Stasi files (Courtesy of DanaMc at Flikr)

As a young man, Timothy Garton Ash travelled  to Berlin to study the cause and effects of Nazism.  Living in the divided city his focus soon shifted to the most recent German dictatorship – that of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik),  East Germany to you and I. Choosing to live for a while in East Berlin, he soon attracted the interest of the Stasi. When the DDR crumbled 20 years ago, Stasi files that were not destroyed in the mad panic (not surprising as they which would stretch for 70 miles if laid out flat)  were made available for their subjects to inspect.  Many Germans chose, indeed still are choosing to take this opportunity, wishing to discover why they had been denied access to higher education, why they were passed over for promotion, why they had not been allowed to travel.   Discovering too the identities of those had betrayed them. As 1 in 6 East Germans were informers, the chances are that the betrayer was someone very close; parent, child, lover.  Can you imagine the emotional fallout and in The File, Timothy Garton Ash relates some such cases. For many the trauma continues long after the fall of the wall.

The main focus of The File, however, is Timothy Garton Ash’s inspection of his own file in 1992 and the interviews he conducted with those involved in its creation. It’s a very civilised read – in keeping with the civilised way in which Germany has dealt with the legacy of the DDR. (Compare it for example with the bloodbaths involved during the fall of other communist countries.)   The File does not wallow in the cruelties of the regime – so it’s not as sensational a read as Anna Funder’s Stasiland. It does, however, provide a fascinating insight into human psychology – the motivations of the informers and the justifications of Stasi officers including those at the very top. 

The openness with which the Germans are dealing with this is amazing.  At one stage in his investigations, Garton Ash suddenly wonders if he is known to the British Secret Service and whether a similar file exists on him over here … 

The File was first published in 1997.  It has been republished with an afterword to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and in that afterword, Timothy Garton Ash makes some interesting observations.  In 1989 the political landscape shifted dramatically.  It did so again in 2001. What relevance have stories from the DDR with our post 9/11 realities?

Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free state to an unfree one.  I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do.  In fact East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain ….

… of course Britain is not a Stasi state … But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.


Giveaway results:

There were 4 entries for the Ash. 3 entries for Stasiland. very systematically generated a winning  #1 for  the Ash draw and #2 for Stasiland which means congratulations are due to Sarah and Jen P! Please email me at lizzysiddal at and I’ll get your books in the post forthwith.