whole country, and many were somehow related, from the same family.”

‘Victorious February’: the Communist Coup

‘Victorious February’,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Newsreel: “Subversion is, of course, an important technique of communist conquest. Czechoslovakia in 1948 is an established democracy in Eastern Europe. Suddenly, a rash of strikes. Conservative elements are forced to resign from the Cabinet. Communist deputies pound their desks. As the street demonstrations reach riot proportions, police brutality in putting down the riots is charged. And the Communists take over the police. On February 25th, informed that the alternative is civil war and aware of unmistakable threats of invasion by the Soviet Union if he does not capitulate, President Beneš accepts a Communist cabinet.”

What is clear is that the first arrests came as Světlana was preparing a leaflet to be published on the anniversary of the “Victorious February” communist coup. And by the summer of 1949, most members of Světlana were in custody, its activities crippled, and before the Stalinist era was over, dozens of members of the Third Resistance were put to death, often in show trials.

“The Světlana case” exhibition must be seen in that wider context, says Ondřej Matějka, as the issues and questions it raises still resonate.

“The Third Resistance is really one of the key issues of our politics of memory, for the present-day Czech Republic. Remembering people who were fighting against the communist regime is very important; to know that not everybody was somehow just resigned to it. But also it’s very interesting to make it in a critical way; to be open to all the questions raised.”

“For example, the leaders of this group were communists, actually. They were communists fighting communists. And it’s important to know that it was not always some right-wing activists. Or this infiltration by the state security – it’s the time to face this question openly and to be aware of the risks that they were some actions that were provoked by the state security.”

“On the other hand, it’s also important to remember how brutal the reaction of the communist regime was; how violent it was. There was no questioning, actually, only very harsh repression of these people. And we have to learn what a dictatorship is capable of doing – as a modern democracy, we need to remember that in order to strengthen our democracy today.”