Glajar, Valentina, Alison Lewis, and Corina L. Petrescu, eds. Secret Police Files from the Eastern Bloc: Between Surveillance and Life Writing.
Today, the files of communism's secret police stand as its most enduring symbol. Their sheer volume--usually measured in miles--testifies to the reach and abuses of communist regimes. At the same time, it holds out the promise of justice: a chance to correct past wrongs, punish the guilty, and set the record straight. Governments across the former Soviet Bloc have made secret police files public in the interest of truth and reconciliation, yet these have proved elusive. As countless controversies make clear, the files are a problematic source: incomplete, often inscrutable, and susceptible to many readings. Such readings are the subject of a new volume edited by Valentina Glajar, Alison Lewis, and Corina Petrescu, Secret Police Files from the Eastern Bloc: Between Surveillance and Life Writing. Its eight essays consider the "Cold War stories that can be excavated through reading secret police files and working through the revelations therein" (11). Most contributors focus on the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate, with one chapter about the Hungarian Security Service. Some use the files to reconstruct historical stories, while others grapple with the stories that former victims and collaborators tell about the secret police. What unites them is a methodology: as the editors write, "we read these secret police files like we would read literary texts" (10).This innovative approach leads to creative and compelling essays that can serve as models for historians and cultural scholars alike.
The volume is divided into three parts. Part I, entitled "File Stories," considers what secret police records reveal and obscure. All three essays focus on writers who collaborated with the secret police under various forms of duress. By reading between the lines, they seek to unearth the writers' own voices and understand their motivations. Alison Lewis examines the cases of three GDR writers who worked as informers for the Stasi: the cultural functionary Paul Wiens, the dissident activist Sascha Anderson, and Wiens's daughter Maja Wiens, a onetime loyalist turned critic. Valentina Glajar reconstructs the life of German-Romanian author Marianne Siegmund, who served as a source for the Romanian Securitate before abruptly ending her collaboration. Corina Petrescu turns to another German-Romanian, Eginald Schlattner, tracing why a persecuted writer agreed to be a "witness for the prosecution." All three essays show how secret police reports can be read as a form of "life writing" that offers glimpses into private lives. Like any genre, these reports have their rules and conventions: a set of "metanarratives" (Lewis 29), a standardized vocabulary, a "stock of enemy types" (Petrescu 87). By learning this code, scholars can make sense of seemingly monotonous material and recover intimate details of personal experience.
That experience is the subject of Part II, "Files, Memory, and Biography." Once again, both essays in this section look at writers, asking how former informants made sense of their collaboration after 1989. Annie Ring considers two East German authors, Christa Wolf and Monika Maron, who wrote fictionalized autobiographies ("autofiction") after their involvement with the Stasi became public. As Ring argues, both Wolf and Maron presented this involvement as a "failure of control" in which the self was temporarily possessed by an "uncanny presence" (120, 130). Carol Anne Costabile-Heming analyzes another work of autofiction, Stasi Rat, written by the erstwhile informant Jana Dohring. Here, too, the writer avoids taking responsibility for her past by presenting her alter ego "as a victim rather than as a perpetrator" (138). Both essays highlight the enduring resonance of Secret Police files, which continue to "shadow" their subjects (Ring 117). By intruding onto the present, these files force a painful reckoning between public and private identities. For some, such reckoning can be too much to take: seeing themselves as victims or possessed, former collaborators sometimes blur reality and fiction.
The essays in Part III, "Performing Files and Surveillance," explore other fictionalized uses of real texts. They consider how artists working in various media-- theater, radio, and film--have dramatized the secret police and its victims. Aniko Szucs looks at the Hungarian play Apaches on the Danube (2009), which uses files of the Hungarian Security Service to reconstruct an informant's life story. Ulrike Garde examines two recent performance pieces from Germany: State Securities (2008), a play in which Stasi victims narrate their own files; and 50 Kilometers of Files (2011), an audio tour of Berlin that features surveillance recordings. Finally, Yuliya Komska analyzes Cold Waves (2007), a Romanian documentary that chronicles--and sometimes reenacts--the Ceausescu regime's efforts to block Radio Free Europe. These three essays testify to a persistent fascination with the secret police throughout the former Soviet Bloc. For both artists and audiences, revisiting its activities serves as a way to engage in "collective memory-making" (Garde 180) and reflect on "the human condition under socialism" (Komska 205). This fascination stems in part from what Szucs terms the "document-affect" (154): as archival historical sources, secret police files carry an air of authority and authenticity. They promise tantalizing access to unvarnished truth, whether in art or in politics.
Storytelling is the thread that ties the volume together. We hear about stories that secret police files construct, stories they reveal, stories they inspire or legitimate. In juxtaposing these stories, the volume reminds us that secret police files are themselves a type of narrative. Analyzing them requires many of the same techniques that we apply to literary works, from mapping plotlines to tracking character development. This is an important observation, and one that helps to deconstruct the files' "document-affect." It cautions researchers not to fetishize the archival record, but rather to adopt a more "complex [and] differentiated approach" (Glajar 74). At the same time, putting "file stories" in the context of fictional stories about files raises questions of specificity and genre. If secret police files are just another form of narrative, is there anything that makes them distinctive? Describing files as a "pernicious technology of power," the editors call for a "mode of reading [...] that does not suspend moral judgment" (10-11). Yet this injunction sits uneasily alongside their call for "sympathy for the complex and often messy stories of informers" (11). Several contributors go further: Ring rejects "any attempts we might make to view the history of state socialism with too much surety of judgment" (132), while Szucs argues that "categorical moral judgments about past decisions and actions [are] impossible" (154). flow, then, can we use secret police reports as instruments of truth and reconciliation--and not just literary texts?
Secret Police Files from the Eastern Bloc will not resolve the legal and ethical challenges facing post-communist states. It does, however, invite us to rethink how we read secret police files, and offers several creative ways to do so. It deserves a wide readership among scholars of the GDR and other communist regimes.
University of Virginia
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|Publication:||The German Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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