2009 04 02
Recently read: The File

Posted by in: Books, Germany, History

Timothy Garton Ash. The File: A Personal History

The East German state subjected its citizens to a virtually unprecedented degree of scrutiny. The system of surveillance was run by the Stasi, the East German secret police, but it relied on an extensive network of informal collaborators, or IMs (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter). At the time of its collapse in 1989, at a conservative estimate roughly one in 50 adults had a direct connection to the Stasi.

When the East German state collapsed, it collapsed so quickly that the Stasi found themselves unable to shred most of the hundreds of thousands of documents about its citizens that it had assembled so dilligently over the years. Most countries at a similar point simply pause for a moment and then continue to destroy the evidence, or file it away forever, hidden. Germany, by contrast, embarked on the unprecedented experiment of allowing everyone with a file to see it for him or herself. Care was taken to protect innocent parties named in the files, but everyone had a right to learn the identity of anyone who informed, betrayed, or reported on them.

Some couldn’t bring themselves to look; some discovered that they had no file; some were able to cast away long-harboured suspicions of acquaintances who turned out not to have informed on them. Others were not so lucky, and some of their stories are horrifying. One woman

had been imprisoned for five years under the communist regime, for attempting to escape to the West. Now she found out, by reading her file, that it was the man she was living with who had denounced her to the Stasi. They still lived together. Only that morning he had wished her a good day in the archive.

Timothy Garton Ash lived in East Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He subsequently wrote a book critical of East Germany, and was banned from the country. Not surprisingly, he had a file. The File is about Ash’s attempt to track down and speak with everyone named in his file, from the casual acquaintances acting as IMs who filed reports about him to the officers who supervised the case. The book follows him as he criss-crosses the country speaking with people and working through the file comparing its reports with his own recollections and diaries.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in Ash’s file, but that doesn’t stop him from writing an absorbing account of this moral, personal, political and historical detective work. The File is so much more than simply a superb book about life under the East German regime and Ash’s mostly harmless brush with the Stasi. It’s a finely written meditation on memory, betrayal, the psychology of rationalization and evil, and chance. Recommended.

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2008 01 26
System compatibility, writ large

The NYT had a little blip today about the new freight train service between China and Germany. It’s interesting in itself, and especially so because apparently Russia and Mongolia’s national railroads use a different gauge than the national railroads of China, Germany, Poland and whatever other country the route passes through. So a single train can’t make the journey. They have to unload the freight and re-load it, to transfer between trains that run on the relevant gauges. I love this for reasons I’m having a hard time articulating fully. Giant systems, huge investments of resources and labor and time for their respective countries, where the decisions about the basic specs have huge ramifications, and it would be just a nightmare to fix.

But here’s where the NYT story surpasses itself into infrastructure geek sublimity. Because a similar problem of incompatible gauges has cropped up at other times in history, and the article links to the amazing example of the US southern railroads, which in 1886 converted almost 12,000 miles of track (and all their working trains too) to a different gauge in two days.

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2005 04 27
Sex After Fascism

The obvious danger of a book like this is that it will trivialize its subject. But I’ve read the introduction (follow the link for a link to it), and the author seems to have avoided that problem. Indeed, the book looks downright intriguing. Here’s the blurb:

Sex after Fascism:
Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany
By Dagmar Herzog

What is the relationship between sexual and other kinds of politics? Few societies have posed this puzzle as urgently, or as disturbingly, as Nazi Germany. What exactly were Nazism’s sexual politics? Were they repressive for everyone, or were some individuals and groups given sexual license while others were persecuted, tormented, and killed? How do we make sense of the evolution of postwar interpretations of Nazism’s sexual politics? What do we make of the fact that scholars from the 1960s to the present have routinely asserted that the Third Reich was “sex-hostile”?

In response to these and other questions, Sex after Fascism fundamentally reconceives central topics in twentieth-century German history. Among other things, it changes the way we understand the immense popular appeal of the Nazi regime and the nature of antisemitism, the role of Christianity in the consolidation of postfascist conservatism in the West, the countercultural rebellions of the 1960s-1970s, as well as the negotiations between government and citizenry under East German communism. Beginning with a new interpretation of the Third Reich’s sexual politics and ending with the revisions of Germany’s past facilitated by communism’s collapse, Sex after Fascism examines the intimately intertwined histories of capitalism and communism, pleasure and state policies, religious renewal and secularizing trends.

A history of sexual attitudes and practices in twentieth-century Germany, investigating such issues as contraception, pornography, and theories of sexual orientation, Sex after Fascism also demonstrates how Germans made sexuality a key site for managing the memory and legacies of Nazism and the Holocaust.

That goes right to the top of the list of books that I don’t have time to read and so probably won’t.

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