The File

By Timothy Garton Ash

In 1978 Timothy Garton Ash left Oxford for East Berlin to begin researching a doctoral thesis on Nazi Germany. As a Western “bourgeois liberal” intellectual as well as a journalist, his actions were closely monitored by the Stasi – the East German secret police. He was given the code name “Romeo” and a file was opened up.

Now, almost twenty years later, Ash has gone back to Berlin to examine his file and try to understand this paranoid society, full of wire-taps, secret informers, and treachery. What he discovers is like a real-life novel by John LeCarre or Graham Greene, with sinister echoes of the Nazi past.

Throughout the book there are two main themes that Ash seeks to explore. First is the relation of one’s identity to the past. In addition to his file, Ash has a detailed diary he kept over the same period, as well as his (often sketchy) memory to rely on. But is the “I” in Ash’s diary the same “I” that is writing twenty years later? And if imagination and memory are the same thing, which is more real: “Romeo” or the “my life” of mental autobiography?

The second question the book asks is a moral one. “What is it that makes one person a resistance fighter and another the faithful servant of a dictatorship? This man a Stauffenberg, that a Speer?” Totalitarian East Germany gives Ash an opportunity to see this choice being re-enacted in real time.

These are both fascinating questions, and Ash is perfectly placed to address both. Unfortunately, while he has many excellent observations, he never deals with either in any depth. The book is interesting, especially when “Romeo” turns the tables and begins tracking down the ex-Stasi officials who had worked on his file, but it never fully delivers on its promise.

Instead, it ends on a rather limp note by warning us about how even people living in Western democracies are not free from state surveillance. (Upon returning home, Ash discovers that he has another file in England.) We cannot afford to grow complacent in our freedom.

But Ash is missing perhaps the most important point. In the West, Big Brother is not the state. As several of the people that Ash meets point out, the state simply can’t afford to play that role.

All of us today have a “file,” and many of us are being monitored or kept under surveillance throughout most of the working day. But this is being done by corporate America. Whether it takes the form of electronic monitoring of the work-place, credit histories kept by banks, or just the information collected by advertisers for target marketing, the information gathering process never stops.

Nor is this loss of privacy a mere annoyance. Possession of this information has real consequences. Ash may be more correct than he knows in forcing us to look beyond the crimes of the past.

Review first published online January 15, 2000.


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