BETWEEN THE LINES: The lives of others

In the all-seeing eyes of the Big Brother that is the modern nation-state, each of us is a file
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2013. 02 48 PM IST
A view of the checkpoint Charlie, Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A view of the checkpoint Charlie, Berlin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
On the last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, as the audience was about to doze off after a wholesome lunch, warmed by the Arcadian afternoon sun, a chillingly stimulating conversation between two writers, Timothy Garton Ash and Patrick French, shook them awake. Garton Ash, who is a historian and political commentator, has written extensively on the communist and fascist regimes of
Central and Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain, and his 1997 book, The File, was the focus of this session.
Inspite of its innocuous subtitle (‘A Personal History’), The File is a bafflingly complicated book. It is a masterful, and often painful, account of the sinister workings of state surveillance, repression, memory and the collapse of human values in the repressive regimes of the two Germanys and Poland. Exploring the consequences of the opening of the Stasi files (the Stasi were the East German secret police), after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, The File resonates strongly in modern-day India of state-led pogroms, communal riots and the policing of free speech and movement. It makes us acutely alert to the ways in which we, as individuals, put our private lives out on the internet, often to our detriment. As a result, in this hyper-connected age of social media, text messaging, cell phones and CCTV cameras, we make the possibility of snooping on the lives of others a mere plaything for the State. In the all-seeing eyes of the Big Brother that is the modern nation-state, each of us, wittingly or otherwise, has become a file.
But beyond documenting the hard realities of the State’s intrusion into the private lives of individuals, The File is a witness to the fragility of human nature, and the everyday banality of both good and evil. “What you find here, in the files,” Garton Ash writes, “is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances.… What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness.” When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, thousands, including an estimated 4,000 children, were separated from their families. In the East, the Stasi established its reign of terror by suppressing basic human freedoms, including the freedom to travel abroad. Thousands of ordinary citizens were recruited by the Stasi as ‘Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter’—unofficial collaborators—to inform on their fellow citizens, including, more often than not, their own family members. Spouses, siblings, lovers, even parents and children, betrayed one another—out of fear, or for mercenary reasons, in order to facilitate business transactions or foreign trips. Informers were informed upon by a separate group of informers. The entire system resembled a dizzying labyrinth of intelligence and counter-intelligence, like Piranesi’s prisons of the imagination where nothing is what it seems.
In the 1990s, when the Stasi files were opened, under the supervision of Joachim Gauck, who is now the president of Germany but was then the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, thousands applied to see their files. The revelations, understandably, led to broken marriages, families, friendships and relationships. Yet, people remained indomitably curious, willing to risk the most precious anchors in their lives for the sake of truths that might shatter their fundamental faith in humanity. Driven by a primal impulse, a perverse mix of self-gratification and self-destruction akin to the mysterious force that led Oedipus to seek the terrible truth about his past, they hungrily pursued their pasts, often leading to shattering outcomes.
For a foreign historian like Garton Ash, who visited East and West Germany frequently as a doctoral student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the discovery of his own file unlocked a casket of memories which had been buried in the detritus of his youth. Codenamed ‘Romeo’, Garton Ash was shadowed by the Stasi as a suspected MI6 agent, a job which he was close to accepting in reality but never did. Faced with the 325-page document that is his ‘file’, Garton Ash is transported to the most intimate details of his life two decades ago, such as the long-forgotten evening when he had gone back home with a girlfriend, who, before they made love, had pulled the blinds aside, ostensibly to look at his face better. But revisiting these details, in the files kept by the secret police, Garton Ash is assailed by doubt even about his closest friends and trusted acquaintances at the time. Shockingly, he does end up discovering that his former supervisor at Humboldt University, together with a number of other people he had been close to, was reporting on him to the Stasi. Garton Ash calls his file a ‘poisoned madeleine’, twisting the Proustian metaphor, which opened up bitter secrets from his past. Its pages played truant on his memory, infecting it with the bewitching power of imagination, which can transform what had appeared mundane into the monstrous in retrospect.
Garton Ash moves from these moments of epiphany to confronting the informers and finally to coming to terms with why they behaved the way they did. What emerges in the course of this journey is not just a story of human fallibility but also one of utmost resilience and fortitude, even of cunning, as people double-crossed the Stasi by confiding in their friends when they were asked to inform on the latter, and then mutually deciding on a cover to fool the Stasi. Garton Ash’s quest was to find out, “What is it that makes one person a resistance fighter and another the faithful servant of a dictatorship?” And the answer to this question, as he discovered, is often far more ordinary than popular perception would allow. In the case of Germany, for instance, he ventures a guess that is polemical but persuasive. Most of the notorious Stasi officers he met, Garton Ash writes, were first-generation Holocaust survivors who grew up fatherless, in an atmosphere of want and neglect. So when they were approached by paternal-looking recruiting officers and given a chance to serve the Fatherland, joining the Stasi became a natural career option for them. For this reason, in spite of the gruesome underworld that Garton Ash opens up in The File, what stays with the reader is his ultimately humbling recognition: “If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human all too human.”
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2013. 02 48 PM IST
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