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Recently read: The File

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on April 2, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Timothy Garton Ash. The File: A Personal History

The East German state subjected its citizens to a virtually unprecedented degree of scrutiny. The system of surveillance was run by the Stasi, the East German secret police, but it relied on an extensive network of informal collaborators, or IMs (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter). At the time of its collapse in 1989, at a conservative estimate roughly one in 50 adults had a direct connection to the Stasi.

When the East German state collapsed, it collapsed so quickly that the Stasi found themselves unable to shred most of the hundreds of thousands of documents about its citizens that it had assembled so dilligently over the years. Most countries at a similar point simply pause for a moment and then continue to destroy the evidence, or file it away forever, hidden. Germany, by contrast, embarked on the unprecedented experiment of allowing everyone with a file to see it for him or herself. Care was taken to protect innocent parties named in the files, but everyone had a right to learn the identity of anyone who informed, betrayed, or reported on them.

Some couldn’t bring themselves to look; some discovered that they had no file; some were able to cast away long-harboured suspicions of acquaintances who turned out not to have informed on them. Others were not so lucky, and some of their stories are horrifying. One woman
had been imprisoned for five years under the communist regime, for attempting to escape to the West. Now she found out, by reading her file, that it was the man she was living with who had denounced her to the Stasi. They still lived together. Only that morning he had wished her a good day in the archive.

Timothy Garton Ash lived in East Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He subsequently wrote a book critical of East Germany, and was banned from the country. Not surprisingly, he had a file. The File is about Ash’s attempt to track down and speak with everyone named in his file, from the casual acquaintances acting as IMs who filed reports about him to the officers who supervised the case. The book follows him as he criss-crosses the country speaking with people and working through the file comparing its reports with his own recollections and diaries.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in Ash’s file, but that doesn’t stop him from writing an absorbing account of this moral, personal, political and historical detective work. The File is so much more than simply a superb book about life under the East German regime and Ash’s mostly harmless brush with the Stasi. It’s a finely written meditation on memory, betrayal, the psychology of rationalization and evil, and chance. Recommended.