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Behind the wall.

September 7, 2011

Stasiland by Anna Funder, Text Publishing, $22.95

Stasiland is a book that surprised me. I knew I’d enjoy it—I’ve been meaning to read it for years—but I wasn’t expecting it to affect me as much as it did.

I’m used to living with a vague feeling of guilt over not reading more non-fiction. It turns out this guilt was nothing compared to what I felt when I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant Eating Animals last month; let’s just say that my love affair with bacon sandwiches is dead. Keen to distract myself from my Carnivore’s Guilt, I decided to read more depressing non-fiction; the kind that would depress me without also making me question my flawed ethics every time I opened my fridge. So it was that I finally picked up Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a fascinating collection of true stories about life in the German Democratic Republic that was published to widespread acclaim in 2004.

Funder, an Australian writer, was working at a West German television station in the mid-nineties when she became interested in the stories that East Germans—particularly ex-Stasi men—might have to tell about the reality of life under their doomed political regime. She set about finding and interviewing people about their experiences of life behind the Wall: both those who held the power, and those who were at the mercy of it.

Stasiland is the result of her curiosity; it’s also a surprisingly personal book, one that weaves Funder’s own thoughts and emotions among the stories that she gathers, which run the gamut from tragic to farcical. We’re not just privy to what Funder makes of the stories she hears and the people she meets, but to her reflections about life in Berlin. The apartment that she sublets, which is large and bare and under-heated, is a ‘linoleum palace’ which ‘continues to contain all the necessities for life, at the same time as it refuses to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, or beauty or joy. In this, I think, it is much like East Germany itself.’ When she sits in the diving pool at her local swimming centre, she is told off by the lifeguard, because ‘this is a diving pool. It is only for diving. You are not diving.’

Putting such a lot of herself into the book could easily have backfired. But Funder deftly balances her own observations with the experiences of the East Germans she meets. When the book opens, she is hungover (‘the night before is a smoky blur’) and attempting to negotiate Alexanderplatz train station, ‘a monstrous expanse of grey concrete designed to make people feel small. It works.’ She is on her way to meet Miriam, who, at just seventeen, came literally within feet of escaping into West Germany before being captured and put into solitary confinement. Years later, Miriam’s husband was arrested by the Stasi and died in prison, supposedly at his own hand—Miriam suspects foul play, but her tireless attempts to uncover the truth yield nothing, even years after the Wall has fallen.

Funder is ‘winded’ by Miriam’s story, and cannot stop thinking about it. Her interest becomes a thread that runs throughout the book, creating a neat and effective narrative frame: in her final chapter, Funder closes the loop and returns to Miriam’s tale.

Of course, Miriam is only one of many whose lives were adversely affected by the Stasi. Funder talks to her landlady, Julia, whose teenage relationship with an older Italian man drew unfavourable attention from the Stasi—despite her brilliant academic record, Julia failed a university entrance exam and couldn’t find a job. Frau Paul, a dental technician, was forcibly separated from her sick child after the Wall went up; he was only weeks old when he was sent to a West German hospital, where he stayed until he was five.

But Funder was particularly determined to talk to ex-Stasi men, and their stories are equally as compelling as those of the people whose lives they wrecked. Some, predictably, behave like characters from a spy novel—Herr Winz insists on meeting Funder ‘outside the church on market square at fifteen hundred hours. I will have tomorrow’s Markische Allgemeine rolled up under my left arm. Understood?’ When Funder tells him that ‘in Australia we don’t have ID cards,’ he looks at her ‘as though all his suspicions are confirmed: I have come from a place so remote, so primitive that the people there have not yet been labelled and numbered.’

A more sinister figure is Herr von Schnitzler, who hosted ‘The Black Channel,’ an anti-Western propaganda show on East German television, for almost thirty years. At 79, von Schnitzler’s passionate belief in Communism is unwavering and tainted with rage—he tells Funder that he lives ‘among the enemy’ in a capitalist system. When Funder reads aloud a passage from one of his old programs—one that advocates strict border control—and asks if von Schnitzler still agrees with its sentiment, ‘he raises his free arm, inhales and screams, “More! Than! Ever!”’

Naturally, not everyone who worked for the Stasi was so one-eyed—in an organisation that thrived on breeding mistrust and suspicion, many were simply following orders. Herr Christian, who worked as a covert security officer, remembers discovering a woman and her child stowing away in the boot of a car, hoping to make it across the border: ‘Because I was in civilian clothes they thought I was with the smuggling organization. I remember the joy on their faces the instant they thought there were in freedom. I have to say that was bitter, because I am a sensitive man. But I am also a stickler for the law, and I thought that what they were doing was wrong.’

It’s difficult to regard the Stasi’s time in power as anything other than barbaric (although Funder’s discovery of their ‘smell samples’—bottled odours taken from the clothing of criminal suspects, based on the quasi-scientific theory that ‘we all have our own identifying odour’—casts a faintly ridiculous light on their regime), but Funder’s decision to include their stories in her book is testament to the complexity of a political regime that failed so dismally to match its practice with its ideology. There are no forces of good and evil here—only people, from zealots to bureaucrats, doing what they thought was right, however misguided that often turned out to be. ‘The mistake the GDR made,’ observes one of the men whose job is to literally piece together the thousands of shredded Stasi files on East German citizens that were rescued after the Wall fell, ‘was to force people into a position: either you are for us or an enemy.’ It’s a dichotomy that can’t be sustained without terrible consequences.

The Wall may no longer stand—as Funder observes, there’s almost no trace of it left in Berlin today—but its scars remain on the national psyche, revealing themselves in small but significant ways. Miriam and Julia are so resentful of how controlled their lives were in the old GDR that they have an almost pathological resistance to structure in their lives—when Funder invites Julia for lunch, she is late, admitting later that ‘I can’t subject myself to any sort of authority. I can’t commit myself to coming anywhere on time.’

It’s details like these that make Stasiland so memorable and affecting. Funder’s book is more than just a fascinating insight into a failed political regime, but a timely and sobering reminder of the human cost of power.

 

 

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