Burn the lot or publish the lot, but the days of secret service files are over

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"THE decay of a file - la pourriture d'une fiche - is always an intellectual tragedy," said the French detective. He was an inspector in the Marseille police, and I used to hang around a salon where the detective, Disque Bleu glued to his lower lip, could often be found impressing pretty women with his wit.

He meant that he felt professionally bereaved when some villain went straight. But it was worse than that. A file which suddenly ceased to live would begin to rot, he explained, spreading a contagion of fear and doubt to all the neighbouring files and to the policemen who tended them.

There were only two remedies, this pretentious cop ended. One was to start adding to the file once more - even though the additions would be pure fiction. The second was to stick the file in a brown envelope and send it anonymously to the newspapers. Only then would the stench and the anxiety dissipate.

I remembered the Marseille detective last week, as the scent of decaying state-security files spread across east-central Europe. After 1989, the Germans were the only nation to open these files to the public. The Gauck Office, named after its director, sits in Berlin; any individual may apply to read his or her Stasi file, while public institutions - including universities - may request Gauck to run lists of names through his computers.

But this drastic act of transparency was only possible because West Germany had, in effect, annexed East Germany, evicting Communist nominees and imposing its own people and rules. The West Germans, in fact, behaved much as the Allies had behaved 50 years before, when they impounded the Nazi files and set up denazification courts.

Other ex-Communist countries, in contrast, preserved some continuity. The result was that they approached the secret police files nervously, and applied only half-measures. After some brave talk immediately after the 1989 revolutions, these files stayed in limbo; they had ceased to grow but they were neither thrown away nor made public. Instead, governments used them - often shamelessly and selectively - to defame rivals.

My French detective could have predicted the consequences. A horrible smell began to unnerve the leaders of those new democracies. Until the past few months, it was the Czechs who provided the most scandalous examples; there was an international outcry when Jan Kavan, a member of parliament who had spent 20 years conspiring against the Communist regime from exile in London, was smeared as a police informer. But then, a few weeks ago, unpublished data allegedly drawn from secret files were used to bring down the Polish prime minister, Jozef Oleksy.

The charges accused Oleksy, a leader of the post-Communist party called Polish Social Democracy, of maintaining secret links to Russian intelligence officers. True or exaggerated, the affair has induced the Poles to change their files policy. A Polish equivalent of the Gauck Office is being set up, and it is possible that it will house not only material from the Communist period but files from the new security service established after 1989. The Hungarians are preparing something similar, although their new Office of State Security History will allow access only to the files of the department combating internal opposition which was abolished in 1990, and not to material from the counter-espionage and general state security departments.

In central Europe, they call it "lustration", a term drawn from the Latin word for ritual purification. It has two meanings. There is lustration proper, the purging of public life, and that is what the Czechs have attempted. Back in 1990 the opposition hero Jiri Ruml told parliament: "In this chamber are sitting collaborators and agents of State Security." The Ruml committee broke into the files and in 1991 denounced 12 MPs by name. Later that year, a law barred all State Security agents, senior Communist Party officials and members of the old Peoples' Militia from all posts in public life.

The trouble with this sort of selective purging is that it invariably leads to freelance denunciations, often by malevolent survivors from the old security police, which (as in the Kavan case) are hard to rebut. It also brings up the fundamental health warning for those who use such files, which is that they are full of lies. Security services, including our own, embroider and exaggerate their successes in "turning" their victims into informers, in order to score bonuses and promotions. Informers often do the same, to reduce the blackmailing pressure of their masters. The Stasi archives in Germany have turned out to be full of damaging nonsense as well as genuine revelations.

The second sort of lustration is access by members of the public to their own files. So far, only the Germans have allowed this, although the Poles and Hungarians may now follow their example. It can be a melancholy experience, especially when one discovers that a husband, lover or close friend has been a regular informer. Again, the health warning about lies must be borne in mind. But to deny this private and individual access is surely a violation of the citizen's rights.

It is odd that Poland and Hungary are moving towards opening files, while the Czech Republic is not. The reason for the difference may be depressing. The first two are now ruled by post-Communist governments while the Czech government remains centre-right. And the bitter fact is that those who stand to lose most by the revelations are not the Communists but their political opponents - the parties whose ancestry lies in illegal groups which bravely resisted the Communist regimes in the 1970s and 1980s.

That sounds absurd, but it makes ugly sense. Nobody cares much whether party members in a dictatorship informed on one another - who would expect otherwise? But the full pressure of state security was aimed at "dissidents",their friends and those who regularly met foreigners from the West - and there were many successes.

"Informer" is a horrible word. But consider the circumstances - and the sort of tortuous moral compromises which people were forced to make. Some of my own friends in those lands were informers (though not my best friends). They could bargain with themselves like this ... "I meet a Western journalist. This opens a precious airhole through which we can tell him what is really happening in our country. The price of this contact is that Security will interrogate me and blackmail me to become an informer. If I say No, I will be punished and the contact lost for ever. But if I say Yes, then I can get away with telling them a harmless, sanitised version of what we said and did, and I will be allowed to meet that Westerner again and again."

Who, then, was using whom, and was the cause of liberty being served or betrayed? A dramatist such as Havel, a novelist such as Klima or Konwicki, is qualified to answer such questions. Parliamentary committees, tribunals or TV interviewers are not. But unfortunately it's the latter whose judgement on recent history will prevail. Unlike the writers, they are noisy and in a hurry, and they reckon that informer means informer.

So I come back to my detective. To revive the files by adding fiction, or to publish them - those were his alternatives to pourriture. In central Europe (where new, "democratic" spooks are now adding fresh dirt to the dirt accumulated by the old Communist ones) both solutions are being tried. Myself, I would choose between burning the lot and publishing the lot - with a bias towards publishing. But half-measures are no solution. And whatever is done, it will take years for the smell of infamy to fade.