76 – ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder

After finishing ‘Gruppenbild mit Dame’, it was time to choose a new book (I described this lengthy process in an earlier post). Eventually, my eye was caught by the book you see to the left, and I decided to keep to my German theme with a switch to the other side of the wall. ‘Stasiland’, of course, is not a communist-era travel guide, but a non-fiction book telling of life in the part of Germany which, for forty-four years, was trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

The Staatssicherheitsdienst (or Stasi for short) was ostensibly responsible for ‘state security’ in the now defunct German Democratic Republic. In reality, it was the largest tool of mass suppression the world has ever known. Some sources estimate that at its height it had an informer to population ration of 1:6.5, and these informers were used to keep control of anyone who was an enemy of the state. How did you become an enemy of the state? They decided that you were one…

The writer, Anna Funder, is an Australian who lived and worked in Berlin for many years before deciding to find out a bit more about life in the former GDR and, especially, about the Stasi. She decided to interview people on both sides of the ideological divide, seeking talks with victims of Stasi interrogation and surveillance as well as with former Stasi operatives, informers and propagandists. Funder writes in a very involved, personal way and brings the stories of the previous decades alive, all the while trying to get her head around how it was possible for her to have had such a relatively free and easy upbringing while the people around her were deprived of basic human rights.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking. One woman gave birth to a baby boy with severe health problems which could only be treated at a hospital in West Berlin. After a few visits, she woke up one morning to discover a wall dividing her house from West Berlin and the hospital her son needed to visit. The son was smuggled over to the West by doctors at an East Berlin hospital, but the mother and father were not allowed to go over and join him. One day, the woman was summoned to an interview where she was offered the chance to visit her son. The price? Arranging a walk in the park with a young West Berlin student friend of the family who was known to help East Germans escape to the West – in the course of which he was to be kidnapped and transported to a Russian prison…

Another interviewee was a poster boy for the GDR regime and eventually joined the Stasi, only to find out that his father had been jailed by the secret police shortly after the war in order to stop him from becoming the mayor. When the son, on hearing his father’s story, decided to quit, he was arrested on trumped-up charges of producing pornography, held in a cell for weeks and presented with a signed divorce document from his wife. The Stasi then said that he could be released and continue in his job if he signed the document too…

As well as the horrifying stories gleaned from the interviews, Funder also looks at what happened after the wall fell. This was a truly historical event, and one which was totally unexpected. My wife’s family left Poland about a month before it happened, and an East German member of the football team I played in when I lived in Germany had a similar experience. Shortly before the wall came down, Hungary opened its border with Austria, creating the first gap in the Iron Curtain. Fearing that this expression of freedom would be crushed by the Russians within a short time (as had happened in the past in other places where uprisings had occurred) he set off, with his wife, son and father-in-law(!) on the long trek from the north of the GDR, down to Hungary, across the border to Austria and then back north to Westfalen (in the North-West of the Federal Republic of Germany – FRG). As it happened, he was waiting in a queue to cross the Austro-Hungarian border when the news came through that it was all over: now that’s bad timing.

Of course, at the time, there was a huge feeling of joy, relief, vindication… the list of emotions is endless. However, once the dust (literally) had settled, it was not quite as clear that what had happened was exactly what the people had wanted. While some top Stasi members were prosecuted, many continued happily on their way, claiming (in scenes reminiscent of the Nazis) that they were just doing their job. Meanwhile, the ordinary people found life in the new unified German Republic not to their liking. Capitalism saw some of them fall by the wayside; rents, food and alcohol (!) were no longer subsidised, and crime, kept to incredibly low levels by the Stasi (one of the undeniable advantages of a police state is that there’s little chance of criminals getting away with it…), had become an everyday part of their lives.

Like the September 11th terrorist attacks, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a genuinely historic (and historical) event. I remember having a history lesson the next day at school where our teacher almost screamed at us, “This is it! This is history happening before your very eyes!”. Of course, being a fifteen-year-old boy, I had other things on my mind at the time, but even we schoolkids could connect the events happening on our television screens with the lessons on post-war Germany we happened to be having (of course, it wasn’t so good for the German department who had just bought hundreds of editions of a brand-new book which gave heaps of background information on both the FRG and the GDR. In hindsight, calling the book ‘Deutsch Heute’ was probably tempting fate…).

To finish this review, which has turned into a bit of a trip down memory lane, I’d like you to look back at the picture and, especially, the text in the middle. The Samuel Johnson Prize is a prize for non-fiction books, and ‘Stasiland’ was the 2004 winner. One of the beaten short-listed works was none other than Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. For those of you wondering what I thought of ‘Stasiland’, I think that says it all better than I ever could. I’m not going to tell you what happened to the people whose stories I told you about (you’ll just have to read the book), but before you judge them, just think about what you would do in their position. It’s very easy to be tough and confrontational when you’re reading; not quite so easy when your whole life is at play…

2 thoughts on “76 – ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder

  1. Good review Tony. Frau Paul was pretty impressive. What would I have done is a very good question.

    I enjoyed the references to the challenges of both systems too … Authoritarianism and surveillance vs inequities.


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