Review of the File by Timothy Garton Ash

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‘A fascinating account of a fascinating period.’ How far do you agree with this judgement of your chosen book? Explain your answer.

The dictionary definition of the word fascinating is simply ‘extremely interesting’ and that is exactly what Timothy Garton Ash’s The File; A Personal History is. It is a compelling excavation of the Stasi and the people who came into contact with it, including his younger self; for, as a student and journalist working and living in East Germany, he was placed under surveillance and his movements tracked and filed. It opens when he returns to East Berlin, fifteen years after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, to look inside the three hundred and twenty-five pages long buff-coloured binder. The rest of the book is a personal and sociological working-through of this information, which includes interviews with those who informed on him, as he works to "investigate their investigation of me" and attempts to reconstruct his own past.

The Ministry for State Security commonly known as the Stasi , was the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic. Headquartered in East Berlin, it was widely regarded as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. With the German reunification in1990, the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives opened the Stasi records to public access, leading people to look for their files.  Timothy Garton Ash, an English historian, wrote The File: A Personal History after reading the file compiled about him while he completed his dissertation research in East Berlin.

The most fascinating thing, as well as the most peculiar, is that Garton Ash begins to track down "all the members of the triangle"; for he and his friends were the first side of the triangle and then the informers were the second and the officers the third. "Gradually, like a detective" he starts to "build up a mental picture of them and begins to track them down".

One of the principal informants in The File was IM "Michaela"-- Inoffiziele Mitarbeiter, "unofficial collaborator" with the Stasi. Out of the many she reported, on was that Garton Ash was asking suspicious questions about a Bauhaus museum exhibit: "Why was there only now a Bauhaus exhibition organized in the GDR?" and "What is the attitude of the GDR to the Bauhaus?" This cultural interest was interpreted as political curiosity; the police considered whether Garton Ash could be prosecuted under the criminal code as someone passing secret information to a foreign power. In his research he reads not only his own file as a suspect, but also the file of the "unofficial collaborator," in which "Michaela" makes reports on everyone from her stepdaughter's boyfriend to a rude waiter in a hotel restaurant.

Garton Ash confronts "Michaela" fifteen years later, and whilst reading the photocopies from his file, she cries, she half apologizes, she worries about being identifiable in his book: "Ah well, perhaps I can sue you and I'll win a lot of money. No, no, sorry, that was only a joke". Her reason for reporting on Garton-Ash as well as her loved ones; “I was sure they were building a better Germany”, “I could get to go to America” - the chance to have a better lifestyle. Garton Ash relates their meeting and dialogue to extrapolate the moral convulsions of post-Communist society: "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”.

After an abashing encounter with his prime informant, ‘Michaela’, Garton Ash moves on to those higher up the hierarchy in the Stasi; the officers. The result of Garton Ash's questioning with them were a few intriguing chapters to read as the backgrounds of Kratsch, Kaulfuss, Fritz and Risse are explored. Garton Ash learns that each had some sort of a troubled childhood: there is the absent...
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