The File and the Ethics of Transitional Justice

Timothy Garton Ash The File: A Personal History (BF)

The File is a highly reflective and contemplative journey of the author Timothy Garton Ash, a trained historian and journalist, through his East German Ministry for State Security (MfS or Stasi) file. Ash has written widely about central and eastern Europe in the last years and aftermath of Communist and the Cold War. He earned his Stasi intelligence file during his time spent as a Oxford based researcher, claiming to be studying Nazi period Berlin while in fact collecting material for a book on East Germany. After the Stasi identified him as an author critical of the East, he was banned from entry into East Germany for number of years. Ash compares his diary notes about his time spent behind the iron curtain with his Stasi file, available to him and to everyone who has a file through the elaborate East German Gauck Authority since 1991. He identifies and confronts most of his informers as well as many of the Stasi officers listed in his file and at various points explains the system of domestic intelligence in a country where one in fifty East Germans were directly connected with the secret police (p84).

If confronting and exposing informers was all this book was about, it would not be much of an impressive achievement. As Ash himself notes, the work would amount to the vain and disruptive project of a famous journalist (who never truly suffered anything under Communism) written for his own and other readers’ amusement.

Instead, I found the book particularly interesting because Ash uses all of this to repeatedly pose a number of other more difficult questions that historians in general, researchers of and citizens in post-transition regimes in particular need to consider. Some of his observations build on eachother:

1) Ash is constantly aware of the creative powers of memory and the care we all ought to have when working with sources either oral or written. He is skeptical towards his own “mental autobiography” (p23, 42) and also shows how his file could lead him to jump to the wrong conclusions about people – including at incident where his file makes him wrongly accuse someone of being an informer. In this way, Ash sees his whole project from the perspective of a historian, puzzling over how to reconstruct, narrate, and question our understanding of the past.

2) A certain sense of guilt, or at least a deep discomfort pervades the entire book: Ash is at least partly persuaded that the “outing” of Stasi informers and officers, whether it is in lists published in the newspaper, in sensationalist articles targeting a famous figure, or in books such as his own, might destroy more than it can potentially heal. He is especially skeptical of the arguments of the very media he worked for, “When writers or newspaper editors are criticized for publishing details from someone’s private life, they cite ‘the public interest.’ But in practice their definition of ‘public interest’ is often ‘what interests the public'” (p125)

It is not just the careers that can be destroyed, however, he gives us numerous examples of what happens when the files reveal an informing husband, daughter, or best friend. The quote above is taken from a moment when he wonders if his book’s publication might damage an informers relationship with her stepdaughter. Elsewhere we hear of a woman, once jailed for 5 years for trying to escape to the West, who finds out that her husband, who had that same morning wished her a good day in the archives, was the one who denounced her to the Stasi. Ash is deeply troubled by the consequences of this type of “transitional justice” and opening of the records of the past:

You must imagine conversations [between the persecuted and their informers] 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 the employees of the Gauck Authority, and from the employees of the Gauck Authority 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? (p117)

He remains troubled by this issue throughout the book but ultimately stakes out his position: “Find out—record—reflect—but then move on. That is the least bad formula I know for truth and reconciliation…” (p226)

3) In his discussions with informers and Stasi officers, Ash is constantly trying to understand the process through which people become informers and collaborate with an oppressive regime. Why did people collaborate with the Stasi, and continue to do so until the collapse of the entire system? The files of his informers, which he has access to as a researcher, tell him much about the various strategies of coercion and offered opportunities, etc. In the case of the Stasi officers themselves, he makes an argument which I don’t think really think he was able to back up sufficiently: that the officers become Stasi due to a troubled childhood or because they saw such state institutions as a substitute for a missing father figure.

Having said that, however, I think that Ash mirrors everything I have found to be true in my own reading about collaborators and the agents of wartime atrocities in East Asia when he concludes:

What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception. (p252)

He is also sensitive to the special role this kind of opening of files can have in the aftermath of the unusual process of German unification:

Ironically, the opening of the files, demanded by former dissidents from East Germany, has reinforced Western neocolonial attitudes toward the East. West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgment, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. (p224)

4) However, in trying to be sensitive to the dangers of this process of confrontation and reflection on the past and being as sensitive as he can to the “agonizing choices” faced by those who lived under the dictatorship and chose to collaborate with the regime, Ash’s bitterness and anger certainly comes through. This is natural for someone who has a long history of working with dissidents throughout Communist Europe. The informers and officers he writes about are not given the last word, and Ash is often willing to present his encounters with them in such a way that reveals the ridiculous nature of the defenses and justifications given for their behavior. In addition to being willing to to mock their excuses for collaboration with the regime Ash also shows (deserved in my opinion) disgust for Leftists in the West who during the Cold War either a) held up the Communist bloc as a model of emancipatory democracy long after the horrors of such regimes were apparent to anyone who gave the evidence a sincere evaluation or, and I think this is just as important because it happens all the time even now (and I have found myself guilty of this): b) tried to make claims of equivalency between the slightest hint of oppression in the liberal democracies of the West and the oppression of dictatorial regimes.

At the end the book, Ash turns his thoughts to intelligence gathering in Britain and is surprised to find out from an anonymous British intelligence officer that he has a “friendly” or non-adversarial file in the records of MI6. He is troubled by the fact that, unlike the United States freedom of information act or the Gauck Authority, Britain provides no way to request information on what the government knows about you. He discusses the problems of “ends justifying the means” to justify the kinds of spying methods the Stasi officers always liked to tell him were “just like” those of the west, and the greater difficulty in justifying domestic surveillance in the West even with and argument about the final goal: In a democracy, “ends and means are almost inseparable. Spying on your own citizens directly infringes the very freedom it is supposed to defend. The contradiction is real and unavoidable. But if the infringement goes too far, it begins to destroy what it is meant to preserve. And who decides what is too far?” (p236) Ultimately however, he wants to emphasize the huge differences between the state of affairs in our own world and that under Stasi or even worse SS/Gestapo oppression: scale matters. Ash despairs at the perhaps inevitable “semantic degradation” (p238) that results when we use the language and terms of a heroic resistance or violent oppression when the scale differs by several degrees of magnitude. (At this point I’m reminded of my own rather liberal use of the word “fascism” – but I’m sorry – I just refuse to give up a great sounding word like that – for me it is not so much a case of semantic slippage as one of phonetic fascination)

I believe that overall this is a great book to assign students of modern history (In fact it was my friend Brendan Karch who first put me on to this book last semester when I believe it was assigned to a class he was helping teach on postwar Europe), especially if accompanied by something that provides better context (The File doesn’t really spell out the atrocities of the police states of Eastern Europe since it assumes its readers to have this historical background) because it goes beyond its central narrative and gets the reader thinking about all of the historical and historiographical problems mentioned above. In my opinion, it married the best (rather than the worst – as if often the case with such works) of a journalistic and historical style of writing.