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Interview: A behind-the-scenes look at the former Eastern bloc’s secret police

With the fall of the Iron Curtain at the end of 1989 came the collapse of the communist regimes of the Eastern bloc and of their institutions. Among them, the ‘secret’ political police of socialist republics were probably the most well-known, including in the West. East-Germany’s Stasi, Romania’s Securitate, Czechoslovakia’s StB, Poland’s SB or Hungary’s ÁVH have been the subject of many myths and common preconceptions, sometimes reinforced by fiction.

Interview with Emmanuel Droit. Historian, professor at the Institute of Political Sciences of Strasbourg, France, Emmanuel Droit has just published a book that thoroughly examines the issue of the Eastern bloc’s secret police, from 1955 to 1989.

Secret political police were not invented by communism. They already existed, for instance, in a number of previous authoritarian regimes like Tsarist Russia, interwar Central and Eastern European monarchies, Nazi Germany or Italy under fascism. In what way do the communist regimes’ secret police stand out from the ones that came before them?

That’s an excellent question. You’re right to remind that these secret police have a long history and have emerged in the continuity of what we could call “policing”, in the context of the construction and modernization of nation-states that started in the second half of the 19th century. Regardless of their nature – whether democratic or authoritarian – they all sought to maintain their control over their population, including foreigners.

I would argue that the main aspect in which communist secret police stand out from the others is their ability, not merely to enforce a form of surveillance and violence, but primarily to disintegrate social bonds and divide society. By fostering a climate of fear, they make all social and personal relationships difficult, instilling distrust between citizens. This is one of the reasons to explain the stability of communist regimes: they didn’t only rely on the strength of their firepower or the threat of Soviet tanks, but were also based on these police’s ability to nip, in a preventive way, any type of resistance or opposition in the bud.

Your study starts in 1955, rather than 1945. Why is that?

This choice is directly linked to the object of my study. In Central and Eastern European socialist republics, secret police were progressively put in place by the USSR after the end of the Second World War. I chose to begin my study in 1955 because that’s when all the secret police in Central and Eastern Europe started working together in a horizontal way.

I was primarily interested to see how – always under the authority and supervision of the Soviet hegemon – these police got to get to know one another and work together. That’s why 1955 is such an important date: that year was held the first major multilateral conference attended by representatives from all the Eastern bloc’s secret police. Before the death of Stalin, this type of multilateral meetings didn’t exist because the Soviet leader exclusively worked in a bilateral way and refused any type of horizontal ties between its satellite states’ political police.

How were they created, and how were their first members recruited?

All this happened in a very short time between 1946 and, officially, 1950, year of the creation of the Stasi after the founding of the GDR. But an embryonic secret police service already existed as early as 1946. We could say that in around two years’ time, members of the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – managed to put together similar structures in all the Central and Eastern European countries that had fallen under the control of the USSR.

They mostly relied on two types of agents and operatives. Firstly, former members of the communist resistance movements, who had either fought at home or arrived in the footsteps of the Red Army after having spent some time in exile in Moscow and survived the Stalinist purges of the second half of the 1930s. Secondly, the young recruits recruited from the ranks of ordinary police services, often badly trained and with just a basic level of education. All, however, were recruited based on two main criteria: loyalty and ideological reliability.

What role did they play in the communist takeover of Central and Eastern European states from 1947 to 1949?

They played a crucial role by contributing to spread, disseminate and strengthen the threat of ‘the enemy from within’. They were initially created to uncover and hunt the former collaborators or supporters of the fascist regimes. Then, their scope of action was extended to include liberals, democrats; in other words, all those who were considered and labelled as enemies of the people. In that regard, they became a truly bureaucratic terror apparatus meant to silence and smother and kind of opposition or resistance.

Leipzig, um den 17. Juni 1953
Soviet tank in front of the Georgi-Dimitroff Museum in Leipzig during the June 17, 1953 uprising / Source: Bundesarchiv.

Political police also played a prominent role in crushing many uprisings and revolts, like in East Germany in 1953, in Poland and Hungary in 1956…

Yes and no. In Eastern Germany – and that actually caused a deep trauma for generations of GDR secret police members – the Stasi was not able to crack down on the unrest. Its agents didn’t see anything coming and were completely overwhelmed, while its buildings were even attacked by the protesters. The 1953 uprising was only suppressed due to the intervention of the Soviet army.

In Poland, things happened differently. Poland’s political police service was created in 1944 and was, in many aspects, more organized and better equipped. They were therefore able, albeit with the help of the army, to crush the Poznań insurrection of June 1956.

Could we argue that secret communist police constituted a sort of ‘state within a state’?

Rather than a ‘state within a state’, the communist secret police are the extension of the party’s armed branch. Political leaders have always been distrustful of their state’s secret police and were consistently careful to maintain their control over them, including by appointing and placing people they could trust. These police obeyed the demands and followed the instructions of the political leadership. This also explains why strategies were often ill-defined, indecision prevailed or even, in some cases, complete inconsistencies and U-turns in surveillance or repression policies.

Secret police are often associated to the myth of the ‘state within a state’. The same phenomenon applies to Nazi Germany’s secret police, even though in that case – Johan Chapoutot showed it eloquently – the Führerprinzip pushed the security apparatus’ leaders to anticipate Hitler’s orders and agenda. But in the communist regimes, the system was very hierarchic, vertical, top-down. From this point of view, the communist party pretty much maintained control.

Your study covering several decades, some changes and evolution probably occurred. Did the “Detente” between the Western and Eastern blocs in the second half of the 1960s push the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt a more moderate approach to surveillance, control and repression?

Yes, the Detente undeniably did bring about a change. As soon as these communist regimes sought some type of international recognition and attempted to become a part of the international community, they became very eager to improve their image.

We have to remember that, during their first decade of existence, the Eastern bloc’s secret police were created in the aftermath and in the continuity of the Stalinist era and the Second World War. The security and repressive apparatus therefore functioned motivated by a blind, and often arbitrary, violence. In the 1960s, and even more so in the 1970s, mere control was favoured. Yuri Andropov, who became head of the KGB in 1967, described the approach as ‘prophylaxis’, meaning that secret police should focus more on prevention and less on reaction. That’s why they developed, around that time, a whole system of surveillance technology (microphones, cameras, etc.).

hongrie-cec
Members of the Hungarian secret police Államvédelmi Hatóság (ÁVH) in Budapest in April 1949. Source: Fortepan

Given that there are some nuances between the different communist regimes of the former Eastern bloc, could we say that relations between their secret police services also differed?

That’s what really struck me in my research. According to the official position, secret police were all “sister-institutions”. It’s true that they all find their roots in the USSR and that their agents and operatives are supposed to share the same values. But before being communist, these secret police are first part of a specific domestic context. That’s why, for instance, the tensions between Poland and the GDR had a repercussion in the bad relations between their secret police. This widespread mistrust, particularly acute in the years directly following the end of the war, rendered all transnational cooperation difficult and problematic.

What’s most striking is how little the different secret police knew about their counterparts. During multilateral meetings, a lot of time was spent explaining who does what, given that these services were not always strictly similar. There was a whole and lengthy process of intercultural learning to better understand the others. It’s only at the end of the 1970s – including due to the generational change among their members – that these secret police started cooperating and working together in a more efficient way.

Even still, tensions were always there. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and the KGB took center stage in implementing the first economic reforms, the most radical Communists, at the helm of the secret police in Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia for instance, were up in arms and presented themselves as the last guardians of communism. This paved the way for heightened tensions with Moscow at the end of the 1980s.

In your study, you examine the ‘professional ethos’ of these secret police members you describe with the generic term of ‘Chekists’. Does the German movie The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) give a realistic and truthful depiction of these people?

Captain Wiesler, the character of The Lives of Others, does indeed convey a rather truthful image of these ‘Chekists’. The agents of the secret police saw themselves as an elite part of the avant-garde organization that was the communist party. Their professional ethos was largely based on discipline – this military aspect of their professional culture shouldn’t be understated – loyalty, ideological purity, engagement, abnegation and discretion. Furthermore, their view of society remained largely paternalist. They believed they worked for the common and greater good, that they were political educators. American historian Charles S. Maier went so far as to use the term of “social workers” to describe how they saw their role. That’s how we could define the typical transnational ‘Chekist’.

movie-cec
Still from the 2006 award-winning German movie Das Leben der Anderen. Source: Imdb

How did these secret police disappear in the early 1990s?

In the case of the East-German secret police, its disappearance is directly linked to Germany’s reunification process. But in most other cases throughout the Eastern bloc, transformation would be a more appropriate term. There was this prevalent idea that secret political police – we’re coming back to your first question – can survive any regime change since their primary purpose is to defend the state’s interests. But underneath this claim, pretext or ‘trick’, lies the fundamental goal not to dismantle services that sit on such a massive pile of information, nor to lose some much-too-precious agents and operatives.

The secret police were therefore not thoroughly ‘de-communized’ in the 1990s, including in countries like Poland or Hungary where the transition was soft and negotiated. In Poland, the Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak did let non-Communists take over but also took care of destroying the most compromising archives and tried to keep some of its former agents from standing trial. In the end, Central and Eastern European secret police succeeded rather well in finding their place in the new democratic arena by sticking by the rules of constitutional protection.

What remains today of these secret police in Central and Eastern European countries?

What remains is a highly negative memorial culture inscribed in the national identity of these countries. The post-socialist democracies of the region were built on these foundations and went through a process of ideological decolonization, rejection of communism and all its avatars, including the political police. Today, the emphasis is put on the victims while there simultaneously remains the lingering issue of former informants and collaborators. All of this puts the spotlight on how compromised and involved certain parts of society are, an issue very well expressed through literature and cinema. Evidently, Germany is today the most advanced of the former Eastern bloc nations in addressing these issues through the cultural medium.

This article was originally published in French by our partners Le Courrier d’Europe centrale. Interview conducted by Matthieu Boisdron, PhD student at Sorbonne University in Paris, professor at Nantes University and founder of the Codex publishing house.

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