The File: A Personal History

The File: A Personal History

by Timothy Garton Ash

But once there, he gradually immersed himself in a study of the repressive political culture of East Germany.

As if to return the favor, that culture--in the form of the dreaded East German secret police, the "Stasi"--secretly began studying him.

After the fall of the East German communist regime, a government apparatus was established to allow those targeted to see their Stasi files, and Garton Ash discovered and pored over his.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 3.84
  • Pages: 256
  • Publish Date: September 29th 1998 by Vintage Books
  • Isbn10: 0679777857
  • Isbn13: 9780679777854

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I very much appreciated this unusual take on history, and the humanity with which Garton Ash observed and did not just blindly condemn, but tried to understand the deeds of the people around him.

While I was reading this book, I was absolutely staggered by one of the numbers Mr. Ash quoted: 1 in 50 East Germans were informers for the Stasi. And Mr. Ash explored just that same territory, in Britain, that I was attempting to explore here in the U.S.: that is, to compare the workings of the state security service in a democracy with the workings of the Stasi in the East German dictatorship. Mr. Ash learned that MI5 maintained a file on him through interviewing a gentleman at MI5, and by asking the question point blank. The gentleman, in his discretion, chose to answer, although he could rightfully have chosen to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a file on Mr. Ash. But the FBI's response to my FOIA request is an answer of a different sort: by narrowly interpreting my request and denying me the existing records I asked for, the FBI is undermining the scope and reach of FOIA and on the spectrum ranging from "democracy" to "dictatorship," is edging itself further to the right, that is, closer to the Stasi.

Not the police state of former East Germany. Nope, the unlikely bit is the moment in the mid-1990s when a newly re-unified Germany allowed everyone to apply to see the file that the East German secret police, the Stasi, kept on them. When I read this for the first time in early 2001, carrying out academic research in Prague, The File already felt like an anachronism, a peculiar book documenting a particular moment in history. In The File, Timothy Garton Ash documents how he retrieved his own file and methodically interviewed all of the people who had informed on him, people he barely knew, people he considered confidantes and friends. Historically speaking, from the perspective of the U.S., the Warsaw Pact were the Big Bad. But for the Stasi themselves, they were protecting their country.

After Germany was reunified, the files of the East German Stasi (secret police) were made available to the file subjects. He wasn't a spy but managed to make the Stasi nervous enough to open a file. He locates and interviews several people who informed on him and some former Stasi staff who were assigned to his file. In Garton Ash's case, the informers did him little real harm.

Through night and wind the father rides, his child in his arms. Then the elf king comes out of the night, and woos the child with such beuatiful lines: about those bright flowers, golden robes and great games, about his daughters who will cradle you and dance with you and sing to sleep. The voice sinks almost to nothing: 'In his arms .

A very interesting, quick-reading little book.

The writing here moves from the odd records of these files and his own journal entries, which he then follows with his attempts to track down the Stasi (secret service) informers now living in various states of retirement or obscurity who kept the file on him.

This memoir, of one individual's personal experience with the Stasi and attempts to find out more about it after the fall of the Wall, started off really slow for me, despite my interest in the topic. I am glad the author decided to do so, but I also feel like more could have been done with the information. I enjoyed reading these insights and thinking about them myself.