Stasiland, by Anna Funder

10600748The statistics tell us that the East German population was the most surveilled population in history. In Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, Anna Funder tells her readers that there was a Stasi officer for at least every 63 citizens. The ratio gets closer to 1:6 if the part-time informers are thrown in (57*). In the 1990s, Australian Funder took a job at a German television program responding to viewer mail. Letters from a viewer condemning the lack of coverage about life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) resonated with Funder’s own interest. When she failed to convince her bosses to film a program about former East Germans and their surveillors, Funder placed an ad in a newspaper asking ex-Stasi agents for information about their old occupations. She also followed leads to people whose lives had been touched by Stasi influence.

The Stasi were formally founded in 1950 as the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. (The nickname “Stasi” comes from Staatssicherheit or “State Security.”) Their internal mission was to monitor the population and use any means at their disposal to prevent dissidence and opposition to the government. But, as one ex-Stasi officer comments, “as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of ‘enemy’ became wider and wider” (199). Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi used electronic surveillance, informers, blackmail, and other tactics against any potential “enemies” of the state. In her investigations, Funder uncovered the deep psychological trauma the Stasi inflicted on the people, in the name of the People.

Funder explains her own fascination with East Germany as she travels to Leipzig, the city were the first demonstrations that lead to the collapse of East Germany began:

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 a 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. (4)

In Leipzig, Funder also meets with Miriam Weber, whose husband was murdered by the Stasi in the 1980s. As if losing her husband wasn’t enough, Miriam also had to fight with them to get her husband’s body for a viewing at the funeral. At the time Stasiland was written, Miriam was trying to find out exactly how her husband died and if it’s really his body in the coffin they buried.

After the Berlin Wall came down, former East Germans fought for the right to be able to read their own Stasi files. There are even people working to repair files that were haphazardly shredded in the weeks before the Wall came down. Many of the people Funder talked to—the non-Stasi people—deeply repressed their experiences with the Stasi. Funder’s landlady, Julia, only spoke to Funder after getting to know her. Julia had an Italian boyfriend that she met by accident. Her Westkontake (contact with Westerners) sparked interrogations and attempts by the Stasi to turn her into an inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (an unofficial collaborator). One Stasi agent, known only as Major N., had Julia summoned to an office where he revealed just how much the Stasi knew about her and her boyfriend. They knew everything, absolutely everything. Only a threat to complain at the highest levels and the fact that it was the late 1980s saved Julia from further harassment. Julia also spoke about the impact of the repressive regime on her father:

Many people withdrew into what they called ‘internal emigration’. They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities. After 1989 Dieter retired from teaching as soon as he could. He was depressed, and required medication. ‘I think one could count him too, as a victim of the regime,’ Julia says. Living for so long in a relation of unspoken hostility but outward compliance to the state had broken him. (96)

Some of the stories Funder tells have a twisted humor to them, but the vast majority reflect the psychological scars the Stasi inflicted on the East German people in the name of protecting their socialist fantasy.

The most disturbing moments in Stasiland come when Funder interviews ex-Stasi men and the host of the notorious Der schwartze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Von Schnitzler in particular sees nothing wrong about East Germany and how it was run. In fact, according to them, everything has gone to hell since the Wall came down. Some of these men are still diehard believers in the brand of communism practiced in East German. Others speak of “doing their duty” without recognizing that they’re saying almost the same words that members of the SS and Wehrmacht used after World War II to explain their actions.

The parallels between East Germany and Nazi Germany mount up as Funder crisscrosses the former German Democratic Republic. When Funder began her project in the mid-1990s, it seemed that many Germans wanted to move on by not talking about the Stasi and their crimes. The letter writer who helped spark Funder’s project wrote:

issues were being swept under the carpet in East Germany, and people along with them. It took twenty years after the war, he said, for the Nazi regime to even begin to be discussed in Germany, and that the process is repeating itself now. “Will it be 2010 or 2020 before what happened there is remembered?…Why are some things easier to remember the more time has passed since they occurred?” (13-14)

Museums that preserve the history of East German were, by the 2000s, suffering from lack of funding. Few people visited them. The only people interested in the past were more concerned with finding their own history in the former Stasi archives than seeing reminders behind glass. Other former East German citizens celebrate their old country in a phenomena known as Ostalgie—nostalgia for the East.

Funder’s own story in Germany winds its way through all the other stories she shares in Stasiland. This is as much a book about historical investigation as it is about the actual history. Some readers may be put off by this, especially as Funder’s story has much less pathos than the stories about Stasi men and East Germans. Me, I didn’t enjoy these interruptions so much as I got used to them. There was one exception. I did enjoy Funder’s tales of drinking with Klaus Renft, one of the founding members of an East German rock band, the Klaus Renft Combo.

The best way to sum up Funder’s experiences is in her own words, “I’ve been having Adventures in Stasiland…I’ve been in a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard from again, or were smuggled into other realms” (120). By talking to so many East Germans, Funder got to vicariously feel what it was like to live in the most surveilled country in the world. That’s what Funder gives us in Stasiland, too. The past is gone, no matter what the Ostalgie folks want, but its effects are still felt. And, no matter what some modern Germans might want, the past is still worth talking about.

* Paraphrases and quotes are from the 2002 trade paperback edition by Harper Perennial.


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