Memoir of the East German police state

September 14, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

"The File," by Timothy Garton Ash. Random House. 224 pages. (( $23.

The Stasi were most sinister in their ordinariness.

In East Germany, the police made their presence known. They stopped cars and searched the trains. They walked muzzled, leashed dogs past the tourists. But not the Stasi, the secret police with their vast network of informers. Their terrifying power came from being indistinguishable. Anyone might be a spy - the baker, the bus driver, the next-door neighbor.

As it turned out, many were. Once the hard-line police state that was the German Democratic Republic collapsed, hundreds of thousands of people discovered to what strange, obsessive extent their lives had been monitored. One of the more fortunate was British writer Timothy Garton Ash, who used the surveillance of him as a student in East Berlin to explore why Germans conspired with 41 years of a totalitarian regime.

Crisp and compelling, "The File: A Personal History" traces a cast of Stasi officers and their "Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter," or "unofficial collaborators," who followed him, dated him, secretly photocopied his papers and reported his banter in sidewalk cafes.

More than a decade later, Ash tracked down the professors, friends and acquaintances whose reports form the 325-page file on him. The result is a thought-provoking glimpse of the Stasi's all-too-human ambitions and weaknesses.

Part real-life suspense story, part philosophical musing, "The File" offers a fast-paced introduction for readers who have only vague notions of the Stasi. It's greatest strength (and weakness) is in being cast as a memoir.

Ash escaped the shattering of trust of many Germans, who learned that close friends, even relatives, had betrayed them. One of the most unfortunate is Vera Wollenberger, a reform-minded political activist, whose husband had sympathetically listened to her only to tell the secret police.

Nor did Ash, who was deemed a possible British spy, suffer any real reprisal. The worst he faced was being barred from East Germany, hardly the same as years in a cellar prison.

Still, as an outsider, Ash has a particularly clear-eyed view of how East German lives were shaped by war and defeat. He skillfully and sensitively portrays the fear, the youthful idealism and the petty self-interest of those who spied on him.

There is the poised, white-haired woman who suffers under Hitler and Stalin yet clings to her belief in communism. There is the middle-aged bureaucrat who sees a chance to earn extra cash and travel by gossiping about friends and eventually her own family. There is the lower-level Stasi officer pressed into service in return for his schooling.

"The File" captures the bleak, grimy atmosphere of East Berlin, the freezing apartment with "ocher walls, the brown linoleum on the floor, the cheap plastic lampshade." It also shows just how inexpert all the heavy-handed espionage was; Ash only wound up banned after his critical writings were published in West Germany for all to see.

Ash's most astute observations, however, are about himself and his ability to forget.

What he calls the "poisoned madeleine" of the Stasi file reminds him of his own youthful flirtation with the British secret service, fumbling conversations in East Berlin, the heady start of the Solidarity movement in Poland. His investigation leads him "deep into many pasts - other countries', other people's and my own." It is there that he finds the best answers.

JoAnna Daemmrich covers the city of Baltimore for The Sun. She is fluent in German and has traveled extensively through Germany.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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