A Spy's Defection Prompts an Embassy's Move

Embassy of the Czech Republic

· Washington,history,architecture,culture,diplomacy

"You know, it’s like a satirical movie.” Czech Ambassador to the United States, Hynek Kmoníček.  

The Christian Hauge House on Massachusetts Ave, the former home of the Embassy of Czechoslovakia. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

The bold, beautiful Christian Hauge House, which has, for years, been surrounded by construction fences and cloaked in a sense of forsakenness, holds a prominent place on Washington, D.C.'s Embassy Row. Currently owned by the nation of Cameroon, its storied past includes acting as the legation to the now-defunct Czechoslovakia. And, were it not for an open window, a bold defection, and a decree from Prague that the embassy was too close to downtown, and should be moved “to the forest," it might still be the home of the Embassy of the Czech Republic today. 

The first Norwegian ambassador to the U.S., Christian Hauge, purchased the property and the modest house that sat upon it from two sisters in 1906, before expanding and building the house into what it is today. When he died, it passed to his wife, who in turn passed it to her brother upon her death, who then passed it to his daughter, and so forth, until in 1929, it was sold to the "Czechoslovak Republic" for $165,000 US. In 1933, it was badly damaged by a fire caused by a short-circuiting wire between the second and third floors. 

In 1939, after Czechoslovakian president Emil Hácha signed away his country's independence to Hitler in Berlin, officials from the German embassy entered the Czech legation in Washington and demanded the property be turned over to Germany. It was a move that was being repeated around the world, as Hitler had demanded all Czechoslovak embassies, legations, and chanceries be relinquished to Germany.  

Then-ambassador Colonel Vladimir Hurban refused to surrender until he received official word from Prague. Shortly after, he informed his government that he "did not recognize President Hácha's capitulation to Chancellor Hitler as valid, inasmuch as it is unconstitutional," as was reported at the time by The Washington Post. His refusal to surrender the legation prompted the State Department to announce that it also would not recognize the German acquisition of Czechoslovakia. 

"I took an oath to obey the laws of the Czechoslovak government," he told a reporter. "No one has the power to force me to act against the law." 

Ambassador Vladimir Hurban speaking to the National Press Club in March 1939, after refusing to surrender his legation. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For many years, I lived in upper Northwest Washington, D.C. On long summer evenings, I was occasionally kept awake late into the night by the sounds of music and laughter ringing across the Melvin Hazen spur of Rock Creek Park and into my open windows. A little bit of sleuthing determined the sounds were originating from the Embassy of the Czech Republic, on the other side of the spur on Tilden Street NW, where a small cluster of embassies and residences now live, tucked behind the trees of Rock Creek Park. 

I mentioned this proximity when I met Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček. Kmoníček confirmed that the embassy and residence were on Tilden Street and then asked, in an odd stroke of conversational fate, “Yes, but do you know why we’re on Tilden?” 

According to the Ambassador, it involved an open window, a bold defection, and a decree from Prague that the embassy was too close to downtown, and should be moved “to the forest.” 

And it wasn't a fire, or Germans, or the breakup of Czechoslovakia that prompted the move. 

There were a number of asylum requests from Czech officials not only in the U.S., but around the world, leading up to the Prague Spring. Which was scandalous enough to panic officials in Prague? The general who defected to the U.S. with $72,000, who the Czech government called “an embezzler, but not a spy”, and tried to have extradited? It couldn’t have been the second secretary at the embassy, whose official title was “scientist” but appeared to do little scientific work, and wasn’t known within the local community, as that request came in 1970, after the welcome ceremony but before the embassy and residence were fully functional. 

No, it was someone whose asylum request was reported almost in passing, who was described as “a pleasant man with little to say,” whose sudden disappearance raised few eyebrows, and fewer headlines, and whose daring, if incredibly absurd, escape still causes the Czech ambassador to roar with laughter while telling it, who caused all the trouble. 

It was a man named Tisler. 

The current residence of the Ambassador of the Czech Republic, on Tilden, next to the embassy. Photo courtesy of the Embassy of the Czech Republic. 

From the very early days of the Czechoslovak legation in the Christian Hauge House, the Soviet Union pressured the Czech government to move to a less accessible location. But the Czechoslovak envoy was accustomed to withstanding pressure, and resisted these demands, as well. 

“The argument was, why would we move? There was never a problem,” Ambassador Kmoníček said when we were finally able to meet over tea and cookies at his residence to discuss the move. (And indeed, from my vantage point in his parlor, the trees, bare from winter, offer an unobstructed view into the windows of my old apartment.) “There had to be a problem, and the problem had to be connected with the location.” 

“And a happy break, from the Soviet point of view, that we are not so experienced, came in the mid-50s, with a military attaché named Tisler. And it was the famous Tisler case.” 

“Tisler was known for being lazy, not speaking any languages and providing no intelligence,” Kmoníček said. “So, perfect to be sent to spy in Washington.” 

In his free time, according to Czech government archives, Tisler began a relationship with a female employee at the embassy, which, when discovered, resulted in him being sent to a “requalification course” that included “morale and character strengthening.” When the attaché returned to the embassy, and the business of spying, he was more successful, and within a month, much to the delight of his superiors, he cultivated an American asset. 

“He recruited an American spy in the way that he went to the car repair shop. He met there an American, and they talked to each other about the troublesome life in Washington, and that some parts for the car to be repaired are in short supply and you must wait for them, “Kmoníček said. “And after some words like that, he confided in him that he has the problem that not only car parts are missing but even he is missing information for his bosses.” 

“So, I need a muffler, and tell me about troop movements?” I asked, incredulous. 

“Nobody found it suspicious,” Kmoníček said. 

“It went on for some time, everybody was happy and first of all, who was happy? The American counterintelligence, because obviously, the reality was the other way around,” the Ambassador said, laughing. “The American hired the Czech.” 

For years, the American gave the Czech fake information, which he then passed through Prague to the Soviet Union. This bit might have continued on for many more years, except a dispute within various factions of the Czech government caused ripples in Washington. Abruptly, the attaché was recalled to Prague, under the cover of his previous indiscretion with his colleague, moral strengthening be damned. 

Embassy officials arrived one morning to discover all of the water taps had been turned on, the building was flooded, and the safes had been emptied. The Czechoslovak government’s cypher was gone. So, too, was Tisler. 

“And that was probably the final break for the Soviets because they said, we told you,” the Ambassador said. 

Now, Washington has its history of bold defections and this one might not have been enough to force the Czech embassy to move, except for one seemingly small detail that emerged shortly after Tisler and his family had fled. 

“They found somehow that all these years, four or five years, he was providing information for Americans, in the most stupid way you can imagine,” Kmoníček said. “He was putting it through the window. No dead drop. Just here, you take the papers, you take it out of the window. They would copy it then give it back." 

“You know, it’s like a satirical movie,” Kmoníček said. 

And so the embassy moved to the forest. 

“Well, the point was that you want to have people locked safe with their materials where they are better watched,” Kmoníček said. 

The current location, seven and a half acres at 2612 Tilden was purchased in 1960, for US $325,000. The Christian Hauge House was sold to the government of Cameroon. After seven years of contentious relations with the neighbors, the Czechoslovaks replaced the existing house with a new residence, and built the embassy next door on a road which was later named, in partnership with the also-relocated Hungarian embassy across the street, Spring of Freedom St. 

In 1993, with the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Czechs kept the house and the embassy on Tilden, while the Slovaks created a new embassy in International Circle. 

The Czechs kept something else, as well. 

Between the Czech residence and the Indonesian ambassador's residence next door is a standard black iron fence, overgrown in places with vines and branches. Look closer, however, and you’ll notice a second, smaller fence, one topped with barbed wire, and angled spikes. The spikes face inward. 

This gulag fence, as Kmoníček calls it, was put in place when the embassy first moved to its present location, and is the only of its kind in Washington. Unlike most embassies, which have fences to keep people out, this one was designed to keep its staff from escaping. 

I asked Ambassador Kmoníček if he’d ever considered climbing it, just to see if an escape was possible. 

“I don’t need to climb the fence,” he said with a chuckle. “When you’re Ambassador, they open the doors for you.” 

Remants of an old fence designed to keep embassy staff from escaping from the Czech Embassy on Tilden St. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

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