Timothy Garton Ash’s Book, The File (1997)

This eloquent memoir, which Timothy Garton Ash (hereafter Ash) calls “A Personal History,” was first published in hardcover in the US by Random House, New York, in 1997. The first paperback edition was published in the US by Vintage Books on September 29, 1998. A friend of mine, a professor of German history who was aware that I was trying to gain access to my Stasi-file, alerted me to the publication of Ash’s book, which I promptly purchased and eagerly read from cover to cover. I found it fascinating and discovered that he and I had had many similar experiences in East Germany (the GDR). At that time, in October 1998, I had no way of knowing that a copy of my own 400-page file would soon be coming my way and reach me at home in January 1999. The publication of Ash’s memoir was a stroke of good fortune and came at just the right time for me.

The File reads much like a spy thriller; it is suspenseful, well written, and an enjoyable read. As the story unfolds, virtually all readers will come to realize that they have never read anything even remotely like it. On one level, it is a probing examination of domestic spying in East Germany during the Cold War period that fewer and fewer of us remember. On another level, it is about the author’s file, but less so when the focus shifts to the work he had done while living in Berlin. More information on and from that secret police file would have been welcome, at least to this reader, but Ash is highly protective of his personal privacy.

What is Ash’s book about? Let me quote directly from the book’s back cover:

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.

While I was reading The File for the first time, I began to think about writing something based on the contents of my own file, even though I had no idea what that might entail. Ash’s book was immensely helpful to me; above all, it provided me with a model, a beautifully written one that in fact intimidated me at first. After my initial review of the documents in my 400-page Stasi-file in 1999, I realized that I would have to distance myself from Ash, take a completely different approach and write a very different sort of book. Easier said than done, as I would discover. Much of The File is a first person narrative, and of course Ash is both main character and narrator. I observed how masterfully he manages to drive the story forward as he pursues his goal. It was also very instructive to see how he presents himself in the narrative, at times stepping forward into the story he is telling and occasionally doing just the opposite, always in control. In the process we meet and get to know the version of Ash the author wishes to present to his readers, generally but not always in a positive light.

In the first chapter of his book, Ash tells us that the opening report in his 325-page Stasi-file dates from March 1981. Prepared by one Lieutenant Wendt, it provides his personal details, notes that he has been studying in Berlin since 1978 and that he lived for several months during 1980 in “the capital of the GDR.” It also mentions that he travels frequently from West Berlin to East Germany and Poland, and that he has repeatedly “made contact with operationally interesting persons.” As a result, “there are grounds for suspecting that G. [for Garton Ash] has deliberately exploited his official functions as research student and/or journalist to pursue intelligence activities.” (The File, 13-14)

Ash permits more details about his person to become known via the Stasi-file. He indicates that Wendt’s report pays special attention to information supplied by the Stasi’s own informers, known as Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter—literally “unofficial collaborators”—or IM for short. And, he says that the opening report summarizes the information gathered by IM “Smith,” IM “Schuldt,” and especially by IM “Michaela” and her husband, KP (Contact Person) “Georg.” “Outwardly G. makes a pretty casual impression and overall seems ‘a typical British intellectual.’” Wendt notes that “G. works purposefully and with scholarly thoroughness” but displays “a bourgeois-liberal attitude and no commitment to the working-class.” (15) G. is said to have sought contact with people who could be of interest for intelligence purposes. On his trips to Poland he almost certainly maintains connections with “antisocialist forces.” Hence, the secret police need to find out more, with a view to possible prosecution under Article 97 of the Criminal Code. A four-point “plan of action” follows, setting forth how the Stasi would go about investigating G.

After revealing their “plan of action,” Ash tells the reader how he intends to proceed. “My plan of action, now, is to investigate their investigation of me. I shall pursue their inquiry through this file, try to track down both the informers and the officers on my case, consult other files, compare the Stasi record with my own memories, with the diary and notes I kept at the time, and with the political history I have since written about this period. And I shall see what I find.” (17-18) He is eager to see what the Stasi and their helpers had assembled on him and find out how reliable that information is. “After all,” he declares, “I should know what I was really up to. And what did my officers and informers think they were doing? Can the files , and the men and women behind them, tell us anything more about communism, the Cold War and the sense or nonsense of spying?” (23)

Ash’s investigation is motivated by more than curiosity or a desire for more information than his file contains. “The effect of reading a file can be terrible,” (21) he asserts emphatically. “The experience may even teach us something about history and memory, about ourselves, about human nature. So if the form of this book seems self-indulgent, the purpose is not. I am but a window, a sample, a means to an end, the object in this experiment.” (23)

He elucidates: “I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This is not the same thing as ‘my life.’ What we usually call ‘my life’ is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. Searching for a lost self, I am also searching for a lost time. And for answers to the question How did the one shape the other? Historical time and personal time, the public and private, great events and our own lives.” (23)

As he begins his search for a lost self and a lost time, Ash recalls leaving for Germany during his early days as a graduate student at Oxford. He set off for Berlin on his twenty-third birthday, July 12, 1978, driving his new, dark blue Alfa Romeo (hence, the code name “Romeo”). He lived in West Berlin for a year and a half, before driving through Checkpoint Charlie on January 7, 1980 to his lodging in East Berlin. His original purpose was to write an Oxford doctoral thesis about Berlin under Hitler. For this year and a half, he says, the Stasi’s intelligence is fragmentary because he was living in the West. At the end of 1979, he prepared to move to East Berlin, where he had been offered a place as a research student attached to the Humboldt University, under a new cultural agreement recently signed between Britain and East Germany.

Ash reports that, while living and conducting research in East Germany, he appeared to have the attention of five unofficial collaborators. Their evidence and operational potential are carefully weighed by Lieutenant Wendt. He elaborates:

As I study their reports on me, and set out to identify, find and talk to them in person, I am drawn back not just into my own past life but into these other lives that briefly crossed with mine.

I was not a victim of these informers, as many East Germans really were of theirs. They did me no serious damage. Yet, knowing how the system worked, I may fairly guess that they did harm others. I cannot say how typical they are of Stasi informers in general, although I know enough of other cases to say that some elements are common. However, the fact that they happen to have informed on me gives me a special chance to test the accuracy of the files—and to enter into their own experience. Why did they do it? What it was like for them? How do they see it now?

After reading the file the Stasi kept on him during his time in East Germany, Ash decided to confront the people who had informed on him to the Stasi. He was able to gain access to the files of those individuals and also to the informants themselves: firstly, by stating that he has a professional interest in their activity as a historian and secondly, a personal interest because they participated in keeping records on him.

First on Ash’s list of persons to be contacted and confronted is his former academic advisor at the Humboldt University, Laurenz Demps. “I telephone Professor Demps, one day in June 1995, to arrange my appointment. I have had no contact with him since 1981. He is clearly surprised by my call and the news that I have ‘something I want to discuss’ with him, but agrees to meet.” (89) The two men set up a meeting in a café in Berlin. Ash recalls their rendezvous: “Eleven sharp, and there he sits outside the café. . . . A slightly tense greeting. Tea and coffee ordered. Then I come to the point. I have read my Stasi file and it would appear that they had him down as an informer of the HVA.” (89) [HVA = Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung / Main Directorate for Reconnaissance, Ministry of State Security] Ash explains what the file says and shows Demps copies of the relevant pages. Shaken, Demps says no, he was not an informer, he had nothing to do with the Stasi. (89-90) In the course of their conversation, the two historians discover that a misleading error—a case of mistaken identity—had been made in the IM report. Professor Demps is an innocent man after all, and Ash is very, very relieved after this unexpected turn of events. He says he has nothing but sympathy—and some admiration—for the way Demps copes with the shock he has just given him.

Before introducing Ash’s most assiduous informer, IMV “Michaela,” I would like to explain what it was that attracted him to communist-ruled Eastern Europe and East Germany in particular. Fortunately, Ash clarifies this for his readers:

The ideological evaluation in my Stasi opening report—“bourgeois-liberal”—was just about right. I cared passionately for what I saw, with a rather simplistic romantic patriotism, as the British heritage of individual liberty. And I wanted this liberty for other people. . . . But liberal anti-communism was not the primary source of my fascination with the East. I was fascinated because here, in East Germany, people were actually living those endlessly difficult choices between collaboration with and resistance to a dictatorship. (51)

Ash says that his fascination with dictatorship and resistance, with the extremes of good and evil, civilization and barbarism, also led him to travel through Albania in the summer of 1978 and through all six countries of what was then called Eastern Europe the next summer. In Poland he would discover the “spirit of resistance” that he had long been seeking. (52)

According to Ash, British journalists, writers and scholars working abroad were very often thought to be engaged in spying for the British secret service, and some “journalists” and “students” were indeed more than they seemed.

So I am not surprised or outraged that the Stasi decided to take a closer look at me. What is shocking is the way they were spying on their own people and getting them to spy on one another: that vast army of surveillance, intimidation and repression, in which my own “Schuldt,” Smith” and “Michaela” were just a few foot soldiers. But the mere fact of this investigation of me is, in itself, just about within the range of a “normal” security service’s work. (63)

[. . .]

To a communist state like East Germany, built on total control of the media, censorship and organized lying, any probing research or critical journalism was subversive. Western journalists were routinely covered by Stasi counterintelligence department II/13. Partly this was because they were looking for spies under journalistic cover, but it was also because, for the Stasi, the distinction between journalist and spy was not clear-cut. For them, a Western journalist and a Western spy were both agents of Western intelligence-gathering, and both alike threats to the security of the communist system. (64)

Let me now put the spotlight on IMV “Michaela.” A four-page report by Stasi Lieutenant Küntzel focuses on Ash’s June 30, 1979 meeting in Weimar with older Jewish communist, Dr. Georg, and his wife, who live in a castle. Ash had arranged the meeting so he could gather information from Georg for a piece in the English weekly “The Spectator” on the antifascist resistance struggle. At some point Georg’s wife (“Michaela”) unexpectedly entered the living room. The report states: “She was introduced by her husband with the words: ‘My wife, director of the Weimar Art Galleries.’” (30) Ash explains that the V after the IM indicates that “Michaela” belonged to the Stasi’s highest class of informer, those deployed in direct contact with the enemy. “Michaela” and her husband were both surprised that Ash immediately brought the subject around to the current exhibition on the Bauhaus organized by the Art Galleries. Angered by Ash’s rudeness, Georg excused himself and left the room. Now Ash explained to the IMV that he was working on an article about the development of the artistic and cultural life of the GDR and was therefore interested in her comments. The conversation with the IMV lasted only twenty minutes, but served to establish their connection. After receiving a copy of an exhibition catalog from Ash on January 5, 1980, she writes: “In order to implement further measures to strengthen the contact as well as Blickfeldmassnahmen [a special Stasi term meaning keeping someone in view] I will send a letter of thanks to the address given below:

Tim Gartow Ash

In the summer of 1980, “Michaela” reports on another visit Ash paid to them and also gives Ash’s telephone numbers in East and West Berlin to her Stasi handler.

Fifteen years later, Ash decides to visit Weimar again and ask “Michaela”—if she is still there—why she did it and what she has to say for herself. After he learns that “Michaela” has moved, he races up the autobahn to Berlin and checks into a hotel. In the phone book, he finds one entry with “Michaela” ‘s real name. He dials the number. “’Ah Herr Esch, you visited us in Weimar, didn’t you, and I’ve since read your book. . . .’” Ash explains that he is very briefly in Berlin and has a particular reason for wanting to see her. They fix a time in the following afternoon for him to call. “You’ll certainly have many questions,” she says, adding, “really I’m looking forward to it.”

Ash seeks a possible motive for her collaboration as an informer: “As a senior state employee, ‘Michaela’ was certainly obliged to cooperate with the Stasi, but she did not have to be an IM. Why did she do it? Probably for her career. She went on, after her husband’s death, to work in the state art-dealing business in Berlin.” (107)  But in addition to her career, “Michaela” was clearly an opportunist, eager to take advantage of all the privileges and perks that would become available to her. Lodging in the state-owned castle was both an enviable privilege and a perk, as was having a cleaning lady, which in those days was very unusual in East Germany. And she hoped, somewhat naively, that she might be dispatched to America to collect two Dürer pictures U. S. Army soldiers had stolen from the Weimar collection at the end of the war.

Ash’s dramatic meeting with “Michaela” the next day is without question the high point of his book. While she no longer lives in a castle, she continues to lead a life marked by privilege. Ash sets the stage for their encounter:

A gray tower-block of characteristic socialist-modernist design, well located and smart by East German standards.Privileged. A tall rather loud woman greets me: “Hello, how are you?” Large features, bright lipstick, gray eyes behind metallic spectacles. Trousers and high heels. A hand-me-down Marlene. Tasteful interior decor, neo-Biedermeier furniture. (111)

When they are settled with coffee and cakes, Ash asks Frau [real name], “’do you have an inkling of why I have sought you out today?’” (112)

After a pause, just slightly too long, she answers: “’No, not really.’” That “really” again. (112) Then he tells her.

“’Yes,’” she says immediately, “’one was obliged to [collaborate] in my position.’” About once a month they would come to see her. They said they were from the local council, but gave only first names. “’The conversation was purely in her official capacity, dienstlich, nur dienstlich (only official business). . . . How she clings to the sheet anchor of dienstlich.’” (112) Even when Ash asserts, “’But surely my visit was an entirely private one?’” She explains that her husband Georg was convinced he was working for British intelligence, so this was at least a semiofficial matter, halbdienstlich. (112)

Ash gives her photocopies of the reports and she starts reading. She is shaken by the detail and by the information on Georg.

He asks how the interview normally proceeded. Did they have a notebook? “’Yes, yes, they had an open notebook and they carefully wrote everything down. And really one cooperated. One was obliged to. And one tried to tell as many harmless details as possible.’” (112)

She tells him Dr. Georg died in 1984. She herself moved to Berlin, took early retirement—with a good pension as the widow of a “fighter against fascism”. (113)

“But then she goes back to reading the photocopies. . . . Suddenly she puts the papers down and says, ‘I can’t read any more. I feel sick. I want to puke.’” (113-114) Crying now, her voice is strangled as she says, “’This can’t be excused.’ Still, she tries to explain.”(114)

In 1975 she got this good job in Weimar, but with it came the unofficial work as an informer. “As she talks, emotionally, disjointedly, she reveals rather vividly the mixture of motives that made her collaborate. Some residual belief in the system. The sense that it was an official duty. . . . Then there was the hope of using the Stasi as a player in the bureaucratic game. For her own purposes too: through Dürer to America!” (114-115) While that trip didn’t materialize, she was able to obtain permission to take many official trips abroad, including to countries in the West, something of which most East Germans could only dream.

And fear?

“’Yes, of course, underneath one was shit-scared of them. So one tried to disarm any suspicion, to show how cooperative one was, by chatting away, giving all sorts of harmless detail. And this is what comes out. . . .’” (115)

“As she looks at the photocopied reports of IM ‘Michaela’ she nearly breaks down again, the eyes behind the metallic spectacles filling with tears.” (115)

She says, “’And now you want to write something? And you wanted to see my reaction? And now I’ve reacted like this and that’s good for you, isn’t it?’ She laughs bitterly, then asks, ‘Will you name names?’” (115)

Ash explains that he does not want to hurt anyone and will not use her real name. But, it will be very difficult to tell the story without her being identifiable, to family and acquaintances at least.

Ash observes that “Michaela” is “buffeted by conflicting thoughts and emotions.” (115) As their conversation nears its end, she says:

“We repressed so much. . . . Why didn’t I apply to see my file?
Because I didn’t want to know what was in it . . . and about my husband. . . . Who knows what else there is. . . . I think this was the only time I reported so extensively on private matters. I thought it [reporting on Ash to the Stasi] was dienstlich but—Well, I hope if you do write you’ll try to explain the subjective as well as the objective conditions. How it was then. But probably that’s impossible. Even I can’t really remember now. . . .” (116)

The conversation comes to an end. Now Ash has said everything that really needed to be said and he leaves the photocopies with her.

As they shake hands at the front door “Michaela” does not say, “’Sorry.’” She says, “’How did you get here, by car?’” (116)

“’No, by subway.’”

“’Oh, it’s a very good connection isn’t it?’ Struggling for self-respect and normality, as if nothing had happened. Nothing really.” (116)

When Ash sits down in his hotel room half an hour later and takes out a pen, he finds that his own hand is trembling.

Following this uncomfortable encounter with “Michaela,” Ash addresses his readers who need to keep in mind that the passages below were written and published in the mid-1990s:

You must imagine conversations like this taking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. Hundreds, thousands of such encounters, as the awful power of knowledge is slowly passed down from the Stasi [. . .] to individuals like me, who then hold the lives of other people in our hands, in a way that most of us would never otherwise do.

Might it not, after all, be wiser to allow them their own particular imaginative mixture of memory and forgetting, of self-respect built on self-deception? Or is it better to confront them? Better not just for yourself, for your own need to know, but for them too? Even in her first confused reaction, “Michaela” herself said, “Really it’s good that you’ve shown me this.” (117)

Front cover of The File: A Personal History by Timothy Garton Ash