I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The File: A Personal History by Timothy Garton Ash (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).Jonathan Tucker is the editor of Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (MIT Press, 2000) and the author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (Grove/Atlantic, 2001) and War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (Pantheon, 2006).
Browsing the other day in Kramerbooks, my favorite neighborhood bookstore in Washington, D.C., I came across a paperback edition of The File, a book published in 1997 by the British contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash. The back cover explained that the book was a true story based on the author’s discovery after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the East German secret police, or Ministry for State Security — better known by its German nickname Stasi — had compiled a security file on him while he was researching his Ph.D. dissertation in West and East Berlin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, Garton Ash traveled frequently to Poland on journalistic assignment, and he was romantically involved for a time with an East German woman. Having recently spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright fellowship, I have a strong interest in the former East Germany and therefore bought the book as an impulse purchase.
Nowhere near as ruthless and violent as the Nazi Secret State Police (Geheimstaatspolizei or Gestapo in German), the Stasi was characterized instead by its all-pervasive, bureaucratic control over East German life. The agency’s surveillance apparatus was vast: by 1989, the Stasi had an estimated 91,000 employees and a network of about 300,000 informants (known as “unofficial collaborators”), or about one in every 50 East Germans. Many Americans have become aware of the Stasi through the movie “The Lives of Others,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. Ironically, Ulrich Mühe, the East German actor who played the Stasi officer in the movie, had experienced the agency’s surveillance activities first-hand. On reading his Stasi file after German reunification, Mühe discovered that four of his fellow actors in the East Berlin theater scene, as well as his own wife, had been informants who had filed reports on his political activities. Mühe and his wife divorced in 1990; she subsequently won an injunction against the publication of a book he had written on the case by swearing under oath that she had not informed on him. This real-life situation is remarkably similar to the plot of “The Lives of Others,” in which the writer’s girlfriend comes under pressure from the Stasi to betray him. When Mühe was asked about how he prepared for his role in the film, he replied, “I remembered.” Tragically, he died of cancer last year at the age of 54.
Much like Ulrich Mühe’s acting in “The Lives of Others,” Timothy Garton Ash’s book The File weaves together the personal and the historical to shed new light on the recent past. The Stasi, believing that Garton Ash was a British spy masquerading as a historian, put him under intensive surveillance by professional counterintelligence officers and several of his East German friends and acquaintances, who were recruited as informants. After Garton Ash published articles in the West German newsmagazine Der Spiegel about the anti-communist Solidarity trade union in Poland, the Stasi designated him a subversive element and banned him from visiting East Germany until the end of 1989. By then, of course, anti-communist movements had spread throughout Eastern Europe, leading to the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9. Less than a year later, the East Germany state ceased to exist and was absorbed into a united Germany.
The coda of the film “The Lives of Others” hints at what happened when the Stasi archives were opened after the unification of East and West Germany in October 1990. As part of the effort to confront the abuses of the former East German regime, anyone who had been a target of Stasi surveillance was allowed to request access to his or her file, and special reading rooms were set up for this purpose. Many people discovered to their horror that their close friends — and sometimes even their spouse — had spied on them for the Stasi. These revelations, while cathartic, tore deep holes in the social fabric that will take many years to mend.
In deciding to write a book based on his Stasi file, Garton Ash sought to relive his own experience in East Berlin 15 years earlier, seen through the eyes of the Stasi officials and informants who had kept him under surveillance. He discovered that the agency had given him the cover name “Romeo,” either because he drove an Alfa Romeo sportscar or because of his affair with an East German woman. In an effort to decipher the identities of the people who had informed on him, all of whom had cover names, Garton Ash compared the information in his file with his personal diaries of the time. He then tracked down the “unofficial collaborators” and Stasi officers that he was able to identify and confronted them with their statements about him, seeking to understand their motivations.
After exploring several possible explanations for the pervasive collaboration that characterized the East German police state, Garton Ash concludes that the reason was less deliberate malice than human weakness — either fear of the authorities that led to a desire to appease them, or the promise of rewards such as permission to travel abroad — combined with a vast capacity for self-deception. For example, one informant claimed that he had given the Stasi only harmless bits of information. “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person,” Garton Ash writes. “But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil.”
In part, The File is an effort by a writer to understand his younger self in the context of larger social and historical processes. At the same time, the book is a meditation on the nature of totalitarianism and the factors that lead a few people to rebel courageously against the system and many more to collaborate willingly, either out of ambition or fear. Garton Ash confesses that as a young man, he seriously considered entering the British secret service; after reading his Stasi file, he suspects that British spies employ the same techniques of duplicity and betrayal, albeit in defense of a superior system. In the course of an interview with a British government official, he learns that the domestic security service MI5 has compiled a file on him that, while supposedly “nonadversarial,” he is not authorized to read. Today, the expansion of U.S. domestic surveillance and the loss of personal privacy associated with the Bush administration’s “war on terror” have brought many of these concerns uncomfortably close to home.
Overall, The File is readable, intriguing, and occasionally eloquent, although the narrative tends to bog down in excessive bureaucratic detail whenever Garton Ash tries to reconstruct the Stasi’s complex web of deceit. Further, the interviews with former Stasi officers and collaborators are often disappointingly banal and evasive. Despite these lapses, however, The File provides important insights into the internal functioning of a totalitarian state, which ultimately consists of ordinary people making difficult moral choices under circumstances that most Americans can hardly imagine.
The Page 99 Test: War of Nerves.