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Communist-Era Spy Files Made Public in the Czech Republic

Nearly two decades after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, the government has opened an archive on the country's secret police. Historians have criticized the decision.

Scraps of documents

Many documents were destroyed or altered

The Czechoslovak State Security (StB) files contain the names of 10,000 people that were of interest to the feared secret police. The files, along with the names they contain, were recently made available on the Internet by the Prague Archive of Czech Security Agencies.

The Czech Republic is the only Eastern European country to systematically make public information about the former secret police. There is no English-language version of the Web site or the files.

The list is only the start. Approximately 19 kilometers (12 miles) of files pertaining to the country's secret police have been made public. The files contain both the names of spies as well as those of their victims.

Whether to make the StB files public has been a sensitive issue in the Czech Republic for years.

Files have long proved controversial

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel opposed making the documents public

Since communism ended 19 years ago and the StB was shut down, there have been various efforts to shed light on this dark part of Czechoslovakia's history.

In 1990, President Vaclav Havel enacted a law that prohibited former party big shots and spies from becoming civil servants. But Havel refrained from making secret police files public, as he worried that doing so would pose a risk to peace in the young democracy.

In 1992, a former regime critic illegally published a list of former "unofficial employees" of the secret police. Besides causing a media and political storm, the scandal launched a long-running debate about whether to open up the files.

Since 1996, citizens have been allowed to see files that pertain directly to them, but the largest portion of the files remained closed. In 2002 the parliament decided to make all documents public.

Some files were altered

Logo of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

The institute's decision has been controversial

But the push didn't really begin until last year under the conservative government of Mirek Topolanek. It was then that the administration of the files was transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. The institute is in turn affiliated with the state security archive. Since last year, the public has had access to nearly all of the files.

Christiane Brenner of Collegium Carolinum, a Munich research center focused on Bohemia, told DW-WORLD.DE that she finds the decision to be extremely problematic. As the communist regime was falling and in the time immediately thereafter, former secret police altered and destroyed documents, Brenner said.

“That means that it's impossible to know even today how complete this document collection is and you also don't know about the truthfulness of its content,” the historian said.

A treasure trove?

Stack of files

Researchers are skeptical that the files will prove useful

Ivo Bock of the Research Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen is also skeptical. Historians are against the decision not because they oppose making the documents public per se, but because they question the significance of the documents.

“They believe that one should not consider them the authoritative or authentic interpretation of the communist era,” he said.

He said he thinks there is little public interest in the files nearly two decades after the end of communism.

Yet the Czech Republic has gone about exploring its communist past more intensively than many of its neighbors.

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