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Secret Sharers

The File: A Personal History

by Timothy Garton Ash
Random House, 257 pp., $23.00

In Julien Duvivier’s pre-war movie Un Carnet de Bal, a woman turns up an old dance program with the names of her beaux and sets out to find what had happened to them twenty years later. In much the same way Timothy Garton Ash decided to look up the informers who had helped the East German security services, the Stasi, to compile a file on him when in 1978 he went to Germany to write his Ph.D. thesis on Berlin under Hitler and spent much of his time in the East.

How could he know who they were? And how could he get hold of his file? This is the story he tells.

Nothing did the present German government more credit than the sensitive way in which they handled the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany. They had, of course, learned lessons from the experience of de-Nazification (to which oddly enough Garton Ash does not refer). A tribunal under a Protestant pastor was set up to satisfy those who had suffered under the Communist tyranny yet at the same time to prevent private acts of revenge. Anyone who believed a file had been opened on him by the Stasi could apply to see it and discover who had informed on him. The cost of the operation was immense—some $160 million in 1996; but open administration brought its reward. No one could say the truth was being concealed. Sometimes the results were comical. Young men who boasted that the Stasi had been on their track were found to have no file, and their girlfriends dumped them. More often the results were tragic. A wife found that her husband had informed on her and a bitter divorce followed. But sometimes it was a relief to find that one’s son-in-law who had seemed so shady was in the clear.

Was Garton Ash himself a spy? No, he was not. He had in fact been approached as a student at Oxford to join the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and had refused. The Stasi were brought up to admire the British Secret Service and investigated every Englishman who showed up in Berlin. That was why they recruited informers on Garton Ash. What could be more suspicious than an Oxford graduate student with the dubious cover story that he needed to live in East Berlin to flesh out his thesis? In fact the Stasi failed to discover any British spies—probably because there weren’t any.

Garton Ash was now to learn as he studied his file what the Stasi was like. It was enormous. For the whole of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia the Gestapo had fewer than 15,000 staff. The Stasi had 85,000. One out of every fifty adult citizens had connections with it. The officers worked a twelve-hour day from 7:15 every morning and often after dinner checking up on their informants. They had no social life with their colleagues. Their technical equipment was excellent. On the Brocken, the legendary mountain site of Walpurgis Night, they operated a listening station that could get a fix on any West Berlin number if certain words were uttered.

The Stasi recruited informers on Garton Ash by the usual methods. They dangled before them the grant of an exit visa to travel in the West. Or they blackmailed them—one faced exposure for making homosexual advances to a student. Another, an English polytechnic lecturer married to a German and teaching at the Humboldt University, was threatened with expulsion and the loss of his wife and children who would not have been allowed to join him. He was a bore. Even the Stasi grew tired of his habit of lecturing them. His file on Garton Ash ran to six hundred pages consisting of essays in political analysis explaining how a bourgeois liberal regarded the East German regime; but they also contained information about other people. The worst informer, vindictive and self-righteous, had been recruited by Litzi Philby, the first wife of the British spy. Her reports not only retailed spiteful comments in which his remarks were twisted to show him in a disagreeable light. The accumulation of such remarks could be used as evidence for possible expulsion. Garton Ash discovered that she informed on her husband and was told to pump her daughter-in-law for information.

All were appalled when Garton Ash, file in hand, showed them what they had said about him. Would he, they asked, “out” them? The English university lecturer absolved himself by sending him a dispassionate academic analysis of the methodology of informing. “Anyone conversant with text analysis and the problems of perception and objectives will appreciate the care needed in interpreting material of this kind.” Conceptualize the matter and your own responsibility melts away. No apology needed.

The most poignant among the informers was an elderly Jewish lady. She joined the Party in her teens and escaped before the war to Moscow only to see her husband sent for more than ten years to a labor camp and her son taken from her and put in an orphanage, victims of Stalin’s purges. She had been a special friend of Garton Ash’s, taking him to the theater, praising his parents for bringing him up so well. But the playwright Rolf Hochhuth (a contemptible fellow) told her Garton Ash was a spy and she did what she thought was her duty. When he confronted her, she spoke to him of her sufferings for the cause she still believed in: “No, Tim, it’s not all so simple.” And yet he saw how ashamed she was. Acting as an informer was low and mean, “such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world…. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting?” He has not revealed her name, nor the names of any of his other informers.

He felt differently about the case officers in the Stasi. They were already known and anonymity was unnecessary. They compared poorly with Markus Wolf, the chief spy-runner, who was not in the Stasi. Wolf was brazen, intelligent, witty, handsome—the Albert Speer of the German Democratic Republic, who has cashed in since unification from books and television appearances. Wolf argued that the spies had kept the peace in Europe: each side knew how much the other side knew about them. He disagreed with the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm that the cold war was moonshine: there had been a real danger of nuclear war over Cuba. More recently Wolf has changed his mind. He is reported as saying there was no “big danger” or any Soviet plan to invade Western Europe. Clearly he will say anything that will make news. Except on one issue. Of domestic repression Wolf has never said a word.

The Stasi officers had no qualms. They declared there were saboteurs and terrorists everywhere. People were grateful to them for making them feel safe. They repeated that under Communist rule there was no crime or unemployment. Garton Ash noticed that each department always blamed someone else. As in the parable, “They all with one consent began to make excuse.” They blinded themselves to what the West was like. One general believed that economic growth was lower in the Federal Republic than in the Democratic Republic; another, accustomed to Communist censorship, declared, “There is criticism of the Royal Family but you don’t have the courage to act.” The key, Garton Ash thought, lay in their childhoods. The younger ones sometimes grew up without a father (killed on the Russian front) or their fathers had been Nazis or victims of Nazism. There was just one Stasi officer who he ended by thinking was a decent man. Bombed out in 1945, so poor he had no shoes, he was saved by a devoted mother scraping and saving to buy him school books. He did well at school but the day came when the state told him to do something for the state that had done so much for him. In the Stasi his conscience did not atrophy. He hated the system, but lacked the courage to desert. He was honest. Not a man to switch off his conscience when he left the office.

While interviewing the informers Garton Ash found himself interviewing himself. Who was this young man whom they had observed, what did his diary tell him when he compared it with the file? He found himself wondering whether the young man’s “fumblings, clumsiness, pretentiousness and snobbery” could really be him. Difficult to recall what it was like to believe he could simultaneously write his thesis, publish a book about East Germany, analyze the Bauhaus, and write the articles for the Spectator that would make his name. There is enough of the Ph.D. student still left in him to worry about the nature of evidence and methodology. He wonders who he is and whether that Ph.D. student twenty years ago was really him. You wonder whether he is going to become a character in a play by Pirandello and land you in the marsh of appearance and reality.

He was a romantic, and when Solidarity first began in Gdansk to challenge Polish communism, Garton Ash took off for the shipyards to listen to Walesa. He was enthralled by the open contempt for the Soviet Union and contrasted the courage of the Poles with the obedient pusillanimity of the Germans. “Poland is my Spain,” he wrote in his 1980 diary; he learned Polish, fell in love with a Polish girl in West Berlin, and agonized with her when it looked as if Russian tanks—and, worse, East German tanks—might roll across the Polish border to suppress the revolt. The Stasi feared the Democratic Republic might catch the Polish disease. By this time the Stasi had followed their Polish colleagues’ example and banned Garton Ash from reentering their country.

This book is remarkable for its exceptional moral sensitivity. Garton Ash recognizes that he was gifted with what the philosopher Bernard Williams calls moral luck. In West Berlin he met many sixty-eighters—the militants of that year, now resting at anchor in port, no longer marching in demos but resolutely anti-anti-Communist, anti all forms of nuclear engineering, anti capitalist America, and sympathetic to the socialist society across the Wall which provided full employment and social security and equal opportunities for women. He noticed they did not care to visit that society. He learned later that Markus Wolf regarded them as his favorite pool to fish for potential spies. Similarly the foreign journalists who praised the Honecker regime had never lived there as Garton Ash had. “Suspicion is everywhere,” he wrote in his diary, “it strikes in the bar, it lurks in the telephone, it travels with you in the train.”

But he does not crow over the sixty-eighters. He reflects how lucky he was to have been born ten years later than they. He considers he was lucky to have been born an upper-middle-class, public schoolboy taught by Oxford tutors—yes, from much the same stable as Burgess, Maclean, and Blunt but also of the same frame of mind as Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptographers and the war heroes like the air ace and philanthropist Leonard Cheshire. He too says, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” but, he explains, in his case he means an Isaiah Berliner. Berlin taught him to recognize that there are many cultures; and people pursue ends that cannot be reconciled. That is why we must be tolerant. But in the last analysis we must stand for what we believe in: to equivocate is despicable.

What happens if what you believe in turns out to be wrong? What happens if you are left supporting an equivocal cause? Suppose he had felt he must join Che Guevara or had been alive to join the antifascist movement and ended believing that the only men and women with the guts to oppose fascism were the Communists? Suppose he had been young enough to get swept into the anti-American crusade at the time of the Vietnam War? In fact he was lucky enough to identify with Polish Solidarity. He soon finds himself facing what one may call the Graham Greene paradox. What, after all, is the difference between Philby and a Western spy? Is Philby the counterpart of the heroic clandestine Jesuit priests who kept Catholicism alive under Elizabeth I? Garton Ash, however, is not prepared to argue that fair is foul and foul is fair. There is a real difference between Western democracy and totalitarian regimes, between Stauffenberg’s attempt to kill Hitler and any would-be assassin of Churchill.

But what about MI5? Is it not hypocritical to pillory the Stasi and not acknowledge the existence of the British security service? After all, both break into premises and bug them. So Garton Ash went to call on MI5 to make comparisons. He found that MI5 and the police Special Branch number together about 4,000 officers and employ 16,000 agents and informers: a ratio of 1:4. The Stasi ratio was 1:2. People don’t have to get permission to go abroad; nor are they susceptible to blackmail because judges are not compelled to do MI5’s bidding. Nor do Britons slink into the pub, fearful of who might be sitting next to them. Who indeed in Britain spends even a minute thinking of MI5?

There are a few who do so—members of the Labour Party who discover that MI5 has a file on them. A talkative ex-member of MI5 reports that Peter Mandelson (Tony Blair’s éminence grise) had such a file. Then there are those investigative journalists intent on penetrating MI5 and other secret agencies and spilling their secrets. There are also those who have failed to get a job because the organization they wanted to join asked MI5 if there was information against them. The BBC used to ask MI5 to help them vet those employed in the news service or its world service. Some years ago this was exposed, but Garton Ash thinks it may well go on. At the height of the cold war MI5 was interested in a number of extreme left-wing organizations which orchestrated student riots. Thirty percent of its resources were spent on keeping tabs on these citizens. Did the secret services in those days on occasions go too far? Probably. But then in the middle of the cold war, Garton Ash writes, one “cannot stop for a philosophy seminar” even if you have to live with the consequences. Today subversion claims only 3 percent of MI5’s budget. After 1989, to satisfy public concern Parliament passed laws regulating the secret services. It set up tribunals, commissioners, and a parliamentary committee.

Garton Ash might have examined further another safeguard: British juries. In the Falklands war a civil servant, Clive Ponting, blew the whistle on the secretary of state for defense and suggested that he had deliberately misled Parliament. His civil service chief told him that at worst he might have to resign from the service. But the minister was out for blood and insisted Ponting should stand trial. The judge told the jury that however high-minded they might consider Ponting’s motives they might well think—judicial-speak for “I’m telling you”—that in law he was guilty of breaking his duty of confidentiality. The jury acquitted him. In another, less-publicized case MI5 caught two spies red-handed, equipped with radio transmitters and all the technical paraphernalia of spying. Astonishingly the jury acquitted them, too. Officialdom has to work hard to get convictions as juries disbelieve the evidence of police and security officers.

To satisfy his curiosity Garton Ash asked MI5 whether they kept a file on him. Well, as a matter of fact they did—a white file signifying a well-wisher. But was he a well-wisher? When he returned to Oxford he was approached, this time not by MI6 (SIS), but by MI5—would he keep an eye on certain foreign students and let them know if they were security risks? Garton Ash refused. Of course he was right to do so. No academic should spy upon his students, and the chance of him coming across an Iranian student intent on assassinating Salman Rushdie or uncovering an IRA cell in Oxford seems slim. He draws a distinction between being recruited as an informer and, as an ordinary citizen, informing the police or the security services of threats to public safety or suspicious circumstances. Indeed, he puts the case against himself frankly. For is it not the duty of citizens to help the security services? Britain faces today a genuine security problem on the mainland as well as in Northern Ireland; the other states in the European Union acknowledge that this is so. How else can MI5 protect society unless members of that society tell them their suspicions?

The chapter in which Garton Ash examines this problem is one of the best in his book. He ends by posing a paradox. Yes, our own spooks and spies infringe our liberties in order to protect them. He chooses to protect them in a different way. Parliamentary democracy must be supported. “But I support it,” he says, “in my own way…. [I] support the system by questioning it.” The answer by a scrupulous, hard-working journalist is impeccable. Perhaps the answer comes as a little too pat, as if the author is looking around for the reader’s approval. After all, the answer is one that every hard-working, scrupulous journalist like himself should give. But Garton Ash is free from that vice which besets many “bourgeois liberals” like himself, the vanity of always appearing to be right on every moral issue—l’insupportable justesse. His compassion for all who live under totalitarian rule and are driven into moral contortions is admirable.

Yet the problem that is uppermost in Garton Ash’s mind is reconciliation. How can whole populations or ethnic groups oppressed for generations be persuaded to bury the hatchet and be reconciled to their former enemies? He returned to this problem when he recently visited the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and heard again “the desperate contortions of northern European Protestant denial” as Afrikaners, like their Nazi or Stasi counterparts, tried to exculpate themselves from the worst atrocities they and their comrades committed.* And how odd, he thought, to hear in the Southern Hemisphere the militants among the oppressed using the phraseology of communism. All over Eastern Europe countries have been contorted in meeting demands for revenge, amnesty, purification, justice. Germany alone—because Germany could afford the cost of telling the truth—held trials and purges and opened the files.

Garton Ash contrasts the different traditions of memory. On the one hand the Jewish tradition that to remember is the secret of redemption and Santayana reminding us that to forget the past is to be condemned to repeat it. On the other side stand Cicero, Renan, Gladstone, and Churchill, who think that to forget should be as much a part of a nation’s tradition as its memory of past glories. (This is easier for great nations.) He himself believes the least bad formula is “Find out—record—recollect—but then move on.” If only the British and Irish, the Israelis and Palestinians, the tribes of central Africa and dozens of combatants over the globe could do that.

Whatever we do to restore friendship between enemies, someone will suffer. A professor, desolate at being revealed as a Stasi informer, “smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes.” For the professor a tragedy; but for us—garden gnomes are regarded in Britain as particularly atrocious—surely this is a better outcome than others we could think of.

  1. *

    See Timothy Garton Ash, “South Africa: True Confessions,” The New York Review, July 17, 1997, pp. 33-38.

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