I finished reading The File by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday and just had to talk about it immediately. It is a fascinating, bravely personal examination of the secretive, fearful culture of the GDR and the way it shaped the lives of those touched by the Stasi, be they employee, informer or, in Garton Ash’s case, subject. After retrieving his own Stasi file once they were made available in the early 1990s, Garton Ash sets out to gauge its accuracy (comparing it against his own diaries and memories of the period) and to track down and interview those who informed on and monitored him, a particularly intriguing task for a historian who, after all, arrived in Berlin in 1978 as a student studying the city under Hitler, when German citizens had to choose whether to resist or yield to the totalitarian state of the Third Reich. But once he arrived, he realised that the present was perhaps more interesting than the past:
I was fascinated because here, in East Germany, people were actually living those endlessly difficult choices between collaboration with and resistance to a dictatorship. Here I could pursue the Stauffenberg/Speer question in, as it were, real time. (p. 44)
Happily, there were no sinister consequences for Garton Ash as the result of information passed on by informants. He did not suffer at anyone’s hands and was more intrigued by why they became informants and how they’ve lived with the consequences of that decision than why they informed on him personally.
I have never read extensively on the GDR so some of the numbers were staggering for me. The sheer scale of the Stasi’s operations and the cooperation they received from the general population is overwhelming:
The sources the Stasi themselves considered most important were the ‘unofficial collaborators’, the IMs. The numbers are extraordinary. According to internal records, in 1988 – the last ‘normal’ year of the GDR – the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 ‘unofficial collaborators’. Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in ‘conspiratorial’ services, such as lending their flats for secret meetings, or were simply listed as reliable contacts. The Ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing. Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police. Allow just one dependent per person, and you’re up to one in twenty-five. (p. 74)
The interviews with the informants, while predictably awkward, were surprising in how openly the informants talked to Garton Ash about their actions. They all had their reasons, their rationalizations to protect themselves from their own recriminations, their own consciences, perhaps even more than Garton Ash’s. Some began as idealists, some were hoping for improved standing and future benefits in return for their assistance, and some were being blackmailed or coerced. To a man, their decision to inform was not a personal grudge against Garton Ash; there was no malice intended. It was something they did for themselves, for their own reasons.
His interviews with the more reticent former-Stasi officers are even more interesting. Unlike the informers, these men know they ruined lives, had people killed or imprisoned for political differences that now mean nothing. But that was their world, their job. Some harboured doubts then and regrets now while some remained convinced that all they had done, they had done for the best. But who is brave or foolish enough to be a dissident in a totalitarian state, when an ideological quibble could see your entire family’s future ruined? Or worse? Are you an evil person for protecting yourself while knowing that your organization is doing wrong, even if you aren’t personally doing anything to its victims? Are you worse if you believe that it is not wrong but absolutely necessary, as you’ve always been told?
There is no definitive answer to those questions and never will be and Garton Ash comes away with no conclusion, just profiles of people who touched his life without him ever having known it, without, thankfully, having damaged it:
What you find here, in the files, is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances…What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty then our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.
But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally, who are we to forgive? (p. 223-224)
I think what made this so special for me, aside from just being informative, were all the personal details Garton Ash includes. It is a memoir of his time there as a young ‘bourgeois-liberal’ (as his file described him), struggling to define his identity and career path even as much darker struggles are taking place all around him. And it is the story of an older man looking back on the youth he once was and trying to remember and identify with him:
What the Stasi’s Lieutenant Küntzel called my ‘legends’ were in truth less cover stories than different strands of an unformed life. Like the confused, ambitious twenty-three-year-old graduate students who now come to my rooms in Oxford to ask me for life advice, I wanted to do everything at once: to write a doctoral thesis about Berlin in the Third Reich, and a book about East Germany, and an essay about the Bauhaus, and brilliant reports for the Spectator, and probably to be George Orwell, Foreign Secretary and war hero too. Cover stories that I told myself.
The diary reminds me of all the fumblings, the clumsiness, the pretentiousness and snobbery – and the insouciance with which I barged into other people’s lives. Embarrassment apart, there is the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! At times, this past self is such a stranger to m that where I have written ‘I’ in these last pages I almost feel it should be ‘he’. (p. 37)
There are delightful, lighter moments too. How, for example, to resist the arrogant, comedic stylings of twenty-something males?
As we sat up at 1 am, drinking in the flat next to Mark’s office, the telephone rang. Heavy breathing, then the line went dead. Half-an-hour later, the phone rang again and a voice said: ‘I see you have a guest.’ We guessed they were bored, or simply wanted us to go to bed. Knowing the place to be bugged, we took pleasure in loudly deploring the latest article by ‘Edward Marston’, my pseudonym in the Spectator. ‘Did you see Eddie Marston’s latest piece, Tim?’ ‘Yes, terrible wasn’t it? He must have been drunk again.’ I ask Frau Schulz to enquire if there is a file on this enemy of the people but, alas, the central card index has no entry under Marston, Edward. (p. 67-68)
The File is a gripping personal history centered on great ethical questions with no clear answers. Garton Ash’s writing is superb: thoughtful and skilled, passionate and compelling, he does a wonderful job illuminating all the players in his little story in a balanced, sympathetic way, without the reader ever forgetting that this is his story. All this happened not that long ago, not so far away, and not to a political firebrand or revolutionary but to a twenty-something history student. And to many others.
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