Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
From: the public library (yay, interlibrary loan!)
Recommended by: Lizzy’s Literary Life
For the challenge: What’s In A Name (Place Name)
In a nutshell:
In the winter of 1996, Anna Funder left her native Australia to live in Berlin, working at a German television station. When a viewer writes to complain about the lack of programming about the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), Anna is spurred to gather GDR stories on her own.
Anna places a newspaper ad to solicit interviews from people who used to work for the GDR’s State Security: the Stasi. The Stasi was the secret police that monitored the GDR citizens for acts against the state, using all sorts of covert intelligence methods to do so.
Anna also records the stories from people she met whose lives were significantly impacted by Stasi intrusion in their lives.
It’s been since August since I’ve read and reviewed a non-fiction book for this blog (not counting the tree field guide). I really love delving into non-fiction reads, so that’s weird. Well, however that unplanned hiatus happened, Stasiland was a terrific choice for a comeback! It’s one of those non-fiction books where I found myself stopping and reading aloud sections to my roommate. Unsurprisingly then, my review is rather quote-licious.
I was in second grade when the Berlin wall fell, and we barely got past World War II in my high school history class. Therefore my knowledge of the Iron Curtain, etc. was not strong going into Stasiland. Fortunately Funder doesn’t assume too much background knowledge of the reader. The book provides some “big picture” passages to describe Stasi methods and organization, as well as the rise and fall of the GDR.
That said, the word “stories” in the subtitle is absolutely accurate to the tone of this book. Stasiland is not a systematic outlining of life under the GDR. Rather, it has a very organic feel which I enjoyed. Anna’s interviews are interspersed with her observations of Germany and German life in 1996. The interviews are contextualized with information about how they were set up, where they took place, and other such details.
I thought this approach was especially fitting for her interviews of people who stood up in some small way to the Stasi. These are just regular people telling their stories about life under scrutiny. The separate stories of Julia and Miriam are perhaps the most engrossing stories of the book. When Miriam was sixteen, she tried to cross over to West Berlin, and got surprisingly far before she was caught and subsequently jailed.
Julia was the woman from whom Anna sublet her apartment. Julia was scrutinized by the Stasi when she started dating an Italian man.
The Behrends had no telephone, so Julia went to her grandmother’s for the weekly call from the Italian boyfriend. His calls had to be booked through the authorities, and they both imagined it was possible they were being overheard. ‘When I hung up I’d say goodnight to him, then I’d say, “Night all,” to the others listening in,’ she chuckles. ‘I meant it as a joke. I didn’t let myself really think about whether there was another person on the line.”
Anna Funder’s conversations with the former Stasi men (for there were few women who worked for the secret police) are usually tinged with the bizarre. A number of them are unrepentant of their role in the former GDR. At one point, Anna interviewed a man who was the face of GDR propaganda, Herr von Schnitzler. Knowing that many East Germans were tuning into Western broadcasts, Herr von Schnitzler was chosen to broadcast a rebuttal tv program. He would denigrate Western news broadcasts and expose their “lies.” Here’s an excerpt from the interview with a very insightful observation from Anna at the end which I’ve underlined for emphasis:
[Anna:] ‘Your program was based on exposing the lies of the western media. When you noticed the false success propaganda at home, didn’t you feel a responsibility to do the same?’
‘No. I focused in my program quite deliberately and exclusively on anti-imperialism, not on GDR propaganda.’
‘But you understand my question, Herr von Schnitzler. The success propaganda in the GDR media was also lies -‘
‘It did distance the people from us, because it was in such stark contrast to the reality.’ He can switch from one view to another frightening ease. I think it is a sign of being accustomed to such power that the truth does not matter because you cannot be contradicted.
One of the many books forbidden in the GDR was George Orwell’s 1984. The situations described in Stasiland reminded me so much of that book. In particular, the Party and the Stasi worked to perpetuate an image of paternal, benign regard for its citizens, and the “Big Brother” moniker came to mind. Also stories like the following reminded me of 1984:
Julia went to the Employment Office, took a number and stood in an interminable line . . . She turned to the man behind her and asked, ‘So how long have you been unemployed?’
Before he could answer an official, a square-built woman in uniform, stepped out from behind a column.
‘Miss, you are not unemployed,’ she barked.
‘Of course I’m unemployed,’ Julia said. ‘Why else would I be here?’
‘This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office. You are not unemployed; you are seeking work.’
Julia wasn’t daunted. ‘I’m seeking work,’ she said, ‘because I am unemployed.’
The woman started to shout so loudly the people in the queue hunched their shoulders. ‘I said, you are not unemployed! You are seeking work!’ and then, almost hysterically, ‘There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’
[Charlie] and Miriam had put in applications to leave the GDR. Such applications were sometimes granted because the GDR, unlike any other eastern European country, could rid itself of malcontents by ditching them into West Germany, where they were automatically welcomed as citizens. The Stasi put all applicants under extreme scrutiny. People who applied to leave were, unsurprisingly, suspected of wanting to leave which was, other than by this long-winded and arbitrary process, a crime. An ‘application to leave’ was legal, but the authorities might, if the fancy took them, choose to see it as a statement of why you didn’t like the GDR. In that case it became a Hetzschrift (a smear) or a Schmahschrift (a libel) and therefore a criminal offence. On 26 August 1980 Charlie Weber was arrested and held in a remand cell.
(I noticed Lizzy’s Literary Life chose the second quote for her review as well.)
Though reading about the GDR can be a chilling experience, Stasiland is not a dark or difficult book. Anna has a good sense of humor and employs it judiciously. It’s also amazing to read about ordinary people asserting power, whether in Funder’s description of their peaceful but determined invasion of Stasi headquarters in 1989, or in her selected anecdotes, like this one:
I am reminded of the story of a factory worker who, after she was approached to inform, announced loudly the next day at the canteen table, ‘Guess what! You wouldn’t credit it, but They think me so reliable that I’ve been asked to inform!’ Her cover blown, she was useless and she was left alone.
I could probably continue to talk and quote from this book, but I should probably leave some aspects of the book for readers to discover themselves!
I was hoping Anna Funder had written another book, but this is her only one. I’ll keep an eye out in the future in case she turns up again.
A Fistful of Euros – “Don’t pick of a copy of Stasiland, by Anna Funder, if you have work to do.”
German Joys – “[The dissidents’] stories are frightening, moving, and told by Funder without sentimentality.”
Lizzy’s Literary Life – “What Funder brings out brilliantly is the dark comedy inherent in what the GDR created for its people . . .”