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The File: A Personal History

by Timothy Garton Ash

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4401057,160 (3.73)31
Timothy Garton Ash reported on Eastern Europe for the Spectator. He visited the East German secret police headquarter in 1992 to look at his own file compiled against him by people whom he believed to be friends during the cold war era.
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» See also 31 mentions

English (8)  Spanish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (10)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
For a book revolving around the Stasi it is surprisingly boring. ( )
  blueskygreentrees | Jul 30, 2023 |
In 1980-1981, the young Timothy Garton Ash, who still hadn't quite made up his mind between being a journalist or a historian, went to study in East Berlin under an academic exchange scheme between Oxford and the Humboldt University. He was supposed to be doing research on communist resistance movements during the Nazi period, but ended up spending a lot of time with dissident writers, academics and clergy, gathering material for a book on the DDR of the early eighties. Not surprisingly, all this attracted the attention of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), which had built up quite a dossier on him by the end of his stay.

The whole thing has its comic side — the file is full of unimportant details, he was assigned the unlikely codename "Romeo" (because he drove an Italian sports car, he hastens to tell us), and the cumbersome bureaucracy didn't come to any conclusion about what action to take until he had returned to the West and his book was being serialised in Der Spiegel. But of course it could easily have turned out badly for him and much worse for the DDR citizens he was in contact with, as it did for thousands of other people.

Garton Ash uses this book to look in detail at that file and at the whole post-Wende system for reviewing Stasi records — the BStU, or "Gauck Agency" — with a historian's sharp eyes. He tracks down the informers ("Informal collaborators", or IMs) who reported on him, he talks to them and to the former Stasi officers who worked on his case, as well as to Gauck Agency staff and to some of his former contacts in the DDR. He talks about some of the pitfalls in the process — an ambiguously worded record makes it sound as though his academic supervisor at the Humboldt University was an IM, when in fact it was another university staff member who was reporting on a conversation with the supervisor.

He finds out how pressure was put on people to cooperate: some were being blackmailed over minor offences, some were being bribed with rewards like foreign trips, a couple were still convinced communists who remembered the thirties and felt a duty to protect the DDR state. Similarly the Stasi officers were mostly men who had grown up during or shortly after the war in an atmosphere of idealistic socialist reconstruction, and been recruited straight out of the FDJ. One of the officers he talks to unexpectedly strikes Garton Ash as a good and moral man who got trapped in a system he knew was working in bad ways, and was doing what he could to mitigate the harm around him; others seem more like simple careerists who had lost their illusions on their way through the system.

As a kind of postscript, and to forestall obvious comparisons, he also goes to talk to various people in British counterintelligence agencies. They stress to him the huge difference in scale between the counterintelligence effort in the DDR and in any normal country, in terms of staff members and number of files per head of population. And he says himself that there is no comparison between the UK, security-obsessed and secretive though it is, and a state like the DDR where there was no free press and no independent judiciary or parliament to review what the Stasi was doing. It turns out, though, that he does have a file there too, which of course he is not allowed to look at, but he's told that it is a "non-hostile" one: merely a record of occasional contacts such as the present one. They tell him. ( )
  thorold | Apr 20, 2022 |
Fascinating book. Thought-provoking. How would one behave if one had lived in East Germany? How easy it is to judge from outside a situation or post an event. Analysis of spy agencies in dictatorships and democracies. What makes a person a "Stauffenberg or a Speer? Victims, perpetrators. ( )
  geejays | Jan 25, 2014 |
I never expected to enjoy this so much. It's a great read - try not to read it in one sitting! The small, petty, and ultimately horrific, way that small inconsequential details could be sown together by the paranoid Stasi could, and did, ruin lives. Everyone seems to have been spied on, and extensive records were kept. Uniquely Germany has allowed people to view their secret police files (unlike Poland, Russia, etc etc). ( )
  iamamro | Oct 16, 2013 |
I am studying Recordkeeping Concepts and Practices at the moment and this was recommended reading. It is a slim volume - 227 pages all up. Not onerous and fascinating for anyone who is interested in modern history, spying, archives and Germany - East and West - not to mention diaries and reconstructing one's own personal history and the challenges of reporting/writing.

Such powerful lines....here are some examples....

"What we call 'my life' is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. 'My life' is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. " (p.20)

and

"..a file opens the door to a vast sunken labyrinth of the forgotten past...the very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts....for these are not simply past experiences rediscovered in their original state. Even without the fresh light from a new document or another's recollection - the opened door - our memories decay or sharpen, mellow or sour, with the passage of time and the change of circumstances....A door opens, but another closes. There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event....so what we have is nothing less than an infinty of memories of any moment, event or person." (p.96)

and

"The domestic spies in a free country live this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it." (p. 220) ( )
  alexdaw | Sep 29, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Timothy Garton Ashprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bruning, FransTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rennert, UdoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Guten Tag," say bustling Frau Schulz, "You have a very interesting file."
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Timothy Garton Ash reported on Eastern Europe for the Spectator. He visited the East German secret police headquarter in 1992 to look at his own file compiled against him by people whom he believed to be friends during the cold war era.

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