All roads lead to Romeo

THE FILE: A Personal History by Timothy Garton Ash, HarperCollins pounds 12.99

The Woman in the "Gauck archive" put the buff-coloured binder on the table in front of him. It was some two inches thick, stamped "OPK- Akte, MfS, XV 289/81", inscribed with his code name; "Romeo". Timothy Garton Ash was about to read his Stasi file.

To read your own file, with all the informers' reports and the evaluations of the security policemen who controlled them, is in Germany a right. But it is also a deeply personal decision. It is the decision to bite into the apple on the Tree of Knowledge. When you have read what lies inside, your past and the people you knew in that past will be irretrievably changed. And so will you. As Garton Ash writes, "a file opens a door to a vast sunken labyrinth of a forgotten past, but ... the very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts."

No other country, since the 1989 revolutions, has opened secret police files so completely. The budget of the "Gauck Office"- the archive in Berlin which holds the files - is more than the defence budget of Lithuania. And no other country - not even the Soviet Union - was as completely a secret police state as the old German Democratic Republic. The Stasi had more than 170,000 "unofficial collaborators" (registered informers, known as "IM's") and 90,000 full-time officers in the Stasi and the foreign intelligence service.

In a total population of 17 millions, this means that roughly one adult in 50 was working directly for this gigantic apparatus of surveillance and control. In 1941, the Gestapo required only 15,000 officers to control the whole Third Reich at its widest geographical extent. They did not need any more, because they could count on so much genuine popular loyalty. Garton Ash, who has worked on some of the Gestapo files, observes sadly that the Nazi informers were mostly volunteers who did not need to be entrapped and enrolled against their will.

The File is by far the wisest and most penetrating study of a Communist "informer society" ever written by an outsider. Garton Ash first came to the Stasi's attention in about 1979, when he was a student in West Berlin. He grew even more interesting in 1980, when he became the first British research student to live in East Berlin. The Stasi at first classified him as a man of "bourgeois-liberal attitudes with no commitment to the working class", but soon suspected that he might be using his East German contacts to spy. His contacts with "anti-socialist forces" in Poland alarmed his case officers, who turned their investigation towards possible prosecution for espionage - the penalty ranging from five years in prison to death.

Absurdly, they did not realise what he was really up to: doing covert research for a book about East Germany. When it appeared, there was a full-dress official protest to the British Embassy. But by then Garton Ash had moved on to the cause which was to occupy all his energies and hopes for the next few years, the struggles of Solidarity. He wrote in his diary: "Poland is my Spain."

In 1992, he returned to Berlin to read the "Romeo" file. And after reading it, he set out - with wonderful persistence - to find and confront not only the informers who had reported what he did and said but the Stasi officers who had been handling his case. Almost equally wonderful, only one - a Stasi man - refused to see him.

These were awful, fascinating confrontations. Some, like "Michaela" (her code name) at first denied the extent of her Stasi links but then broke down in tears when faced with the written evidence. Some wriggled and whined, like the British Communist living in East Berlin. One old lady, a veteran Communist who had lived through the Soviet purges, upset Garton Ash so much that he broke off his questioning: he did not want to witness her shame at being exposed as a mere informer, "far, far away from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out ... to fight for a better world".

Why did they do it? At one level, because they thought they had to: all were approached by the Stasi with "an offer they could not refuse". But beyond that were many motives: ambition ( "Michaela" was rewarded with foreign travel), a pathetic wish to be significant, fear of exposure for some sexual infringement. The Stasi officers were different; most were defiantly unrepentant, and some responded with an ominous mateyness, assuming that Garton Ash was just "one of us" but had been working for the other side. Only one, an ex-Major in the Stasi, disarmed him by his dignified remorse and candour. To his own surprise, Garton Ash noted that this was "a man with a real goodness of heart and a conscience that is not switched off at the office door".

Not all the people he knew betrayed him. One night in East Berlin, he took a lover up to his room and, before they went to bed, she suddenly opened the curtains and switched on the light. A little seed of doubt was planted. Cameras? But she was not in the file, and when he met her again, 12 years on, she was shocked to hear of this doubt. Why did she do it, then? "Because I wanted to see your face."

I like this story, which has a lot of resonance. Was it just "to see your face" that Tim Garton Ash opened his file and switched on the light? And whose face - an IM's, a Stasi officer's, his own - did he want to see?

He is well aware of these ambiguities. Friends in Germany warned that if he exposed informers he risked becoming like them: "now you're the informer". But he was also digging up his own past self. Comparing the files (" 16.15 hours: in the upper station concourse '246816' greeted a female person with handshake and kiss on the cheek") with his own diaries and memories, Garton Ash registers not only how much he has forgotten but how unfamiliar that tweedy young man and his attitudes have become. "I cared passionately for what I saw, with a rather simplistic romantic patriotism, as the British heritage of individual liberty." He still does, but more warily, less simply. Experience has taught him that politics are not always black or white, and that individual liberty may have enemies in the Home Counties as well as in a Communist dictatorship.

In the 1980s, Tim Garton Ash fought fierce polemical battles against what he named "equilateralism" - the Left-wing suggestion that both superpowers were tyrannous and that there was little to choose between the CIA and the KGB. But this book shows that, long after the argument is over, the comparison still bothers him. It was almost inevitable that, with his background, he would be fingered as a likely MI6 recruit by his college head at Oxford. He backed out early in the induction process. But he thought it helpful for this book to visit MI5, the domestic wing of secret intelligence, and put some questions.

"A little rhetorical equation with the Stasi is so tempting ... and so wrong". And yet he was clearly uneasy about some of what he heard. Individual files numbering "the low hundreds of thousands" are still a lot of files, and 16,000 "informers and agents" add up to a lot of narks. He asked about the case of my wife, Isabel Hilton, who was blacklisted from the BBC by its resident MI5 officer because she had been secretary of the Scotland- China Association. He was told that the BBC could have rejected this "advice". Was the BBC still a "customer" for MI5 vetting? "A sudden vagueness" set in.

He concludes: " They infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But ... we support the system by questioning it." Then he takes an old maxim of the East European opposition movements he knew so well, and adds to it. They said: try to live in a dictatorship as if it were a free country and the Stasi did not exist. "My new principle of As If is the opposite: try to live in this free country as if the Stasi were always watching you!"

It's not a comfortable rule. But it expresses some of the lessons which his file taught him. Garton Ash met nobody evil, he says. Instead he encountered "a vast anthology of human weakness" , and people with the bad luck to be born in the wrong country at the wrong time. He had hoped to find the secret which explains why some comply and a few resist. What makes an Albert Speer, who served Hitler, and what makes a Klaus von Stauffenberg, who gave his life in the attempt to overthrow him? But that secret eluded him.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little