Human Security Law Center Hosts Panel about Collaborators in Communist Czechoslovakia

  • On Collaborators
    On Collaborators  During their visit to the Human Security Law Center, Professors Barbora Holá and Mark Drumbl explored processes of informing to authorities in repressive times and considered what transitional justice should do, if anything, with informers after repression ends.  Photo by David F. Morrill
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On Thursday September 23, William & Mary Law School's Human Security Law Center welcomed Professors Mark Drumbl and Barbora Holá to discuss their upcoming book project about the collaborators that spied for the Státni Bezpečnost (StB)–the secret Czechoslovak state police in force during Czechoslovakia’s Communist era.

Mark Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law, where he also serves as Director of the University’s Transnational Law Institute, and Barbora Holá is a Senior Researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR) and Associate Professor at the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Drumbl opened the event by highlighting the significance of informers, otherwise known as collaborators or spies­–those individuals who supported their governments by informing on others in their society.  He explained that “atrocities can never metastasize, and authoritarianism can never normalize” without ordinary individuals to bolster the stitch of a state’s framework.

Drumbl and Holá’s case-study derives from StB’s records archives, which was opened to the public after Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime fell in 1989 after nearly forty (40) years of authoritarian rule.  Public access to these records provided a unique opportunity for Drumbl and Holá not only to explore the dossiers maintained by the state in surveilling and terrorizing its citizens but also to learn about daily life in Communist-era society.  The  records included intimate details of those who were spied on as well as those whom the StB relied on to spy.  Drumbl and Holá also benefited significantly from Holá’s Czech heritage, linguistic skills, and sociocultural understanding of Communist Czechoslovakia and post-Communist Czech society.

Drumbl explained that their research sought to address and analyze two significant questions: First, why do people snitch on others to an authoritarian regime?  Second, how do the notions and processes surrounding transitional justice implicate these informers after the authoritarian regime ends and a democratic one takes its place?

To answer these questions, Drumbl and Holá read through these records with an emotive lens–perceiving that the act of informing is one of social navigation. In fact, one in 100 people living in Czechoslovakia during the Communist-era collaborated with the StB. Through their review of the StB records, Drumbl and Holá saw that almost all of the informers were described as doing so because of his or her patriotic duty to the government. Yet, Drumbl and Holá encountered individual narratives that revealed varying and less idealistic motivations driving informers’ cooperation with the StB–motivations that had little to do with an ideological loyalty to the Communist regime.

Holá told the stories of four informers, each of which highlighted four major emotional themes that she and Drumbl identified in their qualitative analysis of the StB files: fear, desire, resentment, and devotion.

  • Fear
    The Communist regime often targeted the Church, and many religious figures were prosecuted as enemies of the state.  Fear motivated one informer who was blackmailed by the StB for ten years for his involvement as a pastor in the Church before he agreed to spy for them.  Once he did, he gained many benefits for his collaboration with the StB.
  • Desire
    Eva came from a wealthy family, but when the Communist regime came into power, her father was arrested and sent to a labor camp.  He escaped and illegally immigrated to the West–which branded Eva as the daughter of a traitor.  In order to improve her reputation with the government, and to obtain benefits for herself, Eva began to inform on others–including her father and other members of her family.
  • Resentment
    Some individuals sought to use their position to get even.  An individual by the name of Jirina seized the opportunity to get rid of his adversaries by informing on them to the StB.
  • Devotion
    A small number of records demonstrated that ideology drove some informers’ motivations, though not necessarily Communist ideology.  One man’s passion for the environment and his concern over toxic waste leakages guided his cooperation with the StB.

Drumbl and Holá highlighted these four stories to expose the “many shades of motivation” that drove individuals in Communist Czechoslovakia to collaborate with the StB and, more fundamentally, the act of informing as an intrinsic human behavior. However, the transitional justice that followed the fall of the Communist regime after the 1989 Velvet Revolution characterized informants in the same way that the StB sought to describe them–individuals dedicated to Marxist ideology. 

The digitization and publication of the StB records have had some painful consequences.  Informers and victims alike were exposed, and post-Communist Czech society became obsessed with who informed on who.  Lustration barred many from public service in the new Czech Republic, and even today, many Czech citizens refuse to discuss their experiences during the Communist era openly, if at all.

Through these narratives, Drumbl and Holá demonstrate how misleading these one-dimensional assumptions of motivation are, sparking a critique of traditional notions of transitional justice. Such a gap in understanding informers’ motivations provokes a question about the type of accountability that should be pursued.

Drumbl and Holá left the audience with a lingering thought: why are we hesitant to become a subject in transitional justice and accountability? If informing is central to the human condition and little to do with ideology–what then is the transition? What should or could the law do?

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