These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.
Police did not exist. It was recognized to be a tool of oppression of common people by those in power and therefore something that an enlightened socialist regime does not need.
Did you believe that? I think not. But it is true. Police did not exist.
That is, the word “police” was not used in any official settings. During Habsburg rule in the Austrian Empire the police was mostly concerned with nabbing political dissidents and whilst during the First Republic it was actually really an organization for dealing with crime, that did not take long and during the WW2 it again morphed into an arm of oppression. The name “Geheime Staatspolizei” (secret state police) got stuck in people’s minds and the word police was irredeemably tainted in the minds of Czech people.
I do not know whether this was the actual reason for abandoning the word police by the regime, but I think it has played a role from what we were taught at school about history.
So the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic did not have any organization with the word “police” anywhere in it, but of course crime had to be investigated, traffic must have been regulated and miscreants had to be dealt with.
For this we had an organization “Veřejná Bezpečnost” short “VB”. Their yellow and white cars were very distinguishable and their uniforms made them easily recognized. Whilst they had the power to require “papers please”, they were members of community and at least where I live nobody minded them much. The derogatory term “policajt” applied to them, but without much rancor above what it usually has anywhere around the world.
And of course any totalitarian regime needs its secret police, even when not named as such, and ours was no exception.
The actual arm of oppression was the “Státní Bezpečnost“, short “StB”. These were plain clothes agents and everybody feared them. Nobody knew who belongs to this organization and who does not – a lot of the agents did have other primary jobs, infiltrating communities and spying on people, even their own family members. Everybody had to be extra careful about what they tell to whom and there was a huge culture of distrust. Critique of regime’s officials was one of the things that was frowned upon and one of the biggest challenges people raising kids had been to teach the kids tell truth at home, but to lie in public.
My father was a member of the Communist Party, he joined in his twenties and was an idealist. However he was also an honest man who spoke his mind, and one of his brothers was a political dissident living in USA – and they were in contact.
One evening my father came back from local gathering of the Communist Party and he informed my mother curtly “I might end up in jail, we’ll see”. These gatherings were officially places to discuss problems and solutions to them etc. but of course that was not particularly encouraged, what was expected was sycophancy. But in this one instance my father, when he had his turn to speak, did not reign in his honesty enough and said aloud words to the effect that a lot of the problems could be solved if only the grumpy fat old men in lead of the party actually cared about the people and not themselves. He got lucky.
Of course not everybody who opened their mouth and said something unfavorable about the Communist Party or the regime got nabbed and incarcerated. The way people function that would mean everybody would wound up in jail. But the possibility was always at the back of people’s’ minds. The way the regime worked, nobody knew if some innocent remark might be the point after which one gets into the regime’s focus, and once in focus, the StB could always find something. The maxim was that everybody is guilty and there is nothing you can do about it – only hope that you will not be the one who gets nabbed.
So people tried not to even think honest thoughts. This is how you control a populace – by building fences in their heads.