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Reviewed by:
  • The File: A Personal History
  • Larry Wolff
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 [End Page 251] 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, Garton 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, Garton 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 Garton 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 Garton 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. Garton 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 moneyNo, 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. [End Page 252]

From the files of the informers Garton Ash discovers how they were initially pressured to collaborate with the Stasi. “Michaela” had been...

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 251-254
Launched on MUSE
1999-09-01
Open Access
No
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