Image: Europes Dirty Secrets
Novelist Stelian Tanase holds a page of his Securitate file in Bucharest, Romania, on July 22, 2009. The files showed that a man he considered his closest pal was an informer for the communist-era secret police. The men are no longer friends.
updated 10/17/2009 4:02:20 PM ET 2009-10-17T20:02:20

Even his best friend betrayed him.

Stelian Tanase found out when he asked to see the thick file that Romania's communist-era secret police had kept on him. The revelation nearly knocked the wind out of him: His closest pal was an informer who regularly told agents what Tanase was up to.

"In a way, I haven't even recovered today," said Tanase, a novelist who was placed under surveillance and had his home bugged during the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime.

"He was the one person on Earth I had the most faith in," he said. "And I never, ever suspected him."

Twenty years ago this autumn, communism collapsed across Eastern Europe. But its dark legacy endures in the unanswered question of the files — whether letting the victims read them cleanses old wounds or rips open new ones.

Most former East Bloc countries have enacted legislation that opens up at least some of their millions of pages of secret police archives to the public, revealing how armies of informers were bribed or coerced into snooping on friends, colleagues and neighbors.

While Germany has launched an ambitious effort to piece together millions of documents shredded as the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, the Czech Republic and Poland are bitterly divided over how much access to grant. And at least two others — Hungary and Romania — are holding back hundreds of thousands of files implicating key figures, including some still powerful in business, media and politics.

In Hungary, which still has no legislation that would fully open the files, the intelligence services have kept 27 percent of the dossiers closed because they are still considered top-secret, said Janos Kenedi, an investigator who recently oversaw an official evaluation.

Image: Man reading communist-era police file
A man, who refused to be identified by name, reads a communist-era secret police file at the headquarters of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives in Bucharest, Romania, on July 29, 2009.

"There is no other former Soviet satellite where there is such a lack of regulation about the files as in Hungary," he said.

700,000 informants in Romania
That hasn't stopped the names of alleged former snoops from trickling out every few weeks or months, implicating personalities ranging from actors and athletes to priests and intellectuals.

In Romania, where 700,000 informants kept tabs for the "Securitate" on a population of 22 million, the more than 2 million files remain tightly controlled, yet dirty secrets keep slipping out to damage careers, friendships and family ties.

This summer, a newspaper outed soccer star Gheorghe "Gica" Popescu, the former captain of Romania's national football team. At first he angrily denied it, then acknowledged he wrote notes informing on teammates and others in the 1980s.

Yet a cloak of secrecy still shields Securitate generals who ran the surveillance and now hold key posts in politics and business.

Some are said to have destroyed their files, and the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives acknowledges it has not been given 70,000 dossiers that remain off-limits on grounds of national security.

"You don't see the files of the generals because they don't have any. They're the ones who made files," said Virgiliu-Leon Tarau, the council's vice president.

‘Romanian society is contaminated’
Romanian-born writer Herta Mueller, who fled the regime for Germany and won this year's Nobel literature prize, has accused the government of making a show of opening the files while keeping the most important papers under wraps.

That, say other critics, makes a mockery of efforts to achieve national reconciliation.

"They'll never open the files of the big players," said Cornel Nistorescu, a prominent Romanian political analyst.

"It can't be done because the state is still run by these people. They're in political parties, in NGOs, in media, in business — everywhere," he said. "Romanian society is contaminated. In the last 10 governments, I couldn't find three people who weren't dirty."

It wasn't difficult to turn people into informers.

Some were blackmailed. Others sought career advancement or permission to travel abroad. Better food or free cartons of cigarettes were popular inducements.

Obessed in Poland
Poland has been especially obsessed with how to handle its legacy of duplicity.

Four years ago, the Law and Justice Party swept to power on a pledge to purge anyone with proven ties to the former secret police. It pushed through a law that would have subjected up to 700,000 public officials to screening.

The legislation was struck down as unconstitutional. Since then, the state-run Institute of National Remembrance, whose files would stretch 86 kilometers (53 miles) if laid end to end — has begun publishing a list of public figures who either collaborated or were spied on.

But it can all get out of hand.

In 2005, a Polish journalist touched off a frenzy when a list he had secretly copied of some 240,000 names wound up online. The list jumbled together the spies and the spied upon, with no way of telling them apart.

Complaint: Files filled with gossip, conjecture
In the Czech Republic, things got so bad that Vaclav Havel, a former dissident who became president, had to intervene with this plea: "Young historians, please be careful when you judge history. Otherwise you could do more harm than good."

Havel was stung to protest after his friend, novelist Milan Kundera, came under a cloud. A newspaper published a police document alleging Kundera informed on a man accused of spying for the West. Kundera insists it's a fabrication.

Image: Employees of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives
Employees of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives sorts through files in the basement of the council headquarters in Bucharest, Romania.

The Kundera case underscores a common complaint about secret police files: All too often, they're packed with gossip, conjecture and outright lies.

That, in part, is why Eugen Georgescu says he hasn't asked to see his file. "Why should I? I already lived it," said Georgescu, a spry 75-year-old who endured Securitate threats and round-the-clock surveillance after he challenged Ceausescu's regime.

The retired architect isn't alone in his lack of interest in his file. Authorities say they have received only about 10,000 dossier requests since 2005.

‘It's all very Kafkaesque’
Novelist Tanase, who read his file in 2001, eventually sat down with the friend who betrayed him. But Tanase said the man never apologized, and they're no longer friends.

"He said he offered his services to the Securitate to protect me, but I don't believe that explanation," he said. So traumatized is Tanase that even today, he says, "I meet friends in the streets and in parks" where there are no eavesdroppers.

Tanase, who was under 24-hour watch by a regime that considered his works subversive, has another gripe about the old files: They're banal.

His 2007 book, "At Home We Whisper," juxtaposes his diary entries with cryptic Securitate reports from the same days — exposing the sometimes laughable gap between what the agents presumed Tanase was up to and what he was actually doing.

"It's all very Kafkaesque," he said. "Can you imagine the Securitate interested in something as banal as the color of your shirt? They were so stupid."

Tarau, the deputy chief of Romania's vast archive, insists the files have immense value — not only in this 20th anniversary year but for generations to come.

"There are recipes for dishes, but also transcripts of buggings and philosophical discussions," he said. "It's details of the lives of ordinary citizens ... It's the history of the Romanian people."

And even though the process is painful, Tanase wants all the files thrown open.

"We can't build a normal and healthy society if we keep this dirt under the rug," he said.

More on: Romania | Hungry | Poland | Czech Republic

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