on 12 March 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. There is a German saying: "To understand all means to condone all", and sometimes Garton Ash is dangerously close to that. Still, it's very unusual for a Briton to show so much understanding, that he even doesn't give the real names of his informers, in order not to cause them problems. And, in an ironic turn at the end, we learn that the British Secret Service had a file on the author, too.
All in all, "the File" is a valuable counterpart of "The Balaton Brigade" by Georgy Konrad.
on 23 June 2006
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.
Garton Ash's somewhat informal style is thoroughly appropriate. He has a marvellous ability to evoke a time and a place economically. He succeeds in conveying the thrill of piecing together information, identifying sources and persuading them to talk.
My only criticism is that the apparatus of a historical study, such as a bibliography, footnotes and an index, would have been beneficial.
on 2 December 2010
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 code name 'Romeo', due to his Alfa Romeo car.
( not due to his stunning good looks or way with women) :)
After Reunification, Garton Ash goes back and reads his file and then investigates and interviews those who informed and kept him under surveillance.
It's a good story and one worthy of writing and telling, but Garton Ash is an academic and unable to tell the story with the emotion and raw simplicity that would make such a story utterly compelling.
He frequently mentions a name, briefly, then many pages later will refer to that person and expect the reader to know and follow the story as he can, which is impossible as it's his story!
This happens many times in the book, with characters barely described, who keep popping up here and there and the reader cannot remember them as they've been barely described or described in a totally unmemorable way.
Many times, you'll come across an interesting passage and think the book is picking up, then he rambles again or goes another direction and interest wanes.
For anyone, not familiar with the Stasi and their methods of operation, it's ok and it will inform the reader somewhat, but a much better book for all levels of understanding is Anna Funders 'Stasiland' which I have reviewed on this site also.
I thought this book could've and would've been much better.
on 18 November 2009
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 Stasi (East German secret police). This highly individual and personal book explores that file and makes contact with those who were informers together with the Stasi offciers who directed the gathering of information.
The resulting book is a profoundly human story. The file unlocks memories for Garton-Ash like madellines did for Proust. This, together with the review of relationships past and the resoning behind the actions of friends and enamies alike provides a rich picture of life under the communist regime.
A short book, it can be read quickly but the information it imparts is massive and leaves a deep and clear sense of time and place.
on 23 July 2007
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.
on 18 March 2013
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 frequent visits "over" the Wall, this book was of more interest to me than say, Anna Funder's incredible "Staziland". I agree with other reviewer's comments that Garton Ash could have milked his experience, to have seemed more dramatic, sinister, atmospheric etc. But I think I enjoyed the book all the more for its restraint. After all, Garton Ash was at the time a journalist, not a writer of spy-fiction!
on 4 June 2016
Timothy Garton Ash hit pay-dirt when he went looking for his Stasi file in East Berlin. Once he had a chance to sit down and examine the dossier, one of the first things he discovered is that while the Stasi was pervasive, almost omnipresent, it was far from omniscient. They had trouble figuring out foreign accents and names, which they sometimes misspelled to comical effect. They could be careless about dates and attribution (who said what). "Some of the small details are wrong. The interpretation is paranoid. Yet overall, the Stasi lives up to its reputation for being everywhere and watching everyone." (pg. 32)
After reading it, he tracks down the IMs, the unofficial collaborators who denounced him. His point is not to expose how bad this particular IM was, or how evil the East Germans were – the point is that when average people are placed in a situation where they are totally without rights, a good number of them will become malleable, able to justify acts such as denouncing acquaintances or betraying longtime friends and even close family members. Under the right circumstances, few are immune to such pressures. That goes for Englishmen and Americans as well as Germans, both Eastern and Western. We may all like to imagine ourselves as heroes, but the historical record shows otherwise. Intelligence, culture, and status are no guarantees against base betrayal, as long as it seems blessed by the authority of the state – and is rewarded by significant, tangible benefits.
For a much more detailed review, see hamiltonbeck dot wordpress dot com
There are two necessary books on this topic and one film, this one and Anna Funder's 'Stasiland'; 'The Lives of Others' is, of course, the film. I have now read this book quickly and with great pleasure, thus to read two critics opining it is self-indulgent and dull was a real surprise. In fact it is no more self-indulgent than any book looking at the way one's life is regarded by others, and Garton Ash, an Oxford historian of some repute, shows he has a sense of humour in noting how and why he was named 'Romeo' by the authorities. We enjoy the experience of seeing Garton Ash's life as a student in the DDR, then seeing how it compares with the record and indeed his own memories. There is also considerable pathos in finding how far things were not as they seemed, since with characteristic efficiency the Germans make known what had been officially known when he was young and a student there - and quite a few relationships fractured as people discovered the truth. Having been to college with people who loved the DDR, it was still fascinating to see how the surface differed from the thing itself. A beguiling book, reminding me how very odd it must be to read of a 'version' of oneself, especially by those with an axe to grind. One might attempt a droll summary like Welles's about the Swiss, brotherly love and the Cuckoo Clock on the ferris wheel, except with the DDR it would involve official duplicity, The AntiFascist Rampart [don't mention The Wall!] and........ a Trabant.
How the high-ups thought they were other than the continuation of Facism is beyond me...they couldn't organise the proverbial knees-up in a bordello! An irony that the great Bertolt Brecht would have enjoyed is that Nazi Germany largely policed itself, it was the Stalinist totalitarianisms that required a bureaucracy and considerably espionage, at times it seems that everyone is spying on everyone else! I am laughing; many Germans cried..
on 13 October 2013
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 of the watching Stasi. It opens out to encompass an interesting philosophical interpretation of the fallout from being "watched", and the myriad of interpretations that can be drawn from being spied upon.
It was so gripping, I read it in a day.
on 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. I presume its the surveillance allied with an inability to engage in political change he actually means. Because I think he rather goes off beam by musing on the increase in surveillance in the wake of Sept 11th. He tells of being asked to `keep an eye out' for various students in his University, and the fact that he refused to do so. I'm not able to judge if he was right or wrong in this, but I don't think there is a comparison of democratically controllable surveillance techniques with the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Bloc Europe. He acknowledges this himself, yet continues to ponder the issue