Blobaum on Pucci, 'Security Empire: The Secret Police in Communist Eastern Europe'

Molly Pucci
Robert E. Blobaum

Molly Pucci. Security Empire: The Secret Police in Communist Eastern Europe. Yale-Hoover Series on Authoritarian Regimes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. xiv + 378 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-24257-7

Reviewed by Robert E. Blobaum (West Virginia University) Published on H-Poland (January, 2023) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

The Cold War narrative of communist regimes cut whole from Soviet cloth in postwar Eastern Europe has been hard to dislodge from the popular imagination, despite decades of scholarly research since 1989. Molly Pucci’s comparative study of secret police forces in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany takes new aim at this narrative through the lens of state-building projects and their failures. Deeply researched and carefully nuanced, Security Empire sheds considerable new light on the transfer of Soviet institutions to Eastern Europe, which Pucci understands “as a process of imperfect translation rather than reproduction or transplantation” (p. 5).

Of course, there are similarities. In each country, the security forces and particularly their departments of political intelligence, economic intelligence, interrogation, and counterintelligence played a key role in the takeover and consolidation of communist power. In the process, the chaotic situation in which these forces came into existence at war’s end gave way to centrally planned institutions by the conclusion of the Stalinist era. They were assisted and at times directed by Soviet advisors and “friends,” although the degree, timing, and duration of Soviet influence varied from country to country. By organizing her book into two chronological parts, the immediate postwar “revolutionary” period of 1945-48 and the “Stalinist” period of 1949-54, with the trial of László Rajk in Hungary a principal demarcation point, Pucci is able to focus on the generational divisions and conflicts between officers corps founded by “veterans” of the Comintern era, and a rank and file recruited from the lower classes, trained in new secret police schools, and radicalized by their participation in campaigns of violence. In all three cases, relations of the secret police formations with each country’s respective Communist Party were problematic and even contested. Each security force experienced dynamics of expansion, purging, and social change as the targets of violence shifted from communism’s political enemies to internal ones, and to alleged kulaks, economic saboteurs, church figures, and citizens with Western contacts.

As the message of a highly centralized “order” more directly inspired by the Soviet model took hold by 1954, important state-building processes had been initiated, signaling an end to the “communist revolutions in Eastern Europe, with all of their chaos, repression, and confusion” (p. 156). But how strong were these institutions, particularly those charged with state security? In Poland, the Ministry of Public Security (MPB), the only secret police force created as an institution from the beginning, was forged in conditions of civil war, border changes, and a yawning political vacuum. In this atmosphere, MPB ranks were recruited from various armed formations with which they had trained, shared barracks, and fought. Characterized by its engagement in military-style operations and brutal displays of power in its early years, the MPB was hardly a disciplined institution closely controlled by the communist-dominated government, “but one of anarchy and conflict in which boundaries between friends and enemies were unclear and violence became a way a life” (p. 31). Its officials often acted on their own authority, looted private property, engaged in random acts of violence, and were brazen in their insubordination to local state authorities. During this period Soviet agents worked side by side with their Polish counterparts in investigating cases brought before military courts, even if there was little trust between them.

Once the communists secured political power by 1947, the main task of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) and its successor, the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), was to bring its nominally controlled security forces to heel, enforce compliance to its orders, and curb their arbitrariness and corruption. This was not easily accomplished but through the party’s infiltration of police offices, the purging of their lower ranks, professionalized training, internal disciplinary campaigns, and the assistance of Soviet advisors, the MPB was demilitarized and transformed into a bureaucratic service focused on covert operations and surveillance. Violence did not end but became centrally directed and refocused on new targets in the larger society, economy, and within the party itself. Following the arrest of arrest of former party leader Władysław Gomułka in August 1951, followed by that of his closest associates, the charge of rooting out internal enemies among party and state dignitaries was entrusted to Department X. Created in December 1951, its activities created an atmosphere of fear in the security apparatus as well. In the process, according to Pucci, “by 1953, Poland had the most far-reaching police state of the three countries … in terms of its reach, as well as its method and number of agents and informers” (p. 196). Yet the defection to the West of the high-ranking MPB and Department X agent Józef Światło in December 1953, likely fearing for his own skin, demonstrated this police state’s weaknesses. A year after Światło’s defection and revelations, the MPB was dissolved. Gomułka soon would be on his way to rehabilitation and the restoration of his party leadership, and Światło’s principal accomplices within the MPB would themselves go on trial.

By contrast Czechoslovakia’s State Security Service (StB) began not as an institution but as a Communist Party intelligence network that worked alongside, and later inside, those of other political parties comprising the National Front Government. Unlike its counterparts in Poland and East Germany, many of its officials had never been to Russia or the Soviet Union, and the role of Soviet advisors was practically nonexistent before 1949. Early postwar security politics in the National Front were negotiated within a parliamentary security committee in which party representation was distributed according to the popular vote in Czechoslovakia’s 1946 elections. At the same time, the Slovak security service functioned autonomously from Prague. This pluralism within Czechoslovakia’s security force—the National Security Corps recruited from the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps, partisan groups, and resistance fighters—was likely the main reason the secret police played only a marginal role in the communist takeover of power and Czechoslovakia’s “national road to socialism” (p. 79).

The first Czechoslovak Communist Party secret police network was the ZOB II, a small, covert branch of the intelligence service stationed in regional-level offices and run illegally inside the ranks of the official intelligence service of the National Front. Although the ZOB II collected intelligence on the Communist Party’s National Front coalition partners and expanded its reach following parliamentary passage in July 1946 of the Building Program, it had no authority to arrest, detain, or interrogate citizens. The main opposition party, the National Socialists, succeeded in forcing its dissolution in December 1947, part of the backdrop to Czechoslovakia’s political crisis of February 1948. Only in this way did ZOB II’s manipulation of the National Front’s intelligence services contribute to the communist takeover. Prior to that, according to Pucci, “the party was far from having a monopoly on the country’s security and intelligence forces, as historians have assumed” (p. 99). Instead, the key role in the communist takeover was played by popular Action Committees formed by the Communist Party from its rapidly expanding mass organization and which could, unlike ZOB II, punish citizens for dissent, the potential for dissent, and moral failings. Though the Action Committees succeeded in in diminishing the role of noncommunist parties in political life, the Soviets were not particularly impressed with the way the Czechoslovak communists had taken power, nor were they enamored with the anti-bureaucratic and decentralized nature of the Czechoslovak road to socialism. The regime became more repressive following the takeover, marked by the passage of the October 1948 Law on the Defense of the Republic, which defined crimes against the state. Yet even as the law authorized party officials and Action Committees to set up labor camps, the campaign against “asocial elements” was carried out in a localized, even arbitrary manner, with minimal participation of the central government.

Thereon, things began to change. A ban on accepting new party members was instituted at the end of 1948. Simultaneously a new law on national security was passed to make the security service “an effective instrument of class struggle” (p. 111) by imposing a centralized command structure on the Czech and Slovak halves of the force and by shifting operations from targeting political enemies to infiltrating the economy and society. The Stalinist-era StB in Czechoslovakia now began to assume form, beginning with the formation of an “instructor group” recruited out of the former ZOB II to create a security service with “decisive influence” over political policing, one based on the Soviet model of centralized bureaucratic processes and planning and the translation of Soviet operative terms into Czech. In late 1949, Soviet advisors arrived to implement major changes in the service’s structure, personnel, and methods, and to oversee an internal revolution in which the first generation of police officials, of intellectual, professional, and middle-class backgrounds, was destroyed and replaced by a second, working-class generation and new StB elite trained in Soviet methods and terror. The fallout of the Rajk trial in Hungary assisted in this process, leading to a search for internal enemies and “motives for treason” among StB officials. Simultaneously, a permanent system of internal surveillance became institutionalized through Soviet introduction of new interrogation practices, accompanied by November 1950 by mandatory Russian lessons for all heads of StB departments. By then Brno regional party boss Otto Šling had been arrested, followed by General Secretary Rudolf Slánský in November 1952 and, at the turn of 1953-54, by the arrests and trials of several former secret police officials. By such means, according to Pucci, the party of the 1950s “blackened and even erased from history the people and events most fundamental to the earliest years of communism in Czechoslovakia” (p. 250).

East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (MfS), popularly known and later feared as the infamous Stasi, was founded only in February 1950. Built in a defeated country and territory directly governed by the Soviet Union, its agents’ training and internal culture would remain extensively influenced by Soviet security forces for several years. Because it lacked firm local roots, the Stasi emerged from the Stalinist era as clearly the least developed and weakest of the secret police forces in the Soviet bloc. The same could be said of the German Democratic Republic itself, its political permanence and borders a subject of deep popular skepticism, a situation it shared to a limited extent with the Polish People’s Republic, but one unaccompanied by any meaningful “national road to socialism.” The NKVD and then the NKGB, the Soviet security and intelligence forces answerable directly to Stalin and whose initial behavior differed little from that of the Red Army, had primary authority over arrests and operations before the formation of the East German state in 1949. They also handed over the cases they investigated to Soviet military tribunals for resolution according to the Soviet penal code. Yet the Soviets were also forced to rely on German citizens serving in the People’s Police, an unarmed force which they trained and staffed, to maintain basic order. The Soviets also collected intelligence from informers in the German Communist Party, and from K5, an elite unit of the criminal police that worked under the Soviet authorities to implement their denazification efforts and to vet new officials for service in a German administration formed in the occupation zone in the spring of 1946.

A sizable part of the future Stasi officer corps was trained during the denazification campaign’s investigations. Once that campaign ended, the focus of K5 shifted to the economy, which coincided in May 1948 with a wave of expulsions from the haphazardly recruited People’s Police and the transformation of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) into a “party of the new type.” By then, more authority was being granted to Germans, but Soviet officials retained power to veto their decisions following the establishment of the GDR and its institutions, including the MfS, well into the 1950s. Meanwhile, Soviet interference, which had changed only in form and not in extent, along with the GDR’s uncertain international status, continued to undermine the legitimacy of the new regime. Stalinist-style militarized violence and its religious, economic, and social targets characterized SED policies in the GDR for only a year, between the summers of 1952 and 1953, a period when thousands of new recruits entered the MfS. However, the regime’s weakness and that of an MfS still struggling to develop effective surveillance networks were dramatically exposed during the June 1953 uprising of German workers following Stalin’s death three months earlier and the SED’s sudden about-face into an ill-defined “New Course.” According to Pucci, once Soviet forces intervened to suppress the uprising, the main lesson that MfS and SED leaders alike took away from the revolt was that the regime lacked the capacity to defend itself without Soviet assistance. Their solution was to expand the reach of the MfS, even as it was subsumed under the Ministry of Interior from which it remained organizationally independent and largely untouched. Thus, despite an unparalleled longevity among its high-level officials over the entire communist era, the groundwork for the Stasi as the large, omnipresent secret police force of the 1970s was laid by those officials only in the post-Stalinist era, part of the struggle of the SED and MfS “to determine who to be and what to do” (p. 282).

One of the many strengths of Security Empire is in its extensive documentation. Agents’ autobiographies, which Pucci pieces together largely from their personnel files, reveal a combination of motivations, ideological and personal, for their participation in communism’s radical political and social agenda. These same personnel files also demonstrate the communists’ obsession with the public and private lives of their own officials. At the same time, Soviet reports on events in Eastern Europe “demonstrate that Soviet intentions and the extent of Soviet intervention in each country differed considerably” (p. 20). Pucci is more than aware of the challenges in using Stalinist-era documents, which she handles with critical care by consulting and integrating sources assembled over several decades, among them dozens of Polish secret police officials’ memoirs written in the 1970s and 1980s and those of long-serving Stasi agents composed after 1989.

The book’s stated subjects “are the people, sentiments, debates and decisions that turned postwar chaos into centrally planned communist institutions” (p. 2). However, it is still at its essence a comparative institutional history of state building. Given all the twists and turns in that history, its very complexity does not make it easily accessible to nonspecialists. Fortunately, Pucci provides an extensive list of abbreviations to assist her readers, and most will need to refer to it frequently to make their way through the book. Those who neglect to do so may easily get lost, especially when Pucci assumes they will remember the distinctions between police institutions and agencies, for example between Poland’s MBP (Ministry of Public Security) and its lower offices comprising the UB (Security Office), especially in those rare instances when the author herself uses the terms interchangeably.

This is not meant to detract from the major achievement of Pucci’s book, or to question the many well-deserved accolades it has received. If the book’s main takeaway is that of historically driven situational diversity in the formation of secret police institutions and their roles in state building, Security Empire was given its title for a reason—namely that the creation and evolution of these secret police forces, particularly after the Rajk trial, “paved the way for the integration of the Eastern Bloc into a common international security space” (pp. 12-13) while taking on the role of intermediaries of Soviet influence in the region and with each other in driving Sovietization forward. The ingredients for the unraveling of that empire decades later were also baked into this pie, but that’s another story. The one rendered by Molly Pucci speaks to an institutional legacy of police training schools and materials, operational vocabulary, agent and informer networks, the favored status of working-class members, immense card catalogues, and mapping of local populations according to communist criteria that characterized the remainder of the Cold War era in Eastern Europe.

Citation: Robert E. Blobaum. Review of Pucci, Molly, Security Empire: The Secret Police in Communist Eastern Europe. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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