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The File: A Personal History.

By Timothy Garton Ash (New York: Random House, 1997. 256pp.).

"So what should I do? Jump out of the window?" Frau R. responds, when confronted by Timothy Garton Ash with reports that she made about him to the Stasi in 1980. (143) Fifteen years later, when the GDR no longer exists, he has returned to explore the 325-page intelligence file on himself compiled by the East German secret police. Reading that file, made available to him now by the Gauck authority in Berlin, Carton Ash studies the way that his own life, back then, as a graduate student and journalist, was reported to the police; he then looks up the informants and asks them to fill in their own side of the story. These confrontations, as described in The File: A Personal History, are immensely interesting in their moral complications, but, in fact, it is for appreciating the social history of the secret police that the details of the file provide the most important material. Whatever the moral and political dilemmas involved in the opening of such files, and the "lustration" of former informers, in Germany and in all the once Communist states of Eastern Europe, the archival value of these intelligence sources to the historian can not be underestimated. "Probably no dictatorship in modern history has had such an extensive and fanatically thorough secret police as East Germany did," remarks Garton Ash. "No democracy in modern history has done more to expose the legacy of the preceding dictatorship than the new Germany has." (21) His own file, of course, offers no more than a small window into the workings of that dictatorship, but his deft historical handling of the materials makes this an exemplary microhistory. "I am but a window, a sample, a means to an end, the object in this experiment," he writes. (23) Whether or not the subjects of the book may be tempted to jump out that window, Carton Ash offers an invaluable view into the recent past.

One of the principal informants in the file was IM "Michaela" - Inoffiziele Mitarbeiter, "unofficial collaborator" with the Stasi. She was an arts administrator in Weimar, and reported that Carton Ash was asking suspicious questions about a Bauhaus museum exhibit: "Why was there only now a Bauhaus exhibition organized in the GDR?" and "What is the attitude of the GDR to the Bauhaus?" (31) Cultural interest was interpreted as political curiosity; the police considered whether Carton Ash could be prosecuted under the criminal code as someone passing secret information to a foreign power. In his research he reads not only his own file as a suspect, but also the file of the "unofficial collaborator," in which "Michaela" makes reports on everyone from her stepdaughter's boyfriend to a rude waiter in a hotel restaurant. The political unimportance of the suspects and the apparent triviality of the reports serve to illustrate the routine pervasiveness of such secret surveillance, the ambitiously comprehensive but strategically haphazard program of the Communist state to gather information about German society. Carton Ash confronts "Michaela" fifteen years later, an older woman in trousers and high heels," a hand-me-down-Marlene." She reads the photocopies from his file, she cries, she half apologizes, she worries about being identifiable in his book: "Ah well, perhaps I can sue you and I'll win a lot of money. . . . No, no, sorry, that was only a joke. . . ." (116) Garton Ash relates their meeting and dialogue to extrapolate the moral convulsions of post-Communist society: "You must imagine conversations like this taking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting." (117) The File explores these issues and situations with reference to the author's own case; the broader context of collaboration, for post-Communist Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as East Germany, is presented in Tina Rosenberg's The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts after Communism.

From the files of the informers Garton Ash discovers how they were initially pressured to collaborate with the Stasi. "Michaela" had been caught violating foreign currency regulations on a trip to Hungary. "Schuldt," a lecturer on English literature, who reported meticulously on the number of bottles of beer that Garton Ash drank with his dinner, was initially recruited as an informer after being caught making homosexual advances to a student. "Smith," himself an Englishman living in East Germany, became a collaborator after the Stasi first accused him of being an English spy. Garton Ash further explores the ways in which such people justified their loathsome activities when confronted as former informers. "Michaela" insisted that reporting on him was a merely official responsibility of her state employment, dienstlich, nur dienstlich. (112) Smith, on the other hand, has persuaded himself that talking to the Stasi constituted a sort of "channel of communication to the state"; it was his opportunity to register his political opinions. (137) The bureaucrats who supervised these informers also offer various self-justifications. An important intelligence official tells Garton Ash, "I did my job," and further explains, "People weren't afraid, they were grateful for the security!" (180) Inevitably, looking back, Garton Ash poses the questions of "how in the second half of the twentieth century there was again built on German soil, a totalitarian police state, less brutal than the Third Reich, to be sure, and not genocidal, but more quietly all-pervasive in its domestic control . . . how this state exploited some of the very same mental habits, social disciplines, and cultural appeals on which Nazism had drawn, and those same fateful 'secondary virtues' - duty, loyalty, punctuality, cleanliness, hard work." (226-27) In The File Garton Ash thus cautiously considers the relevance of sociological perspectives on Nazi Germany for understanding the dynamics of East German Communism.

He further frames his concerns with reference to several significant literary models. Graham Greene is invoked as "the high priest of seediness," and George Orwell hardly needs to be named when the intelligence administration, HVA, Hauptverwaltung Aufklarung, is rendered as the "Department of Enlightenment." (16, 148) Even more relevant for their literary values and historical concerns are Christopher Isherwood and John Le Carre. Garton Ash recalls his own early experiences as a young Englishman in Germany with allusions to Isherwood's Berlin Stories, and the narrative relation of the older author to his younger self in the The File ("I am but a window") sometimes makes one think of Isherwood ("I am a camera"). Spying in the Cold War is, of course the literary terrain of Le Carre, and Garton Ash explores the moral dimensions of espionage along some of the same lines, posing the thorny problem of how to judge the intelligence operations of the two Cold War camps. East German spymaster Markus Wolf assures Garton Ash that there was no difference at all between the rival secret services in Europe. He wonders, "Is there any truth in the arguments that Markus Wolf made to me as we walked around the center of now reunited Berlin? What is the essential difference between the security service of a communist state like East Germany and the security service of a democracy like Britain?" (231) In a final irony, worthy of Le Carre, Garton Ash discovers that he himself has been labeled, incorrectly, by British security as someone who has "assisted" intelligence. "For a moment, I imagine 'Michaela' turning around and saying: 'Well, you see, your own security service had you down as a British IM!' Rubbish, of course." (248) With his sensitivity to the nuances of his own situation, of what it means to make himself the subject of this study, Carton Ash has created not only an important work of social and political history, but also a small literary masterpiece of his own.

Garton Ash has been well known as an essayist, journalist, and historian of Central and Eastern Europe for the last two decades. His book about Solidarity, The Polish Revolution, is certainly one of the most vivid and insightful works of contemporary history written on the subject of Communism and the resistance to Communism in Europe. His account of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, published in The Magic Lantern, was written from the unbeatable vantage point of close relations with the revolutionary leaders as the great events themselves unfolded. Now Garton Ash has made East Germany the site for his exploration of the dynamics of intelligence and security in a Communist state. Actually, during the years of the Cold War, scholars tended to regard East Germany as a sort of exceptional case among the Communist states of Eastern Europe, because of the unique circumstance of the division of Germany. Today, interestingly, in the aftermath of the Cold War, East Germany has become the academic model for understanding the dynamics of Communism. Recent fundamental works on the advent and demise of Communism, Norman Naimark's The Russians in Germany and Charles Maier's Dissolution, now serve as standards for the research that remains to be done on the dynamics of Communism in Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. Carton Ash, in The File, has made another brilliant contribution toward understanding the profound implications of that historical epoch.

Boston College
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wolff, Larry
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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