Secret Sharers

The File: A Personal History

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

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash; drawing by David Levine

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…

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