So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications.

Which brings me to Timothy Garton Ash’s deeply poignant and humane The File. I’ve visited this territory before, with Anna Funder’s chilling Stasiland. But this is much more personal. Garton Ash was a British PhD student who lived for several months at a time on either side of the Berlin Wall in the early 80s. He returned not long after the fall of communism, and, in common with countless others, sought out his own Stasi File: to find out exactly what the secret police was thinking about him – and to discover who of his friends (if any) had informed. His discoveries were shocking and painful. Some of the most moving pages deal with his meetings with informers and Stasi agents on his case. His humane understanding even of them is truly remarkable – there’s no bitterness, and sometimes even sympathy.

But what makes Garton Ash’s memoir so striking is that he is now in a position to lay 3 different takes on the events of those months side by side:

  • his reflections on those days at the time of writing the book
  • his diary entries from the time
  • the pages (even after official redactions) of his Stasi file which record (and try to interpret) in painstaking detail his every move.

Diaries and Memories

It is in the mismatch between these three that the book’s poignancy lies.

The diary reminds me of all the fumblings, the clumsiness, the pretentiousness and snobbery – and the insouciance with which I barged into other people’s lives. Embarrassment apart, there is the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! At times, this past self is such a stranger to me that where I have written ‘I’ in these last pages I almost feel it should be ‘he’.

Personal memory is such a slippery customer. Nietzsche catches it brilliantly in one of his epigrams: ‘“I did that”, says my memory. “I can’t have done that”, says my pride and remains adamant. In the end – memory gives way.’ The temptation is always to pick and choose your past, just as it is for nations: to remember Shakespeare and Churchill but forget Northern Ireland. But we must take it all or leave it all, and I must say ‘I’. (p37)

As he reflects on the contrast between diary and memory, he makes some crucial insights:

For these are not simply past experiences rediscovered in their original state. Even without the fresh light from a new document or another’s recollection – the opened door – our memories decay or sharpen, mellow or sour, with the passage of time and change of circumstances. Thus Frau Haufe, for example, surely had a somewhat different memory of ‘Michaela’ in 1985, when the GDR still existed, than she did ten years later, on the eve of my visit. But with fresh light the memory changes irrevocably. Adoor opens, another closes. There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. It is like a revelation made, years later, to a loved one. Or a bad divorce, where today’s bitterness transforms all the shared past, completely, miserably, seemingly for ever. Except that this bitter memory, too, will fade and change with the further passage of time.

So what we have is nothing less than an infinity of memories of any moment, event or person; memories that change slowly, always, with every passing second, but now and then dramatically, after some jolt or revelation. (p96)

Records and Realities

Then when he looks at his Stasi records (in which he is simply called ‘G’), he can eavesdrop how he was perceived by an ever vigilant external perspective. It would be funny, if it weren’t so chilling. Here the agent stumbles over the fact that he worked as a journalist for the magazine The Spectator:

However, ‘it has been established that G. Has extensive knowledge of cultural monuments and places, cultural [sic] and cultural personalities of the GDR and especially of the Bauhaus problematic. In June 1979 G. first identified himself as a so-called freelance contributor to the English weekly “Spekta”, which wished to write a report on the anti-fascist resistance struggle.’ The man from Spekta. (p23)

Of course, once the records have been laid bare, those who are exposed as informers find themselves publicly branded (with the German initials IM). “In the early 1990s it was a regular occurrence for a prominent East German politician, academic, journalist or priest to be identified through the Stasi files as an IM and to disappear from public life as a result. IM is the black spot.” (p12) However, just as the agents reporting on Garton Ash could misinterpret completely his actions, so could the interpretation of the Stasi files get things horribly wrong:

A friend tells the story of someone who came to him, some time in the 1980s and said, ‘Look, they’ve asked me to inform on you and I can’t get out of it, but tell me what I can say.’ Together they worked out what he should report. But if my friend were dead, and the informer’s reports were found, who would ever believe him when he gave this explanation? The extraordinary detail of the secret police files and the obsession with informers have also distracted attention from the Party leaders and functionaries who were in charge of the whole system. (p198)

This is not a recipe for epistemological despair though. History is still possible – and reality is still perceptible. Why else write a book like this one, after all? But it all serves to alert us to the challenges inherent in our reliance on both memory and records. Subjectivity and distortion. Which surely demands, at the very least, epistemological humility.

There are plenty of other reasons for reading this book (especially his insights into the seriously blurred edges between journalism and espionage). But this is the aspect which has most challenged and stimulated me since reading it.

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