Commentary Magazine

The File by Timothy Garton Ash

The File: A Personal History
by Timothy Garton Ash
Random House. 262 pp. $23.00

The British journalist Timothy Garton Ash made his reputation in the late 1980’s by writing thoughtful reportage on the liberation of Eastern Europe from Communism. To many observers in those days, Communism under its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, seemed to be moving toward the fulfillment of its initial aims. Not gullible like that, Garton Ash could recognize an ailing police state when he saw it. “Refolution” was the word he coined to describe the effect of Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika on the satellite states of Eastern Europe: reform giving way to revolution. But as we see in The File, a gracefully if rather self-consciously written memoir, Garton Ash’s attitude toward these crumbling regimes had at its core something incomplete and even enigmatic.

“I was just so lucky,” he writes of himself. “Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background.” Born in 1955, Garton Ash grew up in a solid family of civil servants, accountants, members of parliament, and the like. A first-rate English school was in store, then Oxford. He aspired to be a liberal in the tradition of Macaulay, George Orwell, and Isaiah Berlin. Amiably, he notes that as he set about duly to earn his own entry in Who’s Who, he was equipped with tweeds and heavy shoes, a blue Alfa Romeo, and an inherited income.

In common with many of his contemporaries, Garton Ash was stamped by the war against Nazism. At the Normandy landings in 1944, his father had won the prestigious Military Cross. If the son was born too late to fight, he could still empathize with the father’s experience, and so in 1978 he crossed the Channel and drove his Alfa Romeo to Germany to do research for a doctoral thesis about Berlin under Hitler’s rule.

In the divided city, on the front line of the cold war, Communism, he tells us, intruded upon him for the first time—if in an elusive way. On the Western side, he found himself among Germans whose own formative experience had been the leftist-led student demonstrations of May 1968. Embittered hippies in a counterculture, they imagined their own country to be still Nazi in spirit, while their spiritual home lay in the Communist state next door (though of course they were spared the need to live there). This raised the question in Garton Ash’s mind: who were the bad Germans, and who the good?

Under the terms of an East-West cultural agreement, he was permitted to pursue his research in the East, and so in 1980 he drove through the Wall to spend a year in the other half of Berlin. Soon he was making new and unexpected friends. Some were drawn from the ranks of the discontented in many walks of life; others were Communists, past or present. Fixed generalizations began to dissolve. Here were essentially good Germans in need of help against a bad regime.

Feeling, as he puts it, “a growing sense that there was still a war on”—namely, against Soviet Communism—Garton Ash took up the cause of his new friends. He became a spokesman for Solidarity in Poland, and then rushed on to Budapest and Prague. There, he relates, at the outset of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, he was able to impart wit and wisdom to Vaclav Havel. Promoting himself as an honorary dissident, he reported to the West on what he was observing.



Garton Ash’s encounter with totalitarianism was, as such things go, run-of-the-mill. In his decade of wandering about the lands of the Warsaw Pact, nothing untoward happened to him: no arrests or confrontations, not even detention at a border. Still, in the eyes of the secret police, an interloper like him, if not a “useful idiot,” might be a spy, and in either case was to be watched.

The East German police—the Stasi—numbered in those years over 90,000, reinforced by 170,000 informers. The files are said to occupy over 200 kilometers of shelving; now open, they are an unmatched X-ray of the innards of a totalitarian order. More than one Stasi department kept tabs on Garton Ash. His case officer was a Lieutenant Wendt, who relied on five well-placed informants.

In this book, Garton Ash gives an account of the Stasi archives and the effect on East Germans of their opening. Reading through his own file, all 325 pages of it, he recaptured much fugitive detail that he was able to check against the diaries he kept at the time. Although the Stasi were unfamiliar with Englishmen of his sort, and therefore made small and amusing slips of interpretation, their overall thoroughness was impressive. At least in their initial reports, he found, he had been classified as “bourgeois-liberal,” a category they evidently could live with.

In preparing to write The File, Garton Ash also arranged to meet those who had informed on him, only to discover that he was an unwelcome figure from the past. None of them had done anything truly damaging: no lies, no false witness. One was a woman too old to jettison the doctrinaire Communism of her youth. Another was a British Communist, timid and foolish. The most obstreperous was connected to the museum world, and had collaborated with the secret police in the hope that she would be rewarded with otherwise forbidden foreign trips.

Garton Ash treats all this in a tone of pity, which he extends as well to the Stasi officers in his case whom he tracked down. Fat-bellied, truculent, or bored, they were set in their ways, sorry for themselves, intermittently defiant. Lieutenant Wendt alone showed a perverse dignity, by refusing either to give an interview or to explain his silence.



There our interest in this book might have fizzled out, were it not for the peculiarly enigmatic qualities I mentioned earlier. As a boy, Garton Ash tells us, he had been inspired by the part played by Oxford academics in wartime British intelligence, and also by the novels of Graham Greene. At Oxford, someone had picked up on his romantic view of espionage, and in a typical process of winks and nods, the British secret service had sought to enroll him in the struggle against Communism as he was graduating and planning to go to Eastern Europe. In his diary, he recorded that the offer had come with the words, “We want you under our control.” Not liking the sound of that, he had refused.

But what heavy weather, and what moral confusion, he makes here of an approach which, after all, came to nothing. “I imagine,” he writes, “trying to explain to a Czech or Polish friend, for whom ‘secret service’ immediately sounds like ‘secret police,’ how I could even have contemplated it.” A sillier example of false equivalence could hardly be found. Far from being shocked that he might work for the British secret service, Czechs or Poles at that time would have considered it wonderful and brave that someone of his caliber was seeking to do whatever he could for them, by whatever means were at hand.

Nor is that the end of the puzzle. May not even an investigating journalist, Garton Ash worries aloud, be considered something of an agent and spy? Does he not ask questions, keep files, betray confidences and contacts? Laboring this rather simple and again false idea, he exaggerates his role of self-appointed East European dissident even while subtly deprecating it:

Although an East German prosecutor could certainly have argued that I was collecting information for “foreign organizations,” in the deliberately vague wording of Article 97 of the Criminal Code, I was probably never at risk of the prescribed jail sentence envisaged in “especially serious cases,” let alone the death sentence.

Garton Ash’s personal equivocations have, of course, a political significance. In this book as in his other works, Communist ideology seems never to have concerned him much. Nothing in his writings, so far as I know, suggests that he ever experienced the Soviet Union firsthand, or reflected on its global purposes. Writing out of the confines of his heady experience in East Germany and the other main satellites, he draws a picture of Communism’s unraveling in which a handful of social-democratic dissidents mobilize the people to liberate themselves. What is remarkable about this version of the successful ending of the cold war is that the United States plays no role in it. Rather, the revolution is seen as a famous victory for the Left, quite free from any taint of what used to be derided in liberal and leftist circles as “professional” anti-Communism.

This is hardly to say that Garton Ash was not himself an opponent of Communism. But the sustained moral and military effort that successive American administrations put into resisting Soviet ambitions everywhere is something he cannot bring himself either to acknowledge or to credit. On the contrary, a visit Garton Ash made to Central America in 1984 led him to conclude that there was nothing to choose between armed intervention by the United States against Communist insurgencies in that region and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.



Some years after opening the dossier on him, the Stasi revised their judgment of Timothy Garton Ash and concluded that he was not a relatively harmless “bourgeois-liberal” after all but rather a hopeless case: they relabeled him “conservative and reactionary.” Considering the source, one would think he would take this as high praise. But Garton Ash flinches, as though the epithet were an insult that might rob him of his protected status as honorary dissident, and separate him forever from the company of Orwell and Isaiah Berlin.

His has indeed been, as he acknowledges, a lucky life, and a privileged one. An apologetic attitude toward the good uses to which he put his luck and privilege was not in order at the time, and is mystifying now.


About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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