The Stories Polish Secret Police Files Tell Us


Anna Krakus is an assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. She specializes in Polish cinema and in the Cold War period Polish secret police files. She’s the author of No End in Sight: Polish Cinema During Late Socialism published by University of Pittsburgh Press.


Bauhaus, “The Spy in the Cab,” In the Flatfield, 1980.

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

What attracted you to the study of Polish secret police files?

It started in 2009. I was a grad student at NYU. My advisor was Cristina Vatulescu, who had written a book about the Romanian Securitate files. One day, she very casually asked me, “Do you know anything about Michel Foucault’s secret police file from Poland?” The background to that is that every biography on Michel Foucault states that he was in Poland for a year in the 1950s. He was a cultural attaché to the ambassador. He had an affair with a young translator, who set a honey trap. The translator was an agent or a collaborator with the secret police. Foucault is subsequently deported. This is a story that’s told and retold in all his official biographies, but it’s unverified.

Cristina Vatulescu basically asked, “Can we verify this? Do you want to go check it out, and we can co-author something?” It just sounded so exciting. I had read her work, and to do it together, but also to go and look at it myself was really exciting. So, I went. It turned out to be a lot harder than I expected because his file was not readily available. It’s 10 years later, and we’re finally publishing an article about it. I’m not going to give away any of our twists and turns, but through this process of looking for his file, I just found a deep passion for it myself because as a scholar of literature and film, which is what I am, you like stories. You’re interested in stories about people, and here you’re in a library of lives just reading about the minutiae of people’s lives. It was just fascinating.

So, I was working on the Foucault project, but also found all these independent projects along the way, and that’s how it started.

Talk about the process of these Polish police files becoming public because in one article you describe the process as slow and a highly political process. Why were they so controversial to be released?

It goes back to the fall of socialism in Poland in 1989. The first prime minister after the Cold War ends says that, “We’re going to draw a thick line,” he calls it, “between ourselves and history.” Meaning we’re going to take a forgiving stance. We’re going to forget about what happened. We’re not going to pursue collaborators. We’re not going to punish the people from the former regime. There’s this thick line. So, when all of a sudden in the mid- to late 1990s, they’re not just going back into the past with the opening of police files. They’re dragging out the ugliest parts of the past. People who were collaborating in secret, and so on. So, it creates a tension with this basic idea of the new Poland that we’re going to be forgiving. We’re not going to look into this. And all of a sudden they’re saying, “Actually, let’s do it. Let’s look at this.” So that’s why it’s so controversial.

Was the opening police files used as a political weapon to demonize certain political factions?

It has been used that way. Lech Walesa is the main example of this, the Solidarity leader who was the first president after 1989. They’ve found a lot of files about him. It’s been really controversial. So that, I think, is the main example of how that has been politicized.

What does a typical police file contain about a person who’s under surveillance or who is working as an informant?

I look mostly in the 1950s and the 1980s. They’re similar, but different. What is always present in a police file is the first opening biographical page. You have a picture of the suspect. You have a little bit about their date of birth, what they did, where they were born, where they went to school. All the typical biographical information, and a little bit about their parents. But then it differs from file-to-file to some degree. Like if the person is surveilled, which not everyone is in a traditional way. So, say you and I have a file. Today we meet in the morning and we walk over here. Potentially we’re surveilled. We have a person walking after us somewhere, instead of stationed somewhere. So, the file would include information like: they turn on this street, she’s walking or he’s walking. They would describe the other person. Like, he was walking with a brunette who seems to be of this and that age. Hopefully they’d be generous. Who knows? But they would describe us in that way. They entered that building. That’s one part of the files, but that’s not always there.

What’s always there are the files where they would, for instance, ask a third person in the group. What did they talk about along the way? And, unfortunately, what we don’t know, or maybe we suspect, is that third person, tough luck, is a collaborator. So, she’s telling them everything about our deep secret conversations about Russia and literature about Russia. So that would always be in there. Then of course, we come here. We do this interview. There are people in the room, and they would also be asked, what did they talk about. In some cases, we would have a person in here who would report themselves, and in some cases, we would have collaborators who would report to an agent.

They are also a little bit different because of the difference in technology. In the 1950s, there’s very little technology. There are very few bugs and things like that, like we imagine that there would be. But in the 1980s someone would probably be recording. There might even be a secret video recording of this interview. So that’s how they differ. That’s what we expect to be in there. Because I’ve looked at diplomatic outposts in the 1950s, we do have some phone tapping because that’s where they would be placed. In 1958, I think they had about 20 bugs that were available, and one of them was in the French consulate in Krakow that I have read about extensively. So, sometimes you’re lucky to find something like that.

When they compile a file, at what point does it become actionable or is it just mostly archived? Having myself looked through, say FBI files, a lot of the information is pretty mundane. Do you have a sense of the life of a file?

It differs, of course, but they tend to move around between different departments. First of all, like you say, a lot of it is just mundane minutiae, so at some point they might say, “We’re not getting anything.” Or maybe a collaborator stops collaborating. He or she just says, “I won’t do it anymore,” and they say, “Well, we’re not going to pursue someone else.” Then there is nothing for a couple of years, and at that point perhaps it’s used by someone else instead, or it’s just on the shelf. But often it’ll be, okay suddenly they’re interested in someone else, like your friend Max over here. Then they say, “Well, we want to know who Max knows.” Then our file is suddenly placed with his file. So, we move around, which is one reason it’s hard to find files sometimes today because I look for Sean or Anna’s file, but we’re in Max’s file.

The files I look at are rarely actionable. It’s mostly minutiae. There’s one case of a consul I look at who is deported, but it’s questionable. The circumstances are hard to determine.

What kind of stories do these police files tell?

They tell stories about lives, like I said before. You read about people. On the one hand, it’s a much more boring story than a novel because you have to read about how they brushed their teeth for three minutes or whatever, but that has its own kind of charm. And they tell stories about the system in which they were created. We learn about who is interesting at what period in time. They tell stories about the police itself and what they care about. I mean, you get to know not only the person in the file, but the person compiling it.

I have some people who are just great storytellers. There’s this one guy who loves talking about hobbies, so he goes into how this person likes to go fishing and he talks about that. We also learn about those people. We read the stories of the storyteller.

Do you get a sense of the author who’s compiling the report?

I think so. In two ways. It’s a system of authors, so what are they told to do, but also the individual. Sometimes in the margins there will be little notes that stray away from what’s expected. I once saw one file where there’s a questionnaire that asks what is this person a suspect of. The author of the file writes in the margin, “I don’t think he’s really a good suspect. I don’t think he’s done anything.” But another thing we learn about the authors is that there isn’t one author. There’re tons of them because like I said, we have the collaborators. They’re writing the reports. You have agents who are often multiple, writing the reports. They are reporting to someone else. That’s also a fun process to see someone complaining. It’s like, “Why did you write this? This is poor grammar.” So even on that level, you have a collaboration between the different authors.

So yeah, you get to know quite a bit about them if you’re interested in that.

Given that police files are opened in a variety of ways throughout Eastern Europe, what are some of the differences between the Polish files and say Stasi files from East Germany?

I’m going to give the unfortunate answer, which is they just seem much more systematic and organized in Germany, which is the stereotype of Germany, but it seems to be true. When we look at the Stasi files, based on what I’ve read from other people who’ve looked at them, they seem more organized than in Poland. That’s the simple answer that I have.

You note a really interesting irony in one of your essays. That is, many people in Poland consider these police files as being loaded with false information, and even fabricated information. Yet these files play a really important role in lustration cases. When somebody wants to run for public office, they have to go through a process to see if they were ever an informant or a collaborator. And these files are used as truth in the lustration process. Talk about this issue of lustration and this strange role the police file plays in the process.

As you mentioned, lustration is a kind of employment, a kind of transitional justice that is used in most countries of the East Bloc but also in some other countries around the world. If you’re running for public office after the fall of socialism, they want to vet you. It’s a vetting procedure. They check against the secret police file to see if you were a collaborator. In different countries this looks a little bit different. There are some countries where this is a de-communization ban. Basically, if you were part of the regime, you’re not working in public office anymore. The idea being if you were my judge in a show trial in the 1950s, I don’t want you to be my judge now. We have a new democracy.

In Poland, it’s much softer. You can run for office even if you were a collaborator. You can gain office if people vote for you, but if you’re dishonest you are punished. So, you have to say, “Yes, I was a collaborator.” Basically, it’s a piece of paper, you say yes or no. If you say no, it’s checked against your police file and it’s determined if you’re truthful or not. But that’s where the problem that you mention comes in. What if the police file is false? What if it says that you were a collaborator when you weren’t? We know that there are deep problems with the police files. The most typical issues that come up is falsified information, as you mentioned. We know that people were forced to collaborate. We know the police had quotas to fill. Like I said, sometimes you have to say that someone’s a suspect. Maybe, you don’t believe it.

The police also had what we call the “dead souls” phenomenon. They would go to cemeteries and write up people as their collaborators because they needed to meet a quota. So, that’s a fabrication issue. The other issue is that files were destroyed en masse in 1989. There were just mass burnings of these files, which leads to a conundrum that on the one hand what’s said about you might be false. On the other hand, what could have been truthful has been burned. This is the way you get out of this accusation. Well, they forced me to collaborate. I never actually collaborated. Well, there were files that would prove that I didn’t do anything wrong, but they’ve probably been destroyed. So, how can police files have truth value under those circumstances? I think it’s a universal issue, not just Polish one, to be frank. We don’t want to believe that people we admire did bad things and we want people who we don’t like to be punished for their bad actions. Lustration creates a difficult situation because you have to bend your expectations in that regard.

In the lustration process, do some of the details in the files become public? Like if you’re a politician, you’re a target for scandal. How does this play out in political campaigns and in the public?

Yeah, it does become public. Even in cases of auto-lustration. When you look at your own file. And also when researchers such as myself go in and we look at files and then we write about them. Journalists and researchers have complete access to the Polish files. This is not the case in all East European countries, but in Poland it is. So, yeah, it becomes used against them. Again, Walesa is the main example of this. There was a book published especially about him claiming that he was a collaborator, and after that the evidence just amassed.

This brings up the other issue. If a police file has a lot of falsified information and you want to write a biography of someone through these files, you present the danger of using or perpetuating this false information in public. And then there’s the other aspect of the police file where the police file itself is a kind of biography of an individual. Talk about this varied relationship of the biography to the police file.

I like to call police files abstract biographies, but I know a lot of people disagree with that term because they think the secret police were too precise and too methodical to call it abstraction. The police themselves would definitely not like that terminology. But I think of it sort of as a cubist painting. The features are clear. You know that it’s a portrait. You can see that it’s a person. There are different angles, different perspectives. So, there’s a nose from this perspective, an ear from that perspective. We have the file where again, say that it’s our files. Five people in this room will tell different stories about what we talked about. So, you have all these perspectives on the nose or on this situation, but then, like I said, there’s two years where there’s nothing. You have no idea what was happening. There’s the lack of that feature. I like to think that it’s kind of a cubist biography.

With that said, they are useful in historical research. Like right now, I’m writing about this German news correspondent, Ludwig Zimmerer. He has tons of files. To some degree, you can get a picture. Like I said, you do see that it’s a portrait. It can also confirm information that you already have. In his case, I have other data and here I can read about it and get this great confirmation and exploration of those facts. So, it can be used, and people use their own files in autobiographies as well. But certainly, to a large degree to say that they’re wrong, that they’re false. I mean, there is truth in there. If you’re careful, you can probably figure out some of it at least.

Finally, I want to go back to this question of what these files say about the system at large. As you said, if you look at it as an abstract painting where you’re getting pieces from different perspectives from informants, but also police. What do these files say to you about the larger biography of the system it’s functioning in?

It shows us who’s the enemy at a given time. Because I have worked on Foucault and have looked at him in particular, people often ask, “Well, what about the homosexual community? How are homosexuals treated?” It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue in the late 1950s in what I’ve looked at. It becomes a huge issue later. It tells us that in the 1980s there is this big Operation Hyacinth where they just mass arrest homosexual men in particular. So that gives us something.

Or the way they talk about mental illness. That gives us something about whether they believe that people can be rehabilitated, is this an illness, or is it a chosen political act? This tells us something about what they were believing at any given time. But also the gaps tell us a lot. What isn’t there. Were they overwhelmed at a particular moment? Were there just not enough agents? That says something about how they were viewed by their superiors, that at one point they lose 80% of their collaborators because there’s just not enough resources to deal with all of them. So, it says a lot about how the secret police were treated. What was their value, or how was it assessed? You learn about what they cared about through their actual work.