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Former priest appointed as head of Czech secret police archives

A former Catholic priest has been appointed to lead the Czech Republic's Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, the body that oversees hundreds of thousands of communist secret police files.

A Soviet tank in Prague during the Prague Spring in 1968

The archives deal with the country's communist past

Daniel Herman takes over at a difficult time for the Czech Republic's secret police archive, amid fierce internal disputes over how it should be run. He is now the institute's third director in as many years.

Herman is well-known within the Czech Republic, one of Europe's most secular nations, in which there are few high-profile religious figures. Most Czechs recognize him from his frequent appearances in the media, as spokesman of the Czech Bishops' Conference.

From the priesthood to the archives

Herman is himself a former priest, but asked to be released from the Catholic Church in 2007, citing personal reasons. Although he is not a trained historian, he believes his experience will serve to his advantage in reaching his stated goal of bringing stability to the troubled institution.

"I have a certain amount of experience from my previous positions of building bridges between different groups in society who stand on opposite banks of the river," Herman told Czech Television following his appointment.

Legacy of communism

Herman said he believed the Czech Republic could learn from neighboring countries as to how to deal with the legacy of its four decades of totalitarian communism.

Thousands of protesters are seen crowding at Wasceslas square in down town Prague

Thousands protested against the Soviet invasion

"Look at our neighbors," he said. "Germany for example - they were able to come to terms with a very dark past. I believe that we too are also capable of this."

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes stores and studies hundreds of thousands of files created by communist Czechoslovakia's secret police, the StB, which kept tabs on agents, informers, and targets of surveillance. The 280 million pages of documents are slowly being scanned and made available to the public by the historians and archivists working behind the institute's doors.

Restoring equilibrium to troubled institution

One of Herman's first tasks, however, will be restoring equilibrium to the troubled institution. His predecessor, Jiri Pernes, was dismissed after just six weeks in the post, following accusations of plagiarism in his academic work. Pernes was also criticized by his own employees for failing to disclose on his CV that he had studied Marxist-Leninist theory.

The interim director appointed to run the Institute in his place, meanwhile, was himself nearly fired for making senior personnel changes without a proper mandate.

Caught in the middle

But Herman will not only have to calm troubled internal waters; the Institute has many outside critics as well. Some accuse the body of being too beholden to the right-of-center politicians who created it. Critics on the left say it releases too much information; critics on the right say it doesn't release enough. Others, meanwhile, question the very reliability of information gathered by communist era officials.

Czech youngsters holding Czechoslovakian flags stand atop of an overturned truck

The protesters surrounded Soviet tanks and trucks

"It never fails to amaze me how, twenty years on, there is still this obsession in the Czech Republic with who was or wasn't a secret police collaborator in communist times," said Jan Culik, editor-in-chief of the UK-based Czech news and comment website Britske Listy.

"There's a major problem with many of these files, because often obviously they were created by communist secret police operatives who were not publicly accountable, and they could put in anything. You can't tell whether these files are actually true, so one has to be very, very careful," he added.

Culik has doubts that Herman can bring stability to an organization he describes as "hopelessly politicized." Others, however, believe the former priest has exactly the right temperament to fend off external critics and keep warring factions apart.

Embarrassing leak

Herman will also want to avoid a repeat of embarrassing PR disasters, like the leak earlier this year of the names of several dozen serving intelligence officers. He also says he wants to improve the Insitute's image in the media; he knows well he will certainly have many critics in what is already a tough job.

Author: Rob Cameron
Editor: Matt Hermann

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