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Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall - Anna Funder

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Genre: History / Author: Anna Funder / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 304 Pages / Book is published 2004-06-17 by Granta Books

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      24.11.2005 17:32
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      Real life Big Brother tales from East Germany

      Regular readers of my reviews will no doubt have noticed a penchant for things Eastern European. This extends not only to travel and the purchase of portraits of Tito (just brought a beautiful one back from Ljubljana – it’s enormous!) but also to a genuine interest in the political and social history of the region in the twentieth century in particular. It’s an interest I’ve often found difficult to put into words but Anna Funder managed to get close to my sentiments writing in “Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall” when she said “I think about the feeling I’ve developed for the former German Democratic Republic. It is a country which no longer exists, but here I am on a train hurtling through it – its tumbledown houses and bewildered people. This feeling needs a sticklebrick word: I can only describe it as horror-romance. It’s a dumb feeling, but I don’t want to shake it. 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. East Germany has disappeared, but its remains are still at the site.” Of course, “Stasiland” describes a very particular aspect of post World War Two Europe but Funder conveys through her book the sort of attraction the states of the former Yugoslavia in particular hold for me.

      It is perhaps inevitable that, of all the states that fell under the Soviet sphere of influence after the end of the Second World War, East Germany should be the one where the government was most anxious to keep its people in order. After all, Germany had been partitioned, splitting the nation in two and, in many cases, dividing families. Funder reports that some years later when the Berlin Wall was erected to prevent the people of East Berlin fleeing to the western sector of the city, one young mother found herself separated from her newborn child who was in hospital. By the time the mother found out what was going on across the city it was too late. For East Germans “freedom” and the West lay tantalisingly close and one had only to turn one’s television aerial to find out what was going on in the West and see pop stars, the latest fashions and consumer goods that were not available in East Germany. The East German government decided that they needed to keep a very close eye on possible subversion that might undo the work of the East German Communists as they worked towards the perfect socialist state. They would do this through the Stasi – the “secret” police force which permeated every aspect of daily life.

      Anna Funder was inspired to find out more about the Stasi when working for a West German television company after the reunification of Germany. An Australian living in Germany, she heard about the “puzzle women” whose job it is to try to piece together the shredded files the fleeing Stasi staff had hurriedly tried to destroy on the fateful night in 1989 when the Berlin Wall finally came down. Funder says of these files “laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their country men and women would form a line 180km long”. With a library like that it’s not so surprising to learn that it is believed that as many as one in six East Germans was an informer for the Stasi.

      In “Stasiland”, Anna Funder has put together a collection of personal stories which give the reader an insight into what life in Cold War East Germany was like. Just like the “puzzle ladies” Funder tries to piece together an idea how it must have been to live under such a repressive regime that relied more on mind-games than physical torture to keep its people in their places. Her “informants” include not only people whose every move was watched but Stasi men who had been interrogators and spies.

      The book starts with Funder visiting the Stasi Museum in Leipzig: the museum is housed in the former Secret Police headquarters building and everything is just as it was left when the staff fled in December 1989. Shredding machines are discarded at the rear as staff had quickly tried to obliterate the most sensitive files before making a dash for safety and on the wall there are posters reminding agents of the gestures used to pass information to their colleagues when carrying out a street surveillance on a suspect “Subject is moving on, going further or overtaking – stroke hair or raise hat briefly”: Funder eloquently describes it as the “street ballet of the deaf and dumb”.

      One of the most striking stories is that of Miriam: Miriam had been told many years ago that her husband had hanged himself in prison but she didn’t believe it. She thought he had been killed and she was hoping to find out why. But Miriam’s story goes further than that. When she was a teenager, Miriam was been out delivering protest leaflets when she and her friend were arrested and placed in solitary confinement to extract a confession. Faced with a trial and fearing imprisonment, Miriam tried to escape over the Berlin Wall. She almost made it but set off the final trip wire. She was imprisoned and to this day is traumatised by her experience.

      Another woman told Funder about her experience; she had been corresponding with an Italian boyfriend and was arrested and taken to the Stasi headquarters where the police read out her letters. She was asked to become an informer but she refused. Soon after when it came to applying for university she was unsuccessful. Likewise, she was unable to find a job; she was always told she had interviewed well but had just been pipped at the post.

      The impression one gets from reading “Stasiland” is that many East Germans decided it was best to join the Stasi in some form rather than to try to beat it – the sheer number of informants alone bears testimony to this. Stasi informers could be found everywhere – on every factory floor, in churches, in schools, even in the local Communist party branches never mind amongst those groups against the government! There would be an informer in every block of flats and on every street; the Stasi knew where you went, who you went with and who came to your house. I could go on but there is no point since there is virtually nothing the Stasi did not know.

      Surprisingly Funder did not find it difficult to find ex-Stasi agents willing to talk to her and the pervading impression from what they say is that they did believe they were contributing to the perfect socialist state. In actual fact, such people have seemingly had no need to worry about their past lives. Many have become successful in a unified Germany in professions such as telemarketing, real estate and insurance. Funder sums it up perfectly when she says they have probably done well because “they were schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their own self-interest”. Many West Germans lacked any real interest in the plight of East Germans at the time or even after reunification. It is believed that they feel embarrassed that many millions of their compatriots lived passively under a repressive regime for so long. It may well be that the Stasi men are looked at more favourably than those who lived their lives in obeisance.

      This is not just a sombre book of horror stories though the humour is most definitely black. For example, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Stasi developed the technique of “smell samples”. This quasi-scientific practice was used to try to lead the Stasi men to suspects using a sniffer dog. Now, the practice doesn’t sound that bizarre but what they did was a little odd. Agents would break into the home of a suspect and steal, for example, a pair of underpants. The pants would be placed in a jar so that (supposedly) the smell would transfer to the air on the jar. At some point the contents of the jar were discarded but the jar of air was kept on the shelves of the smell sample room. The jars are still there on the shelves at the museum.

      What I especially like about the book is Anna Funder’s writing. She uses two distinct styles. When relating the stories she has been told her style is simple and uncomplicated so that the point is not lost. At other times, she writes with real beauty and uses some lovely metaphors such as when describing the accepted gestures for secret agents. The book is easy to read and Funder provides only as much historical background as is needed, leaving the subjects to tell the real story.

      Where the book falls down for me is the pervading idea that East Germany was fundamentally flawed as a nation on every level. As someone who considers themselves particularly left wing and sympathetic to the Communist standpoint this disappointed me a little. I would agree that history has shown that the Communist model as attempted in twentieth century Europe has failed but I believe that a high number of East Germans did believe in the system. Funder demostrates how many people will never be able to enjoy the freedom of a reunified Germany but fails to look and account for at the nostalgia and fondeness many East Germans, “Ossis” as they are known, have for the Democratic Republic.

      “Stasiland” was shortlisted for the “Guardian First Book Award” and was the winner of the “BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction”. It is a fascinating book which relates history with a new and fresh approach. It is a book which I feel would be ideal for students of GSCE history and above.

      Recommended for anyone with an interest in history and modern world politics

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