Saturday, June 22, 2013

We are the actors in history (Books - The File by Timothy Garton Ash)

The 1989 civil overthrow of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe was one of the most influential revolutions of recent history, and feels somehow quickly forgotten.  Following it, each of the USSR's dominions had to find a way suitable to its culture to transition away from totalitarian communism, and paranoia induced spying. While under Soviet rule,the East German State Security Service or STASI recruited an incredible number of its own populace as informers
According to internal records, in 1988 - the last "normal" year of the GDR - the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 "unofficial collaborators."  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in "conspiratorial" services such as lending their flats for secret meetings or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police. 
It was not unusual  for people to be informed on by co-workers, neighbors, friends, lovers, spouses or children. The East Germans had quite a bit of work to do to reeducate its citizens about history, economics, law, and and the role of the state.  Most of the adult population in 1989 had known only Soviet rule or, if they were old enough, the Nazis.  So following the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany made the contents of STASI files available to anyone who had one, allowing them to know who informed on them, and what they believed was known about them.  This effort at transparency often became an exercise in counter-recrimination.  In some cases, mostly for higher-ups, justice was pursued legally.  In others, the discovery of betrayal by friends and family was life-altering and devastating.

For Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford student in the 1970s writing his thesis on Berlin under Hitler, it was an opportunity to think about the interaction of the political with the personal on two levels.  On the one hand he sought to understand the impact of the state on these individuals - what motivated his informers (he's now a respected political journalist and author of many books on the revolutions of 1989 - here's a link to my thoughts on his The Magic Lantern ).  On the other, he could examine his own experience as a young man present at a key event in history, considering how subjective memory informs the telling of history.  As he puts it

The Stasi's observation report, my diary entry: two versions of one day in a life.  The "object" described with the cold outward eye of the secret policeman, and my own subjective, allusive, emotional self-description.  But what a gift to memory is a Stasi file.  Far better than a madeleine.
Code named "Romeo," probably a result of driving an Alfa Romeo, not his romantic prowess, Ash was the target of four informers "Smith," "Schuldt," "Michaela," and her husband Georg.  He visits each in turn, and after setting the scene, the 200-odd pages of The File (Vintage Books, 1998) chronicles his encounters with each of them considering not only their informing, but also what he can learn about their history.  The history that led them to inform.

The excitement and suspense of this personal spy story makes for pleasurable reading, but it is the thoughtfulness of his account that sticks.  Garton Ash writes that he found himself almost unrecognizeable in his diary.  How tempted he is, to write of that character as 'he' rather than 'I'
Personal memory is such a slippery customer.  Nietzsche catches it brilliantly in one of his epigrams: "'I did that,' says my memory.  'I can't have done that,' says my pride and remains adamant.  In the end - memory gives way."  The temptation is always to pic and choose your past, just as it is for nations: to remember Shakespeare and Churchill but forget Northern Ireland.  But we must take it all or leave it all; and I must say "I."
Garton Ash's effectiveness  as a political writer comes from his perspective that history is not the actions of other people.  It is actions of individual selves - we participate in history.

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