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The File [Paperback]

Timothy Garton Ash
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 July 2009
This classic of modern reportage by one of Britain's most distinguished non-fiction writers describes what happened when he got access to the file on him kept during his years in East Germany by the Stasi, the infamous secret police. In 1978 a romantic young Englishman took up residence in Berlin to see what that divided city could teach him about tyranny and freedom. Fifteen years later Timothy Garton Ash - who was by then famous for his reportage of the downfall of communism in Central Europe - returned. This time he had come to look at a file that bore the code-name 'Romeo'. The file had been compiled by the Stasi, the East German secret police, with the assistance of dozens of informers. And it contained a meticulous record of Garton Ash's earlier life in Berlin. In this memoir, Garton Ash describes what it was like to rediscover his younger self through the eyes of the Stasi, and then to go on to confront those who actually informed against him to the secret police. Moving from document to remembrance, from the offices of British intelligence to the living rooms of retired Stasi officers, "The File" is a personal narrative as gripping, as disquieting, and as morally provocative as any fiction by George Orwell or Graham Greene. And it is all true.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books (1 July 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781848870888
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848870888
  • ASIN: 1848870884
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 30,347 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"* 'He is our best informed and beadiest commentator on Europe - eloquent, sceptical, fearless, with a tinge of idealism so wary as to be acceptable' - Craig Raine * 'Garton Ash is, in the most literal sense of the term, a contemporary historian. He writes primarily as a witness to the events he is treating, and not just as an outside witness but often as an inside one as well... yet the sense of the historic dimensionof the events in question is never lost. And the quality of the writing places it clearly in the category of good literature.' - George F. Kennan, New York Review of Books"

From the Back Cover

'Guten Tag,' says bustling Frau Schulz, 'you have a very interesting file.' And there it is, a buff-coloured binder, some two inches thick, rubber stamped on the front cover: OKP – Akte, Mfs, XV2889/81. Underneath is written, in a neat, clerical hand: 'Romeo'.


'Yes, that was your codename,' says Frau Schulz and giggles.

In 1992, after the Berlin Wall came down and the archives of Eastern Europe were opened, Timothy Garton Ash walked into the ministry which now looks after the records of the Stasi, the East German secret police, and asked if there was a file on him. There was – one marked 'Romeo'.

'The File' is the wry, compelling and ultimately very moving story of what was in the buff-coloured binder, and of the avenues – personal, political and historical – down by which Garton Ash was led by it. It begins autobiographically, as he recalls his life as a young man in the charged atmosphere of cold war Berlin, but quickly and brilliantly opens out, as he tracks down and confronts those who once tracked him for the Stasi. He remembers who were, or who he thought were, his friends; he discovers how some of them became informers; he talks to Stasi officers who had him down as a British spy. His journey also takes him unexpectedly back to Britain, to our own secret world.

Deftly peeling back layer after layer of history and deception, Garton Ash shows us, wittily and subtly, how nearly impossible it is to establish any historical truth, how far our lives are actually built on forgetting, and how much the way we act depends on the circumstances in which we are placed. 'Amidst the ghosts of secret Germany', he writes, 'I was searching for the answer to a personal question. What is it that makes one person a resistance fighter and another the fateful servant of dictatorship? This man a Stauffenberg, that a Speer? I am searching still'.

"He is our best informed and beadiest commentator on Europe – eloquent, sceptical, fearless, with a tinge of idealism so wary as to be acceptable."

"It is with minimal exaggeration that I state that, in the future, there will probably be streets in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest bearing the name of Timothy Garton Ash."
KAREL KYNCL, 'Independent'

"Garton Ash is, in the most literal sense of the term, a contemporary historian. He writes primarily as a witness to the events he is treating, and not just as an outside witness but often as an inside one as well; for his own involvement in these events, intellectual and emotional, is of such intensity that he can speak, in a sense, from the inside as well as the outside. Yet the sense of the historic dimension of the events in question is never lost. And the quality of the writing places it clearly in the category of good literature."
GEORGE F. KENNAN, 'New York Review of Books'

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Forgiven but not forgotten? 12 Mar 2008
Timothy Garton Ash discovered after the reunification of the two Germanies, that the Stasi had kept a file on him under the code name "Romeo"(He thinks this name came from the Alfa Romeo he was driving at the time). They recorded everything about him from his first stay in West Berlin in 1978 as a student of history from Oxford who researched for his thesis on the Third Reich, and got specially interested in his person when he spent some time in East Berlin where he was allowed to study archives for his work.
So these files brought the older Garton Ash of the nineties back to his professional beginnings, and, since he kept his own notes from the time, he is in the unique position of comparing his own view of his life and past events with the outward view of those informing on him. The first half of the book deals with the incongruities of personal memory and historical events and the forever shifting perception of how things happened and what your own role was. This is sometimes a trifle tedious, because, as Garton Ash himself says, as a priviliged foreigner he had no negative or even dangerous consequences to fear, compared with East Germans, whose file brought them to Bautzen prison for years or ruined their personal and professional life. On the other hand, the "outsider's" view of this total surveillance of every move you made, every personal contact you established, is gripping in its honesty.
In the second, more thrilling part of the book Garton Ash interviews all the people who spied on him, the "IMs" as they were lovingly called by the communist system of the GDR. And the author tries very hard to be fair, to find out what made these informers do their dirty work.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stasi file from many perspectives 23 Jun 2006
By JohnC
In part contemporary history, in part investigative journalism, in part memoir and in part essay,The File is a remarkable book. It is well-written, penetrating and readable.

Garton Ash lived in East Berlin in 1980, working on a doctoral dissertation on the Nazi period but also producing journalistic pieces on East Germany. He was the subject of Stasi surveillance and the core of the book is an account of what he found in the file that the Stasi kept on him and his subsequent exploration of how it was put together by tracking down and interviewing informers and others and by drawing upon his own recollections and notes of the time.

The File also describes as historical phenomena the Stasi and the so-called Gauck Authority, which provides access to the Stasi files, and it contains a more general treatise on such themes as memory, attitudes to the past and the factors lying behind the darker side of the history of Europe in the twentieth century.

There is a primary focus on the people who were involved in Garton Ash's life in East Germany: his friends, those who informed on him and Stasi officers. Their motivations, strengths, weaknesses and background are described in a detail which is never tedious. The clear driving force behind Garton Ash's interest here is the desire to find out why people acted as they did.

Contrast and irony permeate the book much as they do a novel. Perhaps the most important are the intimate proximity of high European culture and systematic inhumanity, which Garton Ash calls the "Goethe Oak", and the choice between the heroic resistance of a Stauffenberg and the collaboration of a Speer. As he openly admits, he only has partial explanations for these phenomena.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating example of the Stasi at work 23 July 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Garton Ash would be the first to admit that the Stasi treated him,like most foriegners in the GDR,with kid gloves compared to the way they treated East German citizens they had cause to investigate.Having said that,this book is a great read,and shows how the Stasi went to work on foriegn residents of the GDR.
Garton Ash had the opportunity to read a copy of his file(now more or less impossible due to a new law of 2000)and then tried to find the IMs(unofficial collaborators)of the Stasi who passed on information about him.He makes it quite clear that he dosen't want most of them identified (can't say why in this review,I'd ruin the story)and shows some understanding,even pity,for them.
Only four stars as it's too short,it could do with a more detailed considered approach.It's a great story of the old saw "Absolute power corrupts absolutely".Readers who never lived under totalitarianism will appreciate how lucky they are.The more perceptive will learn that those not as lucky as themselves had to make difficult decisions all the time.Pointing fingers and playing the blame game,as Garton Ash makes clear,is never a good way to gain any kind of understanding of such people.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful. 7 May 2011
Garton Ash lived for a year in East Germany in the early Eighties. After the fall of the Wall, he sought his Stasi file and, through it, sought meetings with those who had spied on him and who had compiled the file. The results are quite interesting, and strangely unexciting. The informing on an English student in East Germany was (probably) entirely expected given the society which East Germany was; the results of the spying were not particular awful - Garton Ash left unharmed, at the end of his studies, and was denied entry to East Germany thereafter based on articles he wrote about his experience. There is quite a lot of detail about Garton Ash's personal life, the class backround of British society, his public school education and the inevitable approach (really?) by British Intelligence when he was in university that I found quite tedious. The time spent in Germany and the way in which he contrasts his own memories of his time there, with the details recorded in his Stasti file are quite illuminating. In particular it shows the misinterpretation of events.
The part I found most interesting was where he was able to interview the Stasi s agents who compiled his file, and ran the informers. There was a common trait of missing fathers which I found very thought provoking - each one, whether they were ashamed of their past or not, had grown up in a household where the father was missing - not so unusual as most were children during World War II - and the state provided certainty, a mission and stability. I read Stasiland by Anna Funder a number of years ago, a more entertaining book on this subject, but in retrospect probably less credible for that.
Garton Ash uses his own example to condemn the repressive nature of the surveillance society.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Very intriguing
A well written book outlining the authors personal history, both from a personal perspective looking back and consulting diaries and, occasionally incorrectly, from the dense notes... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Doug O'Shea
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
A beautifully written and fascinating book, part autobiography and part history. Highly recommended. Any one interested in late twentieth century history should read it.
Published 9 months ago by Jo Lincoln
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly Compelling
I read this book cover-to-cover in virtually one sitting. I found it utterly compelling. Because I was also an English student living in Berlin at the same time, and also made... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Nick der Englender
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique Book and an Excellent Read
Timothy Garton Ash does extremely well at guiding the reader through how the Stasi files worked through a semi-biographical semi-historical account.
Published 14 months ago by Christopher Waugh
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must
This book is simply a must for anyone who takes an interst in the unbelievable Stasi ridden DDR past.It is admirably informative and terrific thrilling like the best spy novels.
Published 14 months ago by Jan Aksel Millung
3.0 out of 5 stars It's ok. Could have been much better.
The Author studied and lived in East and West Berlin during the whole Cold War debacle. He discovers that the 'Stasi' secret Police kept a file on him during this time, with the... Read more
Published on 2 Dec 2010 by M. Telford
5.0 out of 5 stars A very interesting insight in eastern European totalitarians States
A wonderful political essay with a great personal and human touch. Garton Ash view always gives priority to freedom and the reasons why people do not succeed in feeling free or... Read more
Published on 27 Mar 2010 by Josep Soler Alberti
2.0 out of 5 stars not what I expected
As someone who is interested in the Stasi and life behind the wall. The blurb outlining this book gave me to understand it would be a kind of 'birds-eye-view' of what it was like... Read more
Published on 23 Dec 2009 by G. Gibson
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly human drama.
Timothy Garton-Ash lived and worked in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he gained access to the file of information generated by the... Read more
Published on 18 Nov 2009 by Drambuster
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