Thought police and a surveillance state: Book review of Anna Funder’s “Stasiland”

I actually didn’t choose this book this time round. I read Stasiland for our lab book club this month. We have a bit of a reluctant reader in our group, but he agreed to read the month’s book all the way through if we picked a book that had to do with the Cold War. I found a Goodreads list of top books dealing with the Cold War, and my attention was drawn to this title. Having lived in Germany for two years, I wasn’t able to travel within the former GDR, but the topic has fascinated me ever since. I watched a movie dealing with the everyday consequences of a surveillance state in a German class back in undergrad, The Lives of Others. It was chilling how intensively the GDR monitored its citizens. This book gave me yet another opportunity to learn a bit more about my home away from home.

stasiland

 

Funder is an Australian journalist who has spent quite a bit of her career working in Germany. The book is composed of a series of interviews she performed in the nineties– really only a few years after the wall came down. At the time she was working at a television service in the former West Berlin. She described her job so: “The service was set up by the government after the war to beam benign Germanness around the globe. My job is to answer letters from viewers who’ve been beamed at and have some queries.” After several inquiries from non-Germans regarding what life was like within the former GDR, she brought the idea up with her boss: “We’re always talking about the things that Germany is doing for people in the former GDR. It would be great to do an item from the eastern point of view. For instance, to find out what it’s like to wait for part of your file to be pieced together.” I was surprised at the boss’s answer: “For God’s sake! You won’t find the great story of human courage you are looking for– it would have come out years ago, straight after 1989. They are just a bunch of downtrodden whingers, with a couple of mild-mannered civil rights activists among them, and only a couple at that. They just had the rotten luck to end up behind the Iron Curtain… No-one is interested in these people.” Funder proves that theory wrong in the pages of this book. She documents the lives of everyday heroes– and everyday villains in the communist state. People like Miriam, a woman whose husband was imprisoned and killed by the Stasi, the secret police and domestic spies informing on their own people; Herr Christian, the young Stasi officer who helped draw up the plans for the Berlin Wall; and Herr Von Schnitzler, the face every East German could recognize in an instant from his terrible TV program in which he would mock Western film and culture.

One spooky aspect of the book was realizing some of reach the Stasi had outside the wall. They made attempts– some successful– to abduct people they considered enemies of the state and imprison them. They also successfully meddled in elections in neighboring states, in one case determining the outcome of a West German vote for the prime minister. Sound eerily familiar?

The book is written in the first person as you follow Funder through the GDR collecting interviews in Leipzig, Berlin, and Dresden. You become familiar with the nasty linoleum surfaces of old East German apartment complexes and small pubs where she conducted many of her interviews. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, like a woman separated from her child from birth because of a terrible illness at birth for which he had to be treated in West Germany. Others are downright chilling, like Frau Paul who was whisked off by the Stasi and tortured by sleep deprivation to try to get her to talk. Lots of sleep deprivation– it sounds like their favorite method. In interviews with former Stasi employees, you get a taste of Ostalgie, nostalgia for the way things were in East Germany, but some of it is probably seen through some rose-tinted glasses. Cheap beer is hard to reconcile with a surveillance state and food shortages.

I appreciated Funder’s attempts to really capture the way things were and the human aspect of the suffering these people went through– and are still living through. I really liked how she described the current quandary of her landlord, Julia. Julia had a non-East German boyfriend, and for that the GDR punished her severely by ensuring she would never have a normal life. They ensured that she didn’t get into the school she wanted. They made sure she never got a job. And they followed her constantly. Now even when the communist state is gone, she can’t hold a job or even really function normally outside. So she stays in her crappy old apartment, constantly shifting things around. Funder sums it up: I look at the box in her arms and know that you cannot destroy your past, nor what it does to you. It’s not ever, really, over… No-one can tote up life’s events and calculate the damages; a table of maims for the soul. But this is not the full sum of things, I think, as Julia rides back to her barricaded tower, full of things she can’t leave, but can’t look at either.

I also came to appreciate Funder’s concern that the story won’t be remembered correctly by those outside. We’ll stick it all in a museum, make some documentaries, and keep it all at a safe distance. All without fully comprehending that there was a full-out dystopia in real life! When looking in one of these safe museums of the former GDR, she expresses her frustration at it: Perhaps because of all the money poured into this, the things behind the spanking displays looks old and crummy, like articles from a time that has been left behind… I am annoyed that this past can look so tawdry and so safe, as if destined from the onset to end up behind glass, securely roped off and under press-button control… Suddenly it is clear to be why the new museum was so irritating. Things have been put behind glass, but they are not yet over.

The book is a good read to help you appreciate more this twist in history. I like this summary from another book on a different era of Germany that I think captures the lessons in Funder’s book: The story of Berlin is not a prophecy for Americans [today]; it is simply a great drama and a great tragedy. As in most tragedies, the forces of evil triumph, partly because of the tragic flaws among the forces of good, and yet even after all the violence and destruction, it is the forces of good that live on.

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