THE revelation in Czechoslovakia last June that scores of candidates running for the country's new parliament on reformist tickets had served as police informers offered a glimpse into the labyrinth being uncovered by the new democratic nations of East Europe as they open secret police files. Such glimpses will probably decrease in the future because full revelation of the enormous informer networks could threaten the delicate fabric of newly emerging societies.
In East Germany, the names of 100,000 informers were found in police files. In Hungary, perhaps the least onerous police state in the east bloc, the names of 62,000 informers were found. No official number is available in Prague, but it is known that some 15,000 files, presumably of hard core informers, were destroyed by the secret police after last November's revolution.
``The only persons you were able to trust here were relatives and close friends,'' says a Prague resident. ``You could make a political joke on a bus in Poland, but you wouldn't dare do it in Czechoslovakia. The impact of repression was much deeper here. There was an atomization of society.''
The insidious secret police penetrated into every cranny of society. The revelations in Prague - the result of a routine Interior Ministry check of parliamentary candidates - showed that it was not just concierges and taxi drivers who kept an eye on the surroundings for the police, but also professionals of impeccable standing.
Czech President Vaclav Havel, who had been an outspoken foe of the communist regime and regularly carried a toothbrush in his shirt pocket in case he would be arrested once again, warned in one of his recent fireside chats to the nation against staging a witch hunt for past informers. ``We were all guilty in letting the regime function,'' he said. It was too difficult, he said, to attempt to draw a line between those who willingly collaborated with ``the dark forces,'' as he called them, and unfortunates who had been forced to make a pact with the devil.
Says a veteran foreign observer in Prague: ``What do you do with the names in the police files? Do you draw up a list and say these are people no longer entitled to hold public office? Whose names do you put on such a list?''
In Hungary, the subject is a major issue in the press. Some commentators urge that the files be permanently sealed without disclosing the names to anyone. Others suggest that persons named in the files be discreetly told that their names had been found. ``Who knows if these people were really informers?'' asks one Hungarian. ``The fact that the police opened a file with their name doesn't mean they actually gave information.''
The reluctance to turn on past informers is paralleled by a reluctance thus far to wreak vengeance on the secret police. ``Some of the police units have been disbanded,'' says an official in Czechoslovakia where there were 10,000 members of the secret police. ``Some are on home leave. A few individuals have been sacked.'' Concern was presently focused not on punishment for past misdeeds, he said, but on ensuring that the police would in future be under parliamentary control.
Even in East Germany, the concern for former members of the dreaded Stasi is not lynching or jail but unemployment.
Except for a few top East German communists, the old communist leadership in Eastern Europe has likewise escaped retribution. ``You can still see them walking their little dogs near the big villas in the afternoon,'' says a Prague housewife of the men who ruled her country until last November. ``The villas were bought by the state for pennies years ago when their owners went into exile. The buildings were then turned over to the communist leadership. Nobody is bothering them.''
Unlike the French Revolution, which destroyed the old regime and then consumed itself, East Europe's revolutionaries are displaying understanding for the frailties of man as they start to search for their future.