Prague exhibition sheds light on Czechoslovak agents sent into country by West in early part of Cold War

10-03-2009

Under communism, hundreds of people died trying to escape across Czechoslovakia’s borders into the West. However, the traffic was not all one way, as in the years following the Communist takeover of 1948, Western states sent Czechoslovak agents into the country to work secretly with the small anti-communist resistance. They are the subject of a new exhibition in Prague.

Along with information panels, the exhibition On the Cold War Front: Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1956 features radio equipment, fake ID cards, and wire cutters and thick rubber gloves for getting through electric fences. It also includes scores of photographs of ‘couriers’, agents who crossed into communist Czechoslovakia from the west. Curator Prokop Tomek explains who the couriers were.

“They were young Czechs and Slovaks who were refugees, and were mainly recruited in refugee camps. There may have been thousands of them, though the research on how many there were hasn’t yet been completed. They worked for the US, the UK and France. They did it for, let’s say, patriotic and ideological reasons. But it was for the benefit of, or in conjunction with, the Western intelligence services.”

The Cold War was felt keenly in Czechoslovakia, partly because the country directly bordered the West.

“For us Cold War wasn’t just an empty phrase. It was a real fight, a hidden fight, on the border and within the country. It didn’t just concern the couriers, but the people who helped them, who hid them, who gave them information, who created drop-off points, who ran transmission stations – so tens of thousands were involved. They knew they were risking death or severe prison terms. But they still took part. It shows us there were brave people in this country. What they did is a certain model, and a certain challenge, for us.”

The exhibition ends in 1956. Prokop Tomek says that year marked a turning point in the Cold War. First, in February, there was a break with Stalinism at the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Then in October came the Hungarian Uprising, when the insurgents were disappointed to receive no help from the West.

“Those events were certain symbols and signals of the fact there would not be a military conflict, and that the two-bloc system was stable. Also it became possible to travel from the East to the West and vice versa, so there were safer ways to get reports from Czechoslovakia than transmissions by couriers.”

On the Cold War Front: Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1956 is on at the City of Prague Museum until May 3.

10-03-2009