Secret Police Unshackling Eastern Europe

<i> Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf)</i>

In the bleak morning-after of the collapse of Soviet rule, the newly freed peoples of Eastern Europe have discovered two bitter lega cies--a poisoned landscape and a poisoned civic society. But while the damage to the environment is dramatic--dying forests and rivers, blackened skies, pockets of birth deformities--it is harder to see the damage done to the social fabric by 40 years of rule by secret police.

Headlines focus on the horror stories: wholesale murders by the Romanian Securitate in December; a new Polish investigation of 100 political murders allegedly committed by the Sluzba Bezieczentswa (SB), the secret police, in the 1980s, and the discovery of secret camps run by the Russians in East Germany, where thousands were buried in common graves in the late 1940s. These atrocities are shocking but not surprising; all know that much worse occurred in the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin’s 30-year rule. It is the damage to society itself that threatens the new governments trying to build democracies in Eastern Europe.

“But I Love You All” is a collection of secret documents from Stasi archives published recently in East Germany. Included is a transcript of a meeting held last Aug. 31, when the minister for state security, 81-year-old Erich Mielke, asked a Stasi colonel from Gera if a revolution was about to break out. “That will not happen,” said the colonel, “it’s for that we exist.” The colonel’s confidence was based on long success with the Stasi’s chief instrument of control, a nationwide network of secret informers. Mielke and the Stasi were swept aside by the revolution in November, but their informers remain, carrying their secret like a virus.

First hints of the magnitude of this problem were revealed in mid-March, when East German political leaders were confronted by charges of informing for the Stasi. Only days before the East German elections that ended communist rule, Wolfgang Schnurr, long a trusted adviser of dissident Protestant church groups, was forced to resign as a leader of Democratic Awakening after a citizens’ group found documents in the local Stasi office proving Schnurr had been an informer. Others have been charged since, including the Christian Democratic leader Lothar de Maiziere, now prime minister, who denies the claim.


But the problem goes far beyond the personal histories of a few leaders. Political observers say the Stasi employed 85,000 full-time police officers, that they kept files on more than a quarter of East Germany’s 17 million citizens, that more than 100,000 served as active informers and as many as 40 of the newly elected deputies--10% of the 400-member chamber--were informers. If these estimates are true, then at least 100,000 East Germans have pasts they desperately want to hide, and as many as 5 million more are wondering what embarrassing material might turn up in their files.

This is a formula for social distrust, a hunting ground for blackmailers and a slow poison that can cripple lives and careers. The danger is not only hypothetical--Stalin was charged with having worked for the czarist secret police, the Okhrana, and allegedly had relevant files destroyed. A similar burden of secret history was left by the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Dramatic cases involving war crimes have been a staple of West German history since 1945, but were relatively few in number. Much more common was the embarrassing discovery of a Nazi past; the reputations of philosopher Martin Heidegger and literary critic Paul de Mann suffered in this manner, like thousands of their fellow citizens--some justly, some not. The intelligence services of East and West have routinely “exposed” officials across the Iron Curtain since the late 1940s, often with fabricated documents. The charge alone can injure, as East Germans are discovering.

Americans, too, have reason to know how destructive a witch hunt can be. During the 1950s, charges by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy triggered wholesale investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which built files on thousands of citizens suspected of disloyalty. In the vast majority of cases, charges came from friends, neighbors and colleagues visited by the FBI. Rumor and innuendo went into the files along with names and dates, and many who talked have been embarrassed since, when their names turned up as “informants"--a term only slightly less pejorative than “informer"--in files declassified and released by the FBI.

During a witch hunt it is so easy to injure a rival--the merest hint will do. But once the witch hunt is over, those who pointed the finger become vulnerable in turn. Nothing looks good in a police file. Among those exposed to awkward questions in recent years have been many distinguished Americans, ranging from the physicist Edward Teller to Ronald Reagan and Henry A. Kissinger. All three insist they said nothing to be ashamed of, but the taint of informer does not depend on what was said, and it is hard to shake.

Dealing with the past is the first great challenge of the new governments of Eastern Europe, and in each case that past prominently includes a pervasive secret police. In Poland, the huge SB has been shrunk by a fifth and the Zomo riot police who used to break up Solidarity demonstrations now handle traffic control. In Romania and Bulgaria, the secret police have been abolished outright--so the new governments say. In East Germany the Stasi were first “reorganized,” then closed down after public demonstrations and a brief occupation of Stasi headquarters in East Berlin.

But it is still far from clear that secret police throughout Eastern Europe have in fact been disarmed, placed in other jobs, or retrained for the very different work of maintaining public order in a democracy. A related problem is the long history of Soviet control of secret-police organizations in Eastern Europe. There were many reports last fall of wholesale removal or destruction of secret police files. In Romania, citizens narrowly prevented entire planeloads of secret documents from leaving the country.

Purging files is a time-honored way of concealing crimes, but KGB liaison officers taking part had other goals. The first was, of course, to conceal details of the decades of secret operations mounted against the West with the aid of Eastern services. A second was to preserve the information necessary to do what retreating armies always attempt: organize stay-behind nets of agents to provide a continuing stream of intelligence. Informers for the defunct intelligence organizations of the East, eager to hide their pasts and subject to blackmail, are an ideal pool of recruits for these stay-behind nets.

Thus, the new democracies face a true intelligence rats’ nest--an unknown but large number of citizens of doubtful allegiance. If the new governments attempt to expose them all, they will unleash a whirlwind of recrimination--but if they elect to bury the past in the interest of social peace, they will invite continued penetration and manipulation by the Soviets. Western intelligence services, meanwhile, will make all sorts of offers for a look at the surviving files, and the Soviets will be furious if the new governments agree. The recent arrest in West Germany of four agents for the Stasi and the KGB suggests some traffic in secrets has begun.

It sometimes seems that the long Marxist-Leninst experiment, which began in Russia in 1917, has only one genuine social invention to its credit--a police-based system for maintaining control at home and conducting secret political warfare abroad. The Okhrana only hinted at what was to come: Nothing the czars did matched the rigors of Stalinism. In these two fields Lenin’s heirs are unsurpassed. The communist regimes of East Europe were not overthrown by organized enemies within, or forced to capitulate by enemies without. Everything police can do, as the colonel from Gera implied, the police did. The end came as it always does, when desire for change finally overwhelmed fear of the police.

Still to be answered is the question whether 40 years of police control has permanently corrupted society itself. Modeled after the “Chekists” of the Soviet Union, the secret police organizations of Eastern Europe were well-paid, shopped in special stores, went to the head of the queue for apartments and, in return, enforced a profound social silence. Doctors who protested industrial pollution, believers who preached outside the sanctioned churches, professors who ignored Marxism-Leninism in the classroom, citizens who pointed out official corruption, factory workers who grumbled about unsafe working conditions--all felt the heavy hand of the police.

Thus a kind of bond between police and citizen was forged: the police learned to be cynical, the citizen learned to keep quiet, and, for both, social optimism--hope, call it what you will--was a bitter joke. It is too soon to tell what 40 years of this can do to the soul of a people.