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Secret Police and State Violence

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Eastern Europe, not including Russia and Belarus, provides insights to the mechanisms of state surveillance and violence of which no other region is capable. When the entire region transformed its political system at roughly the same time at the turn of the 1990s, the new regimes revealed relatively recent files of the secret police on a mass scale: the extent of this surveillance has been unparalleled in the world. At the same time, one needs to be cautious with these type of archival sources. While the files often provide unique insights to underground events and help us to understand cultural dynamics that would have been difficult to decipher from other sources, these files carry the vocabularies and perspectives of the secret police interested in fabricating the "opposition," partly, for reasons of self-legitimization. The archives themselves often took on active political roles as well, by seemingly catering to the public need for retroactive justice, an agenda that can be easily hijacked and used as a subtext for targeting political rivals. This module encourages class discussions about the complex nature of state surveillance and normalization of state violence under Communism.


  • Apor, P., Horváth, S., & Mark, J. (Eds.). (2017). Secret Agents and the Memory of Everyday Collaboration in Communist Eastern Europe. London: Anthem Press.
  • Mlynárik, J. (1984). Tatarka: Silenced in Slovakia. Index on Censorship, 13(2), 27–29.
  • Tatarka, D. (1984). They should have killed me. Index on Censorship, 13(2), 29–30.
  • Burt, R., & Social Text Collective (Eds.). (1994). The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere. Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Cohen, L. J., & Shapiro, J. P. (1974). Communist systems in comparative perspective (1st ed.). Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press.
  • Deletant, D. (1995). Ceaușescu and the Securitate: coercion and dissent in Romania, 1965-1989. London: C. Hurst.
  • Petrescu, D. (2014). The Resistance that Wasn’t: Romanian Intellectuals, the Securitate, and “Resistance through Culture.” In J. von Puttkamer, S. Sienerth, & U. A. Wien (Eds.), Die Securitate in Siebenbürgen. Köln: Böhlau Verlag.
  • Boyer, D. (2003). Censorship as a Vocation: The Institutions, Practices, and Cultural Logic of Media Control in the German Democratic Republic. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45(03).
  • Skultans, V. (Ed.). (2007). Arguing with the KGB Archives: Archival and Narrative Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia. In Empathy and Healing (NED-New edition, 1, pp. 224–243). Berghahn Books. Retrieved from

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In-class or short-term assignments
1) Based upon the Handbook chapter and online research set up a timeline: in which years were Communist secret police archives opened for research and for the public? Watch out: the establishment of a historical institution dealing with the documents and the act of providing access for various audiences might happened at a different year. Be specific as you can and compare the timeline with that of the others. What the timeline tells you about the differences in memory politics in the various countries in Eastern Europe?

2) Based upon the COURAGE Registry, your readings and online sources compile a list of keywords: what kind of activities the secret services identified as "hostile to the regime"? what categories of dissidents the political polices employed?
Offsite, longer-term assignments
1) If your language competence allows, and you have already set up the timeline suggested above, check how the press reacted to the opening of these archives in the various countries. Find at least one article from a newspaper (or online repository) that addressed the issue of opening the files, and analyse the article: how it perceives the social role of the secret police? what figures and vocabulary it uses? what these suggest to you, how the figure of the agent is depicted? how collaboration and dissent is framed? Discuss your results in class! 

2) If you do not speak any Eastern European languages, explore the situation in your own country. Are there any files of the secret services that were made public? Under what conditions one may access them? What are the similarities and differences in the operation of the secret services under democracy and dictatorship/authoritarianism?


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