As any visitor to Berlin would tell you, in terms of financial success, the German Democratic Republic is doing better than ever. From the packed with tourists and drearily commercialised Checkpoint Charlie to the redeveloped and thoroughly capitalist Alexanderplatz and the dozens of museums specialising in the GDR, nearly 30 years after its demise modern visitors to Germany cannot get enough of the nostalgia (‘Ostoligie’) around the world’s kitschiest dictatorship. And as the international success films such as Das Leben Der Anderen (‘The Lives of Others) or Goodbye Lenin demonstrate, they don’t come just for the Ampelmannchen (the iconic hat wearing signals at pedestrian crossings): increasingly life under the police state, and the police state itself is on show. While the catastrophe of National Socialism and arch menace of the SS state remains modern history’s most vivid horror, an unavoidable landmark for present day Germany, The GDR’s ministry for state security, or STASI, is in the minds of many its apposite yet ‘totalitarian’ twin. By no means an instrument of mass murder, but one of everyday brutality, in many ways the 40 year long reign of the Stasi holds a unique interest value due to its very success. Another is it’s strangely mundane end, becoming history in mere months, chaotically and without bloodshed, or much retribution. While the suviving employees of the Nazi security services were in the immediate post war years imprisoned or executed, most of the Stasi’s 30,000 workforce simply dissolved into private life come 1990, many neither rewarded nor punished for their past careers.
The sustained popular interest in the GDR and its security apparatus is particularly brought to light if one considers the host of histories and novels available on the shelves of high street bookshops such as Waterstones. English Language studies which focus on everyday life in the GDR, such as Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR or Anna Funders Staziland take up an increasing amount of space in the popular history section along with the usual assortment of accounts of Stalingrad and Hitler biographies.
In The File:A Personal history, Oxford Historian and columnist Timothy Garton Ash explores a very personal history of his time in East Germany, dissecting an unsettlingly detailed Stasi file compiled through a network of mostly voluntary informers who documented his stay in the GDR. Utilising the unprecedentedly even-handed approach of the post-reunification authorities to the East German past and the unique open atmosphere of newly reunified Germany itself, Garton Ash tracks down and personally interviews many of his former informers, creating a book that is part personal memoir, part investigation into the murky and if not murderous, still profoundly unpleasant reality of the East German machine.
As readable and concise as his print journalism, Garton Ash is still one of the best historians and historically minded columnists today for his sense of style, and this book
Provides a gripping account of Stasi methods of surveillance, even if not as a historical ‘study’ in the formal sense.
At first glance at the blurb and title, you could be forgiven for thinking the thought the apparent premise of this book was a bit self-gratulatory and melodramatic. As Garton Ash himself discusses in the initial chapters, it is easy to wear the attention of police state apparatus as particular badge of honour for those who have never felt their threat. A lesser author could well have exaggerated the importance and danger of the Stasi surveillance during his year or so as a resident in East Germany-such files were so routine, as to be the norm for foreigners in the homogenous and relatively isolated East German society. But Garton Ash’s book is by no means congratulatory, and in fact a well thought out attempt to respond to the formidable and efficient, if remarkably petty, STASI security apparatus.
Beginning with the text of his file as he first read it, when, in the early 1990s, the former office for State security released all of its files for public scrutiny, Garton Ash recollects, partially from memory and partially from Stasi notes, his time as a graduate student in a still very divided Berlin at the turn of the 1980s. Indeed, as he unravels the almost constant surveillance around his movements in ‘the white heat of the Cold War’, a surprising contrast between the is that the meticulous notes of the informants seem to remember the time better than he himself can. In particular he relates an evening in November 1980, in which his then East German girlfriend suddenly turned the lights on in his room with the curtains open, and his suspicions that this could be to make surveillance easier. The details provided in the file by IMs are thorough yet often phonetically inaccurate –Garton Ash’s birthplace of Wimbledon is recorded as ‘Wimbredew’ and his one time employer the Spectator becomes the intriguingly soviet ‘Spekta’. The apparent discrepancies between the Stasi’s official reportage and Garton Ash’s living memory is a particularly effective as a backbone for the book, and one and should that could be used more in such literature.
Garton Ash takes care in not revealing the identity of the Stasi informants, or ‘IMs’ (short for ‘inoffizielle Mitarbeiter’, or unofficial Collaborator) that largely furnished the contents of his file, but as the disclaimer at the start of the book makes clear, it is at times very easy to match informants such as ‘Michaela’ with their real life counterparts.
Garton Ash makes a particularly unusual first hand observer of the GDR, mainly because of his staunch personal opposition both as a student and up to the present day to not only the GDR regime but the ideology of Soviet Communism itself. Yet both his interest and sympathies for people on the other side of the Iron Curtain gives his work a strange quality of being between the anti-communism of older historians and the more sympathetic, if idealistic approval of the ‘fellow travelling left’, or the Marxist and leftist influenced generation of ’68. However, what sets him somewhat apart from much of the current crop of modern historians of Eastern Europe is personal experience. Garton Ash not only spoke the languages of the Warsaw Pact with ease, living in the GDR and extensively travellign in Poland at the decade defining Solidarity protests of 1981, but combined this with as illustrious an academic career as the Eastern Europeanists and Sovietologists observing from the comfort of their Western and often American university departments.
Throughout the biographical sections of the File the honesty of its author is sometimes quite jarring, often seeming to revel with slightly unflattering pride in its unapologetic self-reflection. In the File’s more political moments, there is an understandable singlemindedness, yet the often ambiguous phrasing of of these areas (Garton Ash describes himself politically using the conveniently unspecific label of ‘English Liberal’) sometimes reveals a narrative too eager to present itself as truth. It is no distortion to say that Garton Ash’s centre-right embrace of English individualism is stretched to some limit of credibility. This is only reinforced by what seems to be a rather strange and unsubtle anti-New Labour parallel between Eastern Bloc authoritarianism and the expansion of Britain’s security state, CCTV camera numbers and all, ‘since 1997’ in the Afterward written in 2009. There are some sections of the File that could be stronger, and certainly some that could for a reader unfamiliar with the GDR reinforce the common view of the GDR as nothing more than a STASI prison that happened to encircle West Berlin. But to criticise Garton Ash’s objectivity would be unfair and misleading: it is now nearly twenty years since the file was published, in a period where the memory of the GDR was still very fresh and it’s files barely explored. In any case, Garton Ash himself declares in his Afterward that ten years on, his message for a more enlightened public is far more to say‘East Germany was not only the Stasi.’This is a memoir, not a popular history text or monograph, and to claim that such nitpicks detract much from the fun of the book would be false as well as unkind. Indeed, being placed into Garton’s shoes, (or at least his perplexingly distant former self), pulling apart the reports (or as Garton Ash calls them, ‘poisened madeleines’) that a foreign internal security service on a private citizen and were then made fully public barely a decade later has an element of human interest that surely rivals that of a bestseller for gripping interest value.
Overall, the File is an enjoyable and unusual read that conjures up not just the experience of living in the GDR as a foreigner but an insight into how close in proximity the boundaries of the Cold War could lie for active observers like Garton Ash. Just as interestingly, it gives a window into the early years at the coal face of a ‘hands on’ historian and public intellectual such as Garton Ash and how close current affairs, personal memories and history can become, especially if the object in question is yourself.