Introduction to dismantling a totalitarian secret police system
Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization
Posted: Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council and IWP Annenberg Professor J. Michael Waller edited a series of articles on the legacies of totalitarian secret police systems. Those articles were published in August, 2004, in Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.
Berman and Waller co-wrote the following introduction to the series:
When a totalitarian group seizes power, whether by parliamentary maneuver or by force, one of the first institutions it creates is a secret political police. Since the birth of modern totalitarianism, in country after country, these secret political police became one of the predominant instruments of one-party rule. In every totalitarian government, secret police were an indispensable device for the consolidation of power, neutralization of the opposition, and construction of a single-party state. More recent history shows that when totalitarian regimes liberalize or collapse, the secret political police nonetheless tend to survive. This collection deals with this survival tendency, and it explores how former communist countries have dealt with the issue in building new democratic societies in the post-Cold War era.
Our concern here is only with the political police, commonly known as the “secret police,” in a former totalitarian system. In most communist governing structures, the secret police was part of a much larger security and intelligence apparatus. The Soviet KGB, for example, was primarily responsible for the perpetuation of the Communist Party elite – hence its large informant and dissident-hunting networks. But it also performed legitimate roles essential to any country’s security; in addition to enforcing one-party rule, the KGB also conducted foreign intelligence and both civilian and military counterintelligence, fulfilled border security functions, engaged in communications and electronic intelligence, and ensured the physical security of government officials and buildings. Therefore, when we speak of dismantling and uprooting a secret police network, we are referring not to stripping a country of its legitimate ability to fight crime and ensure national security, but to removing the impediments to democracy, transparency and accountability left by the country’s totalitarian past.
It is important to note, however, that even most of the legitimate functions performed by security services have historically been prone to manipulation by both the ruling party and an elite bureaucratic mindset inconsistent with democratic values. In many totalitarian states, the legitimate security functions were taken over by the secret political police, which then imbued the legitimate services with secret police cachet – a carefully cultivated mentality of elitism and impunity that must be rooted out if the organization is to work in the service of a new, democratic order.
But secret police are not unique to totalitarian regimes. They have existed in various forms for centuries, and even in some Western European countries. Secret police are indispensable to autocrats and dictators around the world, or anywhere that ruling special interests are troubled by trade unions, peasant movements, religious believers, cultural minorities or other challenges to the established order. We have heard much about uprooting such systems and holding human rights abusers accountable in places like Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and apartheid South Africa. Almost nowhere, however, has doing the same in former communist countries been discussed. Indeed, while the uprooting of totalitarian structures in former Latin American dictatorships and South Africa’s apartheid regime have been considered essential for national reconciliation and democratic renewal, the same has not held true for the former communist countries, including Nicaragua.
This compendium will not attempt to explore why this has been the case. Rather, it is intended to provoke discussion about the need to address the problem. A collection of case studies of seven formerly communist-ruled states – Russia, the Czech Republic, East Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Nicaragua and Poland – and how they approached the problem of their respective totalitarian secret police, it is inspired in part by Thomas T. Hammond’s extensive comparative study, The Anatomy of Communist Takeovers -- a work that confirms the primacy of a secret police system in the creation of a totalitarian dictatorship. . . .
For the full text of this six-page essay, click here.