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The File

Timothy Garton Ash (1998)


But what a gift to memory is a Stasi file. Far better than a madeleine. (12)

. . . the Stasi's own informers, known as Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter—literally "unofficial collaborators"—or IM for short. They were subdivided into several categories: security, special, operative, conspirative, even the informer for running other informers. Since 1989, the initials IM have entered the German language. SS is the synonym in every European language for the loud, violent, outright bestiality of Nazism. IM has become, in German, the synonym for . . . routine, bureaucratic forms of infiltration, intimidation and collaboration . . . the quieter corruption of mature totalitarianism. (14)

Timothy Garton Ash The File

Samuel Johnson:
How small, of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
But looking back I see how much the experience of my own heart, at least, was caused by our modern "laws and kings": by the different regimes of East and West, and the conflict between them. Perhaps, after all, Johnson was expressing not a universal but a purely local truth. Happy the country where that was ever true. (23-4)

The stick has never quite been lost,
although its use has been banned.
Inside the glove of newer ways
there's still the old iron hand.
[Heinrich Heine, "Germany: A Winter's Tale"] (71)

My friend Andrea, too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. Modest idylls, especially for children. "Inner emigration" and "the unpolitical German" are the large phrases behind which such lives disappear. (75-6)

For calls between West Berlin and West Germany it had a sophisticated listening station located, suitably enough, on the Brocken mountain, scene of the fabled witches' sabbath, or Walpurgis Night. Their equipment could be programmed to record any conversation in which a particular word or name was mentioned. (81)

In East Germany the regime was never popular to start with, and the longer it went on, the more it came to rely on this huge network of informers. I appear to have had the attentions of five. . . . As I study their reports on me, and set out to identify, find and talk to them in person, I am drawn back not just into my own past life but into these other lives that briefly crossed with mine. . . . Why did they do it? What was it like for them? How do they see it now? (85)

What makes me decide to publish—although without naming names—is the conviction that there is also a larger purpose. Here is a chance to bring home, with the vividness that can only come from such intimate detail, how someone is drawn into a secret-police net—and to show where such collaboration will lead you. (126-7)

He attaches a three-page typescript entitled "Some thoughts on the MfS" [The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security)]. This makes no mention at all of his own involvement but discusses the whole problem in general terms, as one interested scholar writing to another. . . . The word "I" does not appear once in his text. (139)

When he has left, Werner and I look at each other, shake our heads and start quietly laughing. Otherwise we would have to cry. Here, in that chair, has sat before us a perfect textbook example of the petty bureaucratic executor of evil. A good family man. Proud of his correctness, loyalty, hard work, decency—all those "secondary virtues" that have been identified as a key to collaboration with Nazism (and that the Prussian Association now hopes to revive). He is incapable of acknowledging, to this day, the systemic wrong of which he was a loyal servant, yet filled with remorse for having stolen a couple of Matchbox cars. (170)

He is completely unrepentant. The state was threatened by Western agents, terrorists, provocateurs, subversives. As its name suggests, the State Security Service gave ordinary people security, and they look back to it with longing now, when there's so much insecurity: crime, unemployment, drugs. Yes, there was a minority who suffered for their political views. But that's normal. Exactly the same thing happened in West Germany. What was that word they had for it? I suggest: Berufsverbot? Yes, that's it! It was exactly the same!
But I thought your system was supposed to be better?
"Na ja . . . " He laughs bitterly. Anyway, most people did appreciate the security, and they didn't mind giving up a little liberty in exchange. (183)

There was also a sense of things going wrong in the country. Privately, he and his colleagues identified two main problems, the Car Problem and the Travel Problem. The Car Problem was that there were simply no decent cars available. People could only get a puttering little Trabant or Wartburg, and they had to wait ten years even for that. The Travel Problem was that most people weren't allowed to travel anywhere, except to a limited number of countries in the Soviet bloc.
Did they ever discuss the Freedom Problem?
"No!" Pause for thought. "Although the Travel Problem was somehow related to it." (188)

Major Risse has moved to Dresden. I obtain his address from the local Residents Registration Office. You can find almost anyone's address, anywhere in Germany, just by asking. (192)

His opening line is much like that of his former colleagues: "I wanted to work for a better world." But soon he leaves that well-trodden path. The system went wrong, he says, because it was bound to go wrong, because of human nature. People can't be transformed, turned into something other than they are. Communism failed to allow for what he calls "the inner Schweinehund." It could only have worked if people had been angels. His judgment is simple but not shallow: that was communism's basic flaw. (193-4)

It must be right that the Germans, and not just the Germans, should really understand how in the second half of the twentieth century there was again built, on German soil, a totalitarian police state, less brutal than the Third Reich, to be sure, far less damaging to its neighbors, and not genocidal, but more quietly all-pervasive in its domestic control. How this state exploited some of the very same mental habits, social disciplines and cultural appeals on which Nazism had drawn, and those same fateful "secondary virtues"—duty, loyalty, punctuality, cleanliness, hard work. How all this could go on for so long with so many Germans being so little aware that it was going on. How the German language, that glorious but all-too-powerful instrument, once again lent itself to disguising evil as good. In short, how Germany still walked in the shadow of the Goethe Oak. (226-7)

What you find here, in the files, is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances. How large of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure. 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.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of their actions was a great evil. It's true what people often say: we, who never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive?
"Do not forgive," writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn."
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (252)

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