Stasiland

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Read 15/11/2020-23/11/2020

Rating 5 stars

Stasiland has the subtitle Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. In it, Anna Funder shares the experiences of a number of East Germans to build a picture of life under an oppressive regime. Her interviewees range from people who tried to escape, people separated arbitrarily from family overnight, and people who worked for the Stasi. There are amazing people between these pages who survived unimaginable horrors, and there are also the people who supported the use of those horrors. I found it a very moving book.

Stasiland came out in 2003 and was reissued in 2011. Both times it passed me by. It was multiple references to the book on Kate’s blog, and discussion in the comments, that pushed me to buy a copy.

I’ve visited Berlin once, on a mid-week city break. We stayed in an apartment hotel round the corner from Checkpoint Charlie. We explored lots of the former east section of the city, including the DDR Museum, Alexanderplatz, Treptower Park, and Prenzlauer Berg. We saw fragments of the wall still standing. We saw the difference in development of different parts of the city. I’d like to go back and explore some more.

I’m interested in the modern history of Berlin. One of the best books I’ve read about the city is a loosely fictional novel about a British man’s experience of living there. He gets to know people from the former east of the city and learns a little of what they lived through. I also enjoyed the sections about the wall in the book I read about archaeology of the cold war. I’ve watched Deutschland 83 and 86, Barbara, The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin! Stasiland seemed a good way to expand my knowledge of East Germany further, particularly the way Germany deals, or doesn’t deal, with its past, and the way people manage to live with what happened to them.

The map of Germany at the front of the book, showing the country divided into East and West, made clear to me that I have no knowledge of German geography. Despite having been to Berlin, if you’d have asked me to place it on a map, I wouldn’t have put it as far east as it is, or as far north. I knew it was in the east, but thought it was more central. I’d also have swapped the locations of Hamburg and Cologne. Geography isn’t always my strong point!

Funder begins with a travelogue. It’s 1996, the wall has been technically down for seven years, actually down for five. Funder is catching a train from Berlin to Leipzig. She’s hungover and visits the public toilets where she encounters a redoubtable East German attendant. Their exchange shows both how Funder takes any opportunity to gain information and how willingly some people will talk to a stranger.

Funder is Australian. She learnt German at school and developed a love for its directness that she imagined would be present in the German people, too. She lived in West Berlin in her 20s, growing curious about the forbidden East. She visited some East German cities as an exchange student. She describes her feeling for the former GDR as horror-romance.

The romance comes from the dream of a better world the German Communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. The horror comes from what they did in its name.

Two years previously, she had travelled to Leipzig to visit the Stasi museum there, its display of objects and documents so mundane as to be laughable without the context of the terror the Stasi employed against the East German people. The director of the museum told her stories about the objects, and also told her about a woman named Miriam, whose story Funder couldn’t forget. It’s a story that led to her tracking down other stories, other people, all of which form the basis of this book, starting with Miriam, whom she returns to Leipzig to meet in 1996.

Funder’s writing style is conversational, as though she is chatting with the reader, making observations, not documenting history. It’s an engaging approach to a difficult subject, retaining the humanity of the time. She notices things about people and places and conveys them in an entertaining way. I really enjoyed her turns of phrase. This engaging approach simultaneously renders surreal the experiences of people who came into direct contact with the Stasi and amplifies the worst excesses of the torture methods in interrogation rooms and prisons. Funder describes observing the behaviour of a group of tourists who lived in West Germany as they tour the former Stasi HQ in Berlin. She sees them grow quieter and quieter as the tour progresses, until eventually it is too much for them and they leave early. The straightness of the truth is too much for everyone.

The same is true of the former East Germans that Funder speaks to. These people are bright and chatty on the surface, attempting to make light of their past lives, occasionally skirting around things they have locked away. There’s a dark humour, of the ‘if you don’t laugh, you cry’ sort – or more likely if you don’t laugh you go insane. Funder finds these conversations draining as she battles not to show her interviewees her shock and pain at what they are telling her. When the woman she sublets her apartment from begins to talk to her about her own past, Funder notices that Julia’s memories are scattered in the telling.

As I listen, I think this is because she has not voiced them much before. But there may be another reason: something her mind keeps returning to which she veers away from telling.

What happened to Julia was so traumatic for her that she completely repressed it. In her telling of it for the first time to Funder, she hits on why the Stasi was so successful in controlling the GDR population.

… looking back on it, it’s the total surveillance that damaged me the worst. I know how far people will transgress over your boundaries – until you have no private sphere left at all.

Julia’s trauma isn’t solely caused by her encounters with the Stasi. In the final days of the GDR, she is raped. The rape and subsequent trial, and the impact it had on Julia’s life, are described briefly in one of the chapters. This will be triggering for anyone who has experienced rape or other sexual assault.

Funder also takes time to speak with people who supported the GDR. She meets a former Stasi officer, someone who talks up his involvement but whom she believes to be a functionary, or apparatchik. He turns out to be a useful contact, arranging access to GDR television archives and the man whose job it was to denounce as lies anything on the West German tv channel that East Germans were permitted to watch. Funder’s encounter with him is bizarre. He is an enraged old man, who flipflops between screaming his rage at her and calmly conceding her points. Funder does explain why some people were committed to the GDR, in spite of its monstrosities, in the context of early 20th century German history and the social and economic impacts of the Weimar and Nazi regimes. In her conversation with this man, she also reveals a tension around the history of the GDR – that it is important to understand the attempt in East Germany to build a socialist state and why that state failed, countered by the lack of interest among West Germans and the wider world in that failed attempt. I agree with her that it’s an important moment in history, and that understanding it is of benefit in multiple ways – to allow former Eastern Bloc nations to have their previous existence acknowledged as something other than a demonised existence, and to prevent the rise of similar repressive regimes in future are just two that sit at the front of my mind.

A case in point is a story about a contested election early in the GDR’s existence. Funder meets Hagen Koch, the cartographer who drew out the route of the Berlin Wall. His father had been a member of the Liberal Democrats, had stood for election as Mayor of his town, had won the election comfortably. The chairman of the Electoral Commission for the town, though, was the Communist candidate, who came second. He called a meeting to evaluate the vote. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? An autocratic candidate who doesn’t like the outcome of a democratic vote and tries to overturn it has shades of what is happening in the US Presidential election. Except in the East German case, the Electoral Commissioner goes ahead and imprisons the winning candidate and claims victory for himself. It’s to be hoped that the US is still enough of a democracy subject to the rule of law that nothing similar happens between now and January. I’m only half joking.

The most painful story is that of Frau Paul, whose dangerously sick baby was being treated in a West Berlin hospital when the wall went up. Frau Paul and her then husband made two failed attempts to cross over to the West. She ended up in the secret Hohenschönhausen prison for her alleged role in a people smuggling operation. She shows Funder round the empty prison, describing the torture methods used there. As Funder says, there’s nothing funny about it, but there is something barnyard and primitive, too. I suppose that’s the essence of dehumanising people – it doesn’t have to be sophisticated to work. Torture is demeaning, and the methods used in East Germany as obscenely mundane as those used elsewhere throughout the Cold War and later in places like Abu Ghraib or al-Qā’im.

Reading Stasiland made me wonder about Angela Merkel, who was born in Hamburg but grew up and studied in the GDR and cut her political teeth in the first democratically elected East German government in 1989. She has reportedly accessed the file the Stasi compiled on her, and has acknowledged that the Stasi attempted to recruit her in exchange for a job, an opportunity she turned down. In 2000, Funder met the archivist who at the time headed up the file reconstruction programme. He provided her with an estimate of the length of time it would take 40 people working 250 days per year to piece together the 15,000 sacks of shredded files – 375 years. Lucky Merkel, to have had access to her file so quickly.

Following a visit to a new museum in Leipzig that same year, Funder, annoyed at how the GDR’s past looks so tawdry in its state of the art display cases, asks herself the question, “Isn’t a museum the place for things that are over?” It’s a question about her irritation at the displays, an ‘after all’ sort of question. She’s right to be discomfited. Yes and no is the answer to her question. The objects might represent something that is technically over, but they also represent a stage in humanity’s journey, and hold context for the past, present and future. Museums mustn’t be mausoleums to the past, but places that inspire and heal, recognising that the past, as Darran Anderson points out in Invisible Cities, is always with us, even in the future. Our future ruins are intrinsic to who we are as a species. Funder’s instinct that the new museum is missing the point is a good one. A sad thing about museums is, it’s usually the people with the money who get to tell the stories of the people who lived the experience, and the people with the money often want to tell a particular type of story. It’s a point made by one of the people who works at the Stasi museum Funder first visited six years before.

I ask him about the new museum in town, and he shrugs and says something about the incompatibility of funding and autonomy. They had tried to negotiate with the federal authorities about having just one museum of divided Germany in Leipzig, and one run by easterners, but it hadn’t worked. This museum has been left a smaller, shabbier outfit than the other, but for all that, it’s more authentic: here, in this building where people were held and interrogated, and where, upstairs, their stolen biographies were filed away.

Funder closes the book with a return visit to Miriam in Leipzig. It’s an encounter that convinces Funder that her feelings about the new museum are correct – the objects have been placed behind glass, but the story isn’t yet over. Her meeting with Miriam took place 20 years ago now. The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall took place last year. I was left wondering about the people like Miriam, Frau Paul and Julia, and whether in the intervening years they had achieved any kind of closure. Or even if closure is possible when the state that is meant to protect you and your interests instead actively tries to destroy your sense of self.

Funder’s book is powerful in its quietness. I feel sure that it will stay with me.

8 thoughts on “Stasiland

    1. Isn’t it brilliant? The way she captures the mundane brutality and the internalisation of the Stasi way of doing things, during and after.

      There must be something in the air, because two of my colleagues are also reading it at the moment. Perhaps 45’s autocratic mien has brought Stasiland to the fore in our minds.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s an age since I read this book, and I should return to it. I hadn’t been to Berlin when I first read it and now I, like you, have had one short visit. A highlight was a tour of its street art, which gave a great deal of context to post=wall Berlin, and I highly recommend such a tour if you go again (pick the right one: some are just plain commercial). Here’s a tale I heard as part of the tour, which you might enjoy: https://margaret21.com/2017/09/27/the-tale-of-a-tree-house/

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    1. Anna Funder mentions a similar patch of land isolated from the East when the wall went up and adopted by two Turkish brothers in the West. The story you heard is far more heartwarming than the one conveyed to her by the man who plotted the route of the wall!

      If/when we go back, I’ll look into a tour, thanks for the idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful review, Jan. I think it’s going to be a long time before I can read this book. Despite the outcome of the U.S. election, I’m still numb from everything that’s going on here. Hope is one the way, but it will take some time yet to return.

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    1. It must be hard living through Trump’s assault on the democratic process. It’s encouraging that more Republicans are calling on him to concede, but the worry won’t be gone until Biden is inaugurated. Hang in there.

      Liked by 1 person

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