Security Empire: The Secret Police in Communist Eastern Europe, by Molly Pucci, Yale University Press, 696 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1408853986
“Satan has roused his followers to a frenzy of hatred, and has marshalled his battalions for a mass attack upon our Christian faith.” The archbishop of Armagh, John D’Alton, made this warlike announcement in 1949 in the wake of the trial of the Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty and the formation of NATO. Given that the church in Eastern Europe faced “savage persecution”, in D’Alton’s words, every Catholic, he stated, should be “a crusader” in the ideological war with the Stalin-led Soviet bloc. Quoting Christ as saying “he who is not with me is against me”, Ireland’s most senior cleric warned that Ireland could not be neutral in the Cold War as the NATO alliance emerged: this was “not a time for colourless neutrality”. Nobody should stand aside. On this, at least, Stalin’s followers, long hostile to the church, could agree.
For his part, Ivan Serov “did not stand to the side”. On the contrary, his biographer recorded, he charged “full steam ahead into the search for enemies”. The enemies in question, ten years before Mindszenty’s trial, were Serov’s former colleagues in the upper echelons of the Soviet secret service. One of many apparatchiks in the state apparatus recruited to fill the gaps created by Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s, Serov directed another campaign for the Soviet Union after the Second World War, this time in the Baltic states, eastern Germany and Poland. As the chief NKVD adviser to its equivalent service in Poland, Serov’s most serious enemy was the former Polish resistance, the military wing of the London-based government-in-exile, the Home Army.
The challenge facing the Soviet and Polish communists at the end of the Second World War resembled that facing the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s: winning over or ensuring the co-operation of a widely dispersed population, mostly of peasant origin, in a country with a poorly known communist movement that had been based in urban areas. To fight Serov’s war, the secret police in Poland, unlike those in eastern Germany or Czechoslovakia, were organised on military lines; the first Polish secret police units were housed in barracks, sometimes alongside militia or Red Army units. One of Serov’s colleagues, a Pole, found a new military role in joining the secret police from the communist resistance. According to a personnel file, “General Moczar achieved much success in liberating the homeland as a member of the [partisans]. After liberation,” the file continued, “he led a number of campaigns in the war against the reactionary underground …”
With Poland, in Molly Pucci’s argument, “it is not possible to draw a clear line between the Second World War and the peace that followed. A profound sense of uncertainty hung over the era.” The communists believed they were fighting a civil war between 1945 and 1947, but most Polish historians see this period as one of Soviet repression. Pucci’s perspective is more nuanced. The conflict in which the Soviets supported the (communist) Polish Committee of National Liberation “developed many characteristics of a civil war”, she writes: “intimate violence, revenge killings, and unclear fronts and combat identities”. But the battle between the communists and the remnants of the Home Army, she argues, occurred in tandem with other conflicts that were motivated by factors such as national identity, class warfare and antisemitism. As one militia official put it: “Polish underground members fought with Ukrainian nationalists, Germans with Polish underground members, Germans with peasant vigilante groups, and – with [the] exception of the peasant vigilante groups – everyone hated the communists.” The legacy of the war in Eastern Europe was shaped by more than just Soviet power. By 1945 millions of civilians had been killed and millions more conscripted into military or resistance units. “Communist revolutions,” Pucci notes, “have historically been linked to war and its aftermath precisely because they mobilise millions of civilians into armed formations …” Many early recruits to communist secret police forces entered from either military or grassroots formations such as partisan units or peasant battalions.
Before the Second World War, Poland’s communist party (liquidated in 1938) appealed to ethnic minorities, such as Jews, Belarussians and Ukrainians, to such an extent that many people in the country saw the organisation as foreign. Of the top 450 officials in the postwar Polish secret police, 10 per cent were Soviet officers, 49 per cent Polish, and 37 per cent Jewish. Personal ties with the Soviet Union were important. Many branches of the secret police were run by Soviet citizens, as citizenship of the USSR had frequently been awarded to Polish communists in exile there during the war, many of whom were Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland. Jewish exiles could have a career in the Soviet military and security system, unlike in interwar Poland, where they were barred from such roles.
Pucci outlines how many officials remembered joining the security services because “they had nowhere to go after the war and few opportunities for employment … Displacement and uncertainty were part of everyday life for the 1.5 million Poles returning in 1945 from forced labour in Germany, concentration camps, wartime exile, and camps in the Soviet Union. One militia official did not want to return to his native village because it had been destroyed in the war. Another related that he had nowhere to go after being demobilised in February 1947 … A militia official wrote that he had joined a partisan unit to escape forced labour roundups during the war. He chose a communist partisan group not for its ideology but because it was the first [one] he ran across.”
German POWs in NKVD-run camps, totalling 2.4 million men, formed the recruitment base for the earliest secret police network in the Soviet-occupied German zone. Since service in the Wehrmacht had been compulsory for young Germans, many members of the secret police, around 45 per cent in total, had served in the armed forces. The Soviets created the People’s Police in May 1945, with an elite unit, K5 – later the Stasi – for “political” work, which acquired a reputation for representing Soviet, rather than German, interests. In one account, a former Gestapo officer asked after his arrest: “Are you bringing me to the Russians.” As with their Polish counterparts, the bonds with the Soviets were personal as well as professional. The first head of K5, who joined the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1929, spent the Hitler years in and out of Nazi prisons and concentration camps. He then spent three years in a Soviet POW camp – a personal connection of a sort – from which he was recruited. Another senior member of this special unit had been a political exile in Moscow, acquiring Russian citizenship, before fighting with a partisan unit in Byelorussia. Erich Mielke, whose name became synonymous with the Stasi as its director (1957-89), fought with the KPD’s paramilitary arm on the streets, and then took refuge in Moscow in 1931 after he killed a policeman. Following a spell at the Lenin School for foreign communists, Mielke fought in the Spanish Civil War and returned to Germany in 1946 to serve as deputy minister of the interior. The first head of the Stasi also studied in the Soviet Union.
German secret police training differed from that of the Poles and the Czechs. Most K5 investigations of corruption, for example, or illegal border crossings, could utilise extra-legal policing methods. This contrasted with secret police training in Poland, focusing on military-style operations, or in Czechoslovakia, which centred on gathering intelligence. Nevertheless, the Germans were fighting an ideological war of their own. Recruits were asked: “Were you or any of your family members persecuted or punished by the Nazi regime for political beliefs?” Personnel files stressed the importance of personal hatred of the Nazis. The file of one official mentioned that he was “filled with hate about the cruel gassing of his father. He knows what he owes the workers’ movement and is putting into action the struggle begun by his father.”
Like its Polish counterpart, the KPD was decimated by Stalin. During the Great Terror 70 per cent of the German exiles in the Soviet Union were arrested, and, of the five hundred leading German communists in the 1920s, one in five were killed. Absorbing millions of refugees from neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe, the Soviet zone in Germany posed different challenges from those arising in Poland. Creating a mass Sovietised party, the occupiers believed, would create the new administrative elite. Hundreds of thousands of new entrants were admitted as members of the KPD: between August 1945 and April 1946 its membership soared from 150,000 to 624,000. Only around one-tenth of these had been in the organisation in 1933. While a recruit could be killed for joining the communists in Poland, no such risk existed in eastern Germany. Food rations, land allocations and employment were in the gift of the Russians, who favoured communist party members. In April 1946 the Soviets oversaw the merger of communists and social democrats into what would become East Germany’s ruling party and managed the growing rank and file membership. In these new regime structures, internal security, or ideological vigilance, became a pressing concern.
Socialist Unity Party (SED) members collected information on state officials to determine their loyalty and discover who expressed opinions that deviated from the party line. On one occasion, following the merger, a Soviet officer questioned a district SED official about the “political attitude” of those who had joined the party in his area; the Russian eventually “approved” the list of names. Other German officials, however, became regular informers for the Soviets. An SED functionary remembered how the Soviets told him to observe party members and identify those making “enemy comments” in this ideological, and class, war. In his memoir, he recalled that he had to “differentiate between class enemies, alien elements, and those in favour of strengthening our German Democratic Republic [GDR]. But I learned how to [do this] at the time and received pointed questions from the NKVD on what to investigate. In this way, I began to assess comrades in my own party.”
The secret police in the eastern bloc paid particularly close attention to the show trial of the former Hungarian politburo member László Rajk in September 1949. Agents from Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland travelled to Budapest to study the methods of their Hungarian colleagues and their Soviet advisers in preparing this trial. Across Eastern Europe, “vigilance was demanded of all communists”, Pucci points out, because the case alerted them to how “intellectuals, high-ranking party members, and Spanish Civil War veterans could be unmasked as traitors or spies”. Party members in the various satellite states were urged to watch each other for “enemy behaviour” and were warned of the necessity to “expose and eradicate bourgeois-nationalist elements and agents of imperialism from our ranks, whatever flag they hide under”. A wave of show trials followed.
The Czech party, four months previously, had been put on a footing for “class war”: no new members would be accepted except “shock workers” (there had been mass recruitment in 1948), and, most ambitiously, collectivisation of agriculture was on the communists’ agenda. New blood – “workers” – should be introduced into the ranks of the secret police. “Shock worker” competitions, usually held in factories, provided a new challenge for them: secret police offices now competed with each other over how many hours they expended in prisoner interrogations, the number of informers recruited and the level of arrests. Predictably, admitting to making mistakes was discouraged. A former official recalled this bizarre office culture: “The agent who wrote the most reports, recruited the most informers and carried out the most arrests was considered the best …” (Priests were convicted of spying for the Vatican, and the Americans; within a few years there were eight thousand pastors, priests and nuns in prison.) While secret policemen could meet arrest quotas in a fantasy world, collectivising agriculture was very much a “real world” issue in Czechoslovakia. Forced collectivisation divided the communist party along rural-urban lines and, initially, was not seriously prosecuted, to the chagrin of the Soviet ambassador. And the Czechs also had difficulties in understanding the new categories of enemies defined by Moscow.
Following the Rajk trial, the Czechs set up a new secret police department to uncover hidden “enemies” within their own communist party. Branches of the unit targeted “Trotskyites”, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, “Zionists” and “bourgeois nationalists”. But on the ground, in Czechoslovakia, these terms were met with incomprehension. According to one report: “Trotskyists: this target has not yet been developed … Agents do not know how to understand this phrase.” Likewise, confusion arose over “Zionists”. Soviet advisers had to provide training in identifying such targets and highlighted some of the Moscow show trials from the 1930s as examples of how to achieve the best results. The Russians’ central message was that their enemies were, literally, everywhere.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the same year as the Rajk trial, 1949. The novel did more than any other book, fictional or non-fictional, to popularise the concept of “totalitarianism” – the enemy of “freedom”, that is of the freedoms available in the Western democracies. During the Cold War, Nineteen Eighty-Four provided the West with its most powerful image of the “totalitarian” society and its brainwashed masses, presided over by “Big Brother”. Orwell, who in 1945 coined the term “Cold War”, died in 1950, when the first (CIA-funded) Congress of Cultural Freedom took place in Berlin, starring what the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper described as “professional ex-communist boulevardiers” such as Arthur Koestler. Perhaps the best-known professional anti-communist in the West, the US senator Joe McCarthy in February 1950 launched his war against (imaginary) “card-carrying” communist party “spies” in the State Department. “Totalitarianism” had taken on a distorted, self-perpetuating, logic of its own.
Molly Pucci’s specialist study of the creation of the secret police in three Soviet satellites reveals much about the dark, and confused, days of the early Cold War. Security Empire is an illuminating book.
John Mulqueen is the author of ‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left (Liverpool University Press, 2019), which will appear in paperback in 2022.