The Stasi’s Sad Footprint / Hablemos Press, Armando Soler Hernández

Author Timothy Garton Ash
Author Timothy Garton Ash

Hablemos Press, Armando Soler Hernández, 1 August, 2016 — Timothy Garton Ash is a well-known journalist, editorial writer and British researcher. His books on history are notable, above all for their distinctive focus on recent contemporary history.

During the 1970s, Ash became interested in researching the period of anti-Hitler resistance in Nazi Germany. While seeking firsthand information, he resided for a considerable time in what were the two halves of that European nation divided at the time.

Years later, following the fall of the so-called “Socialist Camp” and as details began to be known in the West about the police control and espionage waged on the populations hidden behind the “Iron Curtain,” the British historian had the idea of again visiting the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and verifying those facts with his own experience.

In 1992 the infamous archives of the Ministry for State Security in East Germany, the Stasi, were made publicly available. The revelations contained within the enormous cache of documents ignited old and new controversies within a population already in the throes of massive social and political upheaval.

Knowing full well the gigantic number of citizens of the GDR who were spied-on and on whom files were kept, Ash had an idea: what if, being a suspicious individual from “Western Capitalism,” he had also been watched? Was there a file on him?

The historian went to the center where the files were gathered (in a quantity equivalent to 178 km), having been salvaged from the massive intentional destruction carried out by the political police following the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. When the civilian preservation agency in charge of the archives, which is headed by a Protestant pastor, receives an information request, it first confirms whether a Stasi file on the applicant exists. If so, a photocopy is made for the applicant, redacting information on any other person that may appear there but who has no bearing on the applicant’s case.

When the British researcher requested the file that had been created about him, he received the chilling confirmation that he, too, had been spied-on. The code name used by the totalitarian espionage services for him was “Roman.”

What was noteworthy was that the copy of the file contained a high number of reports. All were filled with intelligence about him covering all spheres of his activity while living in the GDR, painstakingly detailed by “extra-official employees,” which is how the Stasi would refer to their informants.

Ash was amazed at the number of documents about him, especially because, as a visitor, he had resided for a relatively short time in the GDR. But the most surprising thing he found was that the majority of the reports concerned persons whom he had known and spent time with, i.e. who became friends, and participated in his researches or socialized with him.

Faced with this incontrovertible evidence, and making a 180-degree turn from his original purpose, he decided to embark on an unusual investigation for his new book: he would interview every one of the informants and functionaries who spied on him. The book he published about this experience is entitled, “The File.”

In conducting interviews, Ash was not seeking to reveal the identity of these persons nor reproach them for what they did. He simply was interested in discovering what motivated them to serve, for the most part, as informants for the despotic regime that also oppressed them, and to know the course their lives took after the years elapsed from the end of the GDR.

The reactions of each member of this long list of ex-“collaborators” upon newly encountering the subject of their spying varied greatly, too much to relate here in this brief space. Suffice it to know that the motives of most of them, arising from the oppressive atmosphere of a totalitarian regime as well as the pressure on them to “collaborate,” were ridiculous and pitiful: to obtain permission to travel to the West; a better job; a special scholarship for a disabled child, and so forth.

The most interesting part was when the British historian interviewed ex-officials of the Stasi who guided and monitored the surveillance they maintained on him the whole time without raising his suspicions. Their justifications for having secretly trailed him for being a suspected spy were absurd and exceeded all such operations they were masterminding, resulting in an enormous cumulative waste of personnel, time and money.

This book will be of great interest to readers concerned with the enjoyment of liberty—those who do not consider it normal to live one’s whole lifetime being watched over by a state and its repressive apparatus, when what is common, natural and right is the other way around.

Facts about the Stasi:

The headquarters occupied 41 buildings. The organization utilized 1,181 houses for its agents, 305 vacation homes; 98 sports facilities; 18,000 apartments for meetings with spies. There were 97,000 agents working for this repressive institution: 2,171 read mail; 1,486 tapped telephones; 8,426 listened-in on telephone conversations and radio transmissions. The Stasi had more than 100,000 active, extra-official “collaborators,” and one million other persons provided information on a sporadic basis. There were secret files on 6 million persons, and being that there is no chip worse than the block, there was a section devoted exclusively to watching the members of the Stasi itself.

Comparative data:

During the period between the two world wars (1933-1939), the Gestapo employed only 7,000 agents. However, the population of Nazi Germany (60 million) was more than three times that of the GDR (17 million).


The File: A Personal History (Timothy Garton Ash, Random House, 1997).

The Firm: The Inside History of the Stasi (Gary Bruce, Oxford University Press, 2010).

The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police 1945-1990 (Gens Gieseke, Berghahn Books, 2014).

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison