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Former dissident's database opens old wounds in Czech Republic

Like most post-communist states, the Czech Republic has a special office to archive and make available documents gathered by the secret police. But one man's attempt to speed up the process is ruffling feathers.

Demonstration in Wenceslas Square, November 27, 1989

The Velvet Revolution ended communism in Czechoslovakia

Communist Czechoslovakia relied on a web of security services to crush all opposition to socialism, and chief among them was the hated secret police, the Statni Bezpecnost or StB.

The StB, like any spy agency, kept hundreds of thousands of files on agents, informers, and targets of surveillance. Today, they're stored at the archives of the state-funded Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague. The archives are open to the public, although you have to know roughly what you're looking for before they'll let you in. After all, as Institute spokesman Jiri Reichl says, the archives are home to some 280 million pages of material stretching 20 kilometers (12 miles).

The material is now being digitally scanned - a laborious process that will take decades to complete. Eventually, it will allow the Institute to put all the secret police files on the Internet. At present, however, researchers and curious members of the public have to visit the Institute in person to see the contents of their file, or indeed any other file, as the law now allows anyone to view documents on any person. But for some, that new transparency is not enough.

Former dissident posts database

Stasi archive in Berlin

Just like the GDR archive, documents in the Czech archive would stretch over many kilometers

Stanislav Penc is a former dissident who lives in seclusion on a goat farm 80 kilometers outside Prague. He's on a one-man mission to break what he calls the Institute's monopoly on the past. In the late 1980s, the StB started building a computerized database to keep track of its files. Penc says he received a copy of the database by e-mail from Jan Langos, the first director of the equivalent institute in Slovakia, before his death in 2005. Penc says he twice asked the Institute to put the database online as a research tool to help people find the files they were looking for. The Institute refused. So early in July, he did it himself.

"So far, my website has been accessed by 400,000 people," Penc told Deutsche Welle. "In the first few days, I was bombarded with e-mails and phone calls from people who said they had no idea the secret police had a file on them until they checked my site.”

Penc's website is straightforward and user-friendly. Enter a name in the database, and the system gives you a list of all the StB files on that person. You can't view the file's contents, but armed with a reference number, you can go to the archives and request to see it.

"There are a lot of politicians - and also a lot of historians working at the Institute - who like to claim that, 20 years after the revolution, only a small minority of Czechs are actually interested in the history of the communist period," Penc says. "I think 400,000 people are enough to prove them wrong."

Database contains mistakes, agency says

The Institute doesn't question the authenticity of the database. But it does question its reliability, which is why it's refused to put it online. The database was compiled by StB employees, some of whom were brought out of retirement to carry out the laborious task of copying the existing paper reference system onto rudimentary 1980s computers. Those workers, says the Institute, made a lot of mistakes. But most importantly, what the database doesn't tell you is whether the person was an agent, an informer, or simply someone of interest to the StB. And that, says the body's director Pavel Zacek, is causing a great deal of confusion.

"Some people don't know what it means when they see that there is information about them, so that's a problem," Zacek says. "(Penc) published everything - even information about the activities of the Czechoslovak security services after 1990. He published information about foreigners, which we cannot by law publish. But he did it, and it's a problem, not for us, but for him."

Czech society has undergone a huge transformation in the past two decades, and most people today have far more mundane concerns. But the row over Stanislav Penc and his amateur StB database has reopened a lot of old wounds. It has proved, perhaps, that in a former totalitarian country, the past is never very far behind.

Author: Rob Cameron, Prague (dc)
Editor: Rob Turner

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