En Route to Totality

15. 3. 2017

Igor Lukeš, Československo nad propastí. Selhání amerických diplomatů a tajných služeb v Praze 1945–1948. Prostor 2014. [Igor Lukeš. On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague. Oxford University Press 2012]

The publishing house Prostor has published a remarkable book by Professor Igor Lukeš this year. The author in it describes failures of American intelligence agencies in the postwar Czechoslovakia and considers them of such magnitude that he deems them greatly responsible for the course of Czechoslovak history in the following forty years. There are several reasons why this work deserves special attention; meticulously researched index, hundreds of references and a vast number of quoted sources among them.

In the autumn of 1938 President Edvard Beneš finds himself in a tight spot. In the early days of October he flies to London, only to suffer a nervous breakdown. When, six months later, German armies march into Prague, he is still very much a private person wielding no real political influence. In the summer of 1939, shortly after his return from the United States, he is invited by Ivan Majsky, the USSR ambassador in London, to be informed that in the event of German invasion of Poland the USSR will not stand idly by.

The author describes in detail how flattered Beneš feels at these private talks. It was just the beginning of a long odyssey of Soviets’attempts to lure him into their traps, only to humiliate him and steal his country away when the war was finally over. The Czechoslovakian exile government is recognized with its interim status in July 1941. It takes another five long months after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich to change its status into a definite one. Beneš is acutely aware that Central Europe will be liberated by both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. The author accounts in detail the process of negotiations with the Soviets leading to the signing of the ill-fated 1943 pact between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Beneš travels to the U.S. before the pact is signed to gain support for the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia; Roosevelt agrees. During his visit he complains of being given a cold shoulder and of being overlooked; his stay coincides with that of Churchill’s and the pecking order is made abundantly clear. Stalin’s reception is in stark contrast; he even solemnly swears the future Soviet policy of no interference into internal affairs of Czechoslovakia. In January 1944 Beneš presents his exile government with the account of his visit to the Soviet Union. In it he declares the treaty as a guarantee for his country’s safety and democracy. It is not clear whether it is just a tactical move or he has already convinced himself that Stalin can be trusted. We can read in great detail about Beneš’s humiliating return to Czechoslovakia and his almost hermetic enclosure by NKVD officers.

The following chapter maps the journey of OSS officers Kurt Taub and Charles Katek to Prague, still under German occupation. They are to negotiate about the formal request by the interim Czech National Council directed at the American army, located some 150 km from Prague, to liberate the last European capital still suffering under the yoke of German military might. The communists, led by Josef Smrkovský, bluntly refuse. Taub considers the possibility of Patton’s advance to Prague if the Nazis violate the agreed ceasefire and do not put down their weapons by midnight, May 8th, 1945. This plan turns out not to be viable in the end and the Soviets take Prague, suffering 10 casualties in the process. Beneš does not return to Prague until May 16. The author describes in detail the arrivals of the American diplomats to Prague and the conduct of victorious Soviet forces. There are widespread reports of looting and rape.

Lawrence Adolph Steinhardt, the U.S. ambassador in postwar Prague, is a pivotal character in the story of intelligence agencies’ ultimately unsuccessful mission. He was assigned as an ambassador to Moscow in 1939 and has no illusions whatsoever about the Soviet system. Lukeš provides a detailed account of Steinhart’s experiences in Moscow, his fitting descriptions of Soviet leaders and the hatred he encounters when dealing with Stalin or NKVD. His next posting was in the great city of Istanbul, a diplomatic mission from where his later lacklustre performance most likely originates. Steinhardt was not chosen by Roosevelt to be part of his delegation to the Yalta conference. He is convinced that he has a better understanding of Stalin than anybody from Roosevelt’s entourage and he feels a great sense of injustice; a feeling he never really gets over. Having been officially appointed as an ambassador to Prague, he takes several weeks to organize his departure. When finally he does leave, he takes off in a four engine plane on 26 June, 1945. With a neck-breaking speed he arrives on 16 July, having stopped in London, Paris, Caserta, Ankara, Napoli and Frankfurt am Mein. So, almost two months after the liberation, the U.S. Administration has its ambassador in Prague. First things first, of course, so the hunt for the residence begins; in the end Steinhardt settles for Petsch’s villa, the largest U.S. ambassador’s residence to date.

The author maps in great detail the flow of events that led to the victory of communists in February 1948 and the fatal mistakes committed by Czechoslovakian democrats led by president Beneš. The U.S. ambassador would regularly inform Washington about the solid footing of democrats before major events, be it expulsion of ethnic Germans, nationalization of key industries or the first democratic elections, only to be forced to attempt again and again to explain away his incorrect analysis after yet another communist victory.

Another important person of our story is Charles Katek, an American intelligence officer and the chief of the U.S. military liaison mission in Prague. A son of Czech immigrants, he forms his headquarters in a building at Loretánské Square. Just across the street from Petsch’s villa (the U.S. ambassador’s residence), the State Police establishes its infamous secret prison, code-named “The Farm” by the end of the forties. It is here, in Zikmund Winter’s street, where they take the secretly arrested agents “walkers” and attempt to force them into defection. Another infamous secret prison is, somewhat ironically, located in the very same building complex as Katek’s military liaison mission. Called “A Little House,” it is used to deal mainly with the former members of armed forces. It is a mere coincidence that these facilities are in close proximity to American diplomats.

The headquarters of American military liaison mission have soon become one of the centres of Prague’s social life. Employees of the Ministry of Interior mingle with diplomats, members of parliament and nobility, not to mention young elegant women. Parties often continue well into the wee hours and it is quite simple for the State Police to monitor the mission’s comings and goings. A surprising degree of carelessness is noted when the house keeper, no doubt hired by the State Police, is found in possession of the keys from the mission. The police archives duly confirm that the premises would be indeed searched.

One document records Katek’s complaints about the fact that the HQ in Germany forces him into building a secret intelligence network and that there is no getting around it. It is seen as common practice for a military liaison mission to openly invite diplomats and journalists. Yet it is against all common sense for an intelligence gathering mission to invite openly employees of the Ministry of the Interior or army officers. Some of the regular visitors were General Josef Bártík, Major Alois Šeda and Staff Captain Jaromír Nechanský. The latter was a member of Czechoslovakian expeditionary force in the UK and towards the end of the war he is parachuted into the Protectorate with the task to organize an armed resistance. It is also Nechanský, who is in May 1945 emphatically calling for the U.S. military aid to Prague uprising. After the communist coup d’état he is recruited by the U.S. and receives radio stations for maintaining communications with the agency headquarters. Elementary rules for working in conspiracy are practically nonexistent and the informants’ network has been hastily patched together; this sheer amateurism costs Nechanský and his aides their life.

Archive documents bear witness to the fact that long before the communist coup d’état successfully took place, the facilities of American diplomats and their aides were subject of intense interests of the communist-run State Police. As early as 1947 they succeeded in installing monitoring devices; moreover, it took several long years to discover them. The building of the US Embassy and the residence of the ambassador were of prime importance to Czechoslovakian intelligence agencies. Several more rooms are wired by the end of the forties. State Police even uses very laborious—and until then unknown—method of ceiling installation of microphones, it is discovered in 1953. Ten years later agent Ludvík Rozkuz, code-named “Batler”, manages to install a spatial eavesdropping device into the ambassador’s office in his residence during a mission code-named Atom. Every three months he would take out a library shelf hiding the recording device and exchange the batteries. This successful run of breaching the security of the U.S. facilities is cut short by the emigration of police officer Janota in 1969, who then provides a comprehensive record of infiltration methods. In 1989 the State Police employs many agents in the building of the embassy, including five deeply undercover cadres.

Kurt Taub, a Brno native, who at the beginning of the war emigrated with his parents from Czechoslovakia to Sweden using the aid of his friend Alois Sušanka, is Charles Katek’s deputy. While Kurt’s brother Walter decided to stay in Sweden, he wanted to move on to the U.S. Having needed a Soviet transit visa, he was forced into cooperation with NKVD. In November 1941 he received a code name “Dabl” and Walter is codenamed “Terentij”. Family friend Sušanka, run by the Czechs and NKVD after the war to control Kurt Taub was code-named “Tvist”.

When it comes to Lukeš’ assessment of Taub’s activities I cannot bring myself to agree. I have pored over the same sources that were available to the author, and I have come to an opposing view. Both Taub and his Soviet contact in Germany at the time agreed that only 10 percent of Taub’s reports are of any value. Furthermore, the arrival of another CIA agent Spencer Laird Taggart to the U.S. embassy seems to indicate that Taub’s mission was being used as bait with the intention of flooding the Czechoslovakian agencies with information that needed to be vetted. What needs to be taken into consideration at this point is the fundamentally different modus operandi of intelligence agencies of a democratic state and those of a totalitarian state. In democratic countries such agencies tend not to have executive powers—they cannot apprehend and interrogate suspects—their main task being gathering, vetting and evaluating information. Only by these limited means they are to find traitors and double agents. In contrast, the Czech State Police arrested and imprisoned hundreds of suspects. Almost anyone could receive their attention even through unconfirmed information, and would be almost immediately arrested and subjected to harsh interrogation. There were cases where one officer would start a case on a suspect, arrest and interrogate him or her, prepare and file charges, and even propose sentence. It seems as a plausible scenario that American agencies would ply its Czechoslovakian counterparts with useless information. Kurt Taub, later renamed Taylor, would go on working for the Americans for years. It is very unlikely that his double agent activities would go unnoticed. Furthermore, he would risk a severe prison sentence if his contacts with the communists were revealed as unauthorized. There are several mistakes in this chapter’s references, including confusion in research index apparatus. This all suggests the author’s lack of deeper insight into the structures of the State Police.

The book’s last chapter describes in vivid detail the shock of American diplomats from the communist coup in February 1948; the possibility of which the ambassador himself had only recently declared highly implausible. The author mentions several instances when American diplomats smuggled out people whose arrest seemed imminent; however, Taub’s personal contribution is omitted.

After the coup the American diplomats find themselves in utter isolation. Their contacts are afraid, scattered and several of them arrested. In just a few weeks the staff at the embassy is reduced to five diplomats, seven office aides and a doorman.

On the Edge of the Cold War is a brilliantly written book; it draws the reader in by the precision of its facts and a gripping quality of its storytelling. On the other hand, it is open to debate whether the American diplomacy and its intelligence agencies would have been able to save democracy in the postwar Czechoslovakia even if they had had an adequate representation in Prague. Not even British intelligence efforts run from Frankfurt am Mein and its diplomatic service, free of any illusions about the postwar course in Czechoslovakia, have found a way into this—otherwise very informative—book.

It is a telling fact about the state of current historiography in the Czech Republic that the best work mapping Czechoslovakian course toward the communist coup so far has been written by a historian working at a university in the United States.

Radek Schovánek

A specialist in the digitisation of documents at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague. He has been studying StB materials since 1993, when he joined the Institute for the Documentation and Investigation of StB Activities.

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