The lives of others. From the archives of the Polish and Czech secret police. © Presseurop

In the shadow of the archives

In the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, information from communist era secret police archives continues to spark controversy. Should public figures be investigated? Or is it time to forget? Different attitudes in individual countries were determined during the transition to democracy.

Published on 9 July 2009 at 15:13
The lives of others. From the archives of the Polish and Czech secret police. © Presseurop

People were shocked to find the names of dissidents and informers on the same list. Four years later, Andrzej Jagodzinski is still bitter about what happened: "That list was bullshit. When the communists were in control, I was involved in the Solidarity opposition movement — and then, from one day to the next, everyone in Poland was wondering if I had been an agent for the secret police." In 2005, the 160,000 names posted on the Internet prompted panic in Poland. Millions of people visited the website where they were published — but came away none the wiser, because the list, which had been copied from the communist secret police database, drew no distinction between collaborators and opponents of the regime. It did not even give dates of birth. Like thousands of other Polish people who had seen their names on the Internet, Jagodzinski wrote to the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the source of the leaked document, to ask why his name had been included. Nine months later, he received an official letter to the effect that he had been placed under surveillance as a 'hostile individual.’

The snippet of bureaucratic jargon from the IPN was just one drop in a wave of the emotion that swept across Poland. The 'Wildstein list,’ named after the journalist who was the first to distribute it, Bronisław Wildstein, has remained controversial ever since. Wildstein, a former dissident and emigrant, is one of the most determined opponents of the view that Poland should draw ‘a thick line’ under its totalitarian past, and refrain from lustration - the vetting of public figures. In leaking the data from the IPN, he appears to have achieved his objective. The information from the archives was a 'blast from the past' that rocked Poland's fragile 'social peace' — and the spectre of the communist regime, whose reign of terror resulted in the moral destruction of millions lives, returned to haunt the country. To this day, no one knows the full extent of the horrors that may be lurking in the archives, or "who" might seek to use them, and "against whom" they might be used.

A fraught process in Hungary and Poland

Why do approaches to the past in Central Europe vary so much from one country to another? And in particular, why have Hungary and Poland (the first two countries to adopt democratic regimes) been so slow to confront the painful issue of state terror? In his remarkable master's thesis, Tomáš Bezák, a Slovak political science student, drew the following conclusion: in the countries where the communists played an active role in the transition to democracy, confrontation with the issue of past oppression came much later. It is a view that is also expressed by Czech born political analyst Jacques Rupnik in his latest book, "Une democratie trop vite fatiguée" (A democracy jaded all too soon): "In countries like the Czech Republic and East Germany, where communist power appeared to be unassailable, there were no discussions and the regimes fell within a few days. So there was no reason to make any promises to the communists." Circumstances were different in Poland and Hungary. It made sense to make a deal, but there was a price that had to be paid — a promise to put lustration operations on hold, and allow major figures from the communist regime access to senior positions in the subsequent democratic administration.

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Today, the institution that has been delegated to investigate Hungary's communist past, the 'Kenedi Commission’, named after its director, sociologist and former dissident János Kenedi, is still struggling to achieve its main objectives: the publication of a list of former officers and agents of the communist secret police, and the opening of secret police archives to the public. As Kenedi explains, "The Ministry of the Interior has refused us access to part of the archives, on the basis that it would compromise the interests of the current secret service." Worse still, no one knows how many files have already been destroyed. Kenedi is convinced that vast numbers of documents were pulped in the period between 1989 and 1995. Twenty years after the end of the communist regime, it seems that in Hungary — unlike Poland — the political elite remains unwilling to open secret police archives to the public — and this is consistent with a significant level of political continuity, before and after 1989.

Czech Republic and Hungary doing better

In 2001, when the Slovak parliament voted to establish the Nation's Memory Institute (UPN) and appoint Ján Langoš - an MP who had worked on the bill to set up the institution - as its director, Slovakia's politicians were not aware of the full import of their decision. Over the next two years, the UPN revealed a vast quantity of information, including the registry of StB (Czechoslovakian secret police files) via its website, which was often unable to cope with the sheer volume of visits from Slovak Internet users. Compared to other countries in Central Europe, Slovakia's management of the issue of communist oppression has largely been successful. Ján Langoš' determination combined with a real will to come to terms with the past and undertake the painful process of lustration has led to the establishment of a political class that is no longer suspected of associations with communist spies and agencies, and questions about the period of oppression are no longer viewed as a threat to the stability of Slovak governments.

In comparison to its neighbours, the Czech Republic has also made significant progress. in recent years, public debate on the initiatives of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) has become more relevant, in as much as the question of what should be revealed has largely been settled. The emergent consensus among historians, politicians and the media is that the disclosure of information from the secret police files of the old regime should be discussed in the context of our ability to interpret and explain such information.

Little by little, debate about the Czech Republic's history has moved from political arena towards the more appropriate context of historical research. In the research centre in Prague, anyone can access secret police files, and identify informers who collaborated with secret police and provided reports on specific individuals. The process of research can still be frustrating — and this is why critics of the UTSR often refer to it as "the George Orwell Institute" — however, the frustration is not caused by a denial of access to data, but by the fact that the information in charge sheets is often not enough for a true understanding of what happened in a given case. It appears that it will take some time for the institute's community of researchers, which is mainly focusing on events in 1968 and 1989, to establish a definitive history of the final years of communism. However, in the short time it has been in operation, the UTSR has made a number of important breakthroughs.

Czech Republic

Yet another list revealed on the web

In the Czech Republic, which was the first country in Central Europe to provide public access to state security service archives, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has a new competitor. On 6 July, Lidové Noviny led with the headline, "New list posted on the Internet," and reported that several thousand names had been made available by former dissident Stanislav Penc. Penc is critical of the state-run Institute, which he believes, "monopolizes the interpretation of history, and only releases data on cases it is sure will not upset a majority of the the population."

In response to this latest development, Pavel Žáček, the director of the Prague-based Institute, which employs 273 employees to interpret 20 kilometres of documents, claimed that Penc was "kicking down doors that were already open." The new database is different to the Cibulka list of "citizens with various ties to the secret police," which was largely contested when it was published in 1992. Lidové Noviny explains that the latest list will allow people to check it they were targeted by police surveillance. However, the daily also warns that information available on the Internet may not be enough to distinguish between enemies and opponents of the communist regime. The Institute which has the original 'paper registers' will still be better able to vet individual names than the Stanislav Penc website.

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