Muninn on Ash on The File

I’m a couple of weeks late in calling attention to another fine essay by Muninn‘s K. M. Lawson on Timothy Garton Ash’s The File: A Personal History (Vintage, 1998). Perhaps partly from his own Norwegian heritage, Lawson has a very finely nuanced take on issues of collaboration and resistance, which tend to get rewritten into dàzìbào (‘big character poster’) or bumpersticker format by nationalist historians. I very much look forward to reading his dissertation on East Asian history. Here are some excerpts from his review essay.

A certain sense of guilt, or at least a deep discomfort pervades the entire book: Ash is at least partly persuaded that the “outing” of Stasi informers and officers, whether it is in lists published in the newspaper, in sensationalist articles targeting a famous figure, or in books such as his own, might destroy more than it can potentially heal. He is especially skeptical of the arguments of the very media he worked for, “When writers or newspaper editors are criticized for publishing details from someone’s private life, they cite ‘the public interest.’ But in practice their definition of ‘public interest’ is often ‘what interests the public’” (p125)

It is not just the careers that can be destroyed, however, he gives us numerous examples of what happens when the files reveal an informing husband, daughter, or best friend. The quote above is taken from a moment when he wonders if his book’s publication might damage an informers relationship with her stepdaughter. Elsewhere we hear of a woman, once jailed for 5 years for trying to escape to the West, who finds out that her husband, who had that same morning wished her a good day in the archives, was the one who denounced her to the Stasi….

I think that Ash mirrors everything I have found to be true in my own reading about collaborators and the agents of wartime atrocities in East Asia when he concludes:

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. [Muninn’s emphasis (and my strong second!)] (p252)

He is also sensitive to the special role this kind of opening of files can have in the aftermath of the unusual process of German unification:

Ironically, the opening of the files, demanded by former dissidents from East Germany, has reinforced Western neocolonial attitudes toward the East. West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgment, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. (p224)

However, in trying to be sensitive to the dangers of this process of confrontation and reflection on the past and being as sensitive as he can to the “agonizing choices” faced by those who lived under the dictatorship and chose to collaborate with the regime, Ash’s bitterness and anger certainly comes through. This is natural for someone who has a long history of working with dissidents throughout Communist Europe. The informers and officers he writes about are not given the last word, and Ash is often willing to present his encounters with them in such a way that reveals the ridiculous nature of the defenses and justifications given for their behavior. In addition to being willing to to mock their excuses for collaboration with the regime Ash also shows (deserved in my opinion) disgust for Leftists in the West who during the Cold War either a) held up the Communist bloc as a model of emancipatory democracy long after the horrors of such regimes were apparent to anyone who gave the evidence a sincere evaluation or, and I think this is just as important because it happens all the time even now (and I have found myself guilty of this): b) tried to make claims of equivalency between the slightest hint of oppression in the liberal democracies of the West and the oppression of dictatorial regimes.

At the end the book, Ash turns his thoughts to intelligence gathering in Britain and is surprised to find out from an anonymous British intelligence officer that he has a “friendly” or non-adversarial file in the records of MI6. He is troubled by the fact that, unlike the United States freedom of information act or the Gauck Authority, Britain provides no way to request information on what the government knows about you. He discusses the problems of “ends justifying the means” to justify the kinds of spying methods the Stasi officers always liked to tell him were “just like” those of the west, and the greater difficulty in justifying domestic surveillance in the West even with and argument about the final goal: In a democracy, “ends and means are almost inseparable. Spying on your own citizens directly infringes the very freedom it is supposed to defend. The contradiction is real and unavoidable. But if the infringement goes too far, it begins to destroy what it is meant to preserve. And who decides what is too far?” (p236) Ultimately however, he wants to emphasize the huge differences between the state of affairs in our own world and that under Stasi or even worse SS/Gestapo oppression: scale matters. Ash despairs at the perhaps inevitable “semantic degradation” (p238) that results when we use the language and terms of a heroic resistance or violent oppression when the scale differs by several degrees of magnitude.

This reminds me of another set of long-overdue blogposts of my own profiling the American members (including myself) of my Romanian language curs de perfecţionare at the University of Bucharest in 1983–84.

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Filed under Eastern Europe, Germany

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