Stasiland

Don’t pick of a copy of Stasiland, by Anna Funder, if you have work to do. I did the first time, and I nearly missed a deadline. I did it again this morning, intending to write a review, and my productivity dropped like a rock again. Consider yourselves warned.

It’s not exactly the kind of book one expects from a young Australian working in television.

The book’s first conversation takes place in a public restroom. The author gets caught by the old lady minding the loo, who brags that a prince once came in and then invited her to his palace. But that was before the Wall fell, so she couldn’t go. Had she traveled since the changes, asks Funder. “Not yet. But I’d like to. Bali, something like that. Or China. Yes, China. You know what I’d really like to do? I’d really like to have me a look at that Wall of theirs.”

And it is to the Wall that everything in the book sooner or later returns. The Wall built to keep people in, the soldiers to stand guard on the Wall, the secret police to keep people in line, to spy on their fellows.

While it is fairly easy to say, yes, this is all well known. One in six of the GDR’s inhabitants was in some way connected to the Stasi. They ruined careers, wasted lives for no reason. In their latter years, they were not prolific murderers, but accomplished deadeners of the human spirit.

It’s another thing, though, to see the details. What imprisoning someone at 16 and excluding her from society afterward does to a person. How the state kills a nonconformist and then tries to cover it all up. The lies that informants told themselves. The evasions that they produce when confronted with their past.

‘A great many people were at the funeral [of my husband, who died in police custody],’ Miriam tells me, ‘but I think there were even more Stasi there.’ There was a van with long-range antennae for sound-recording equipment parked at the gates. There were men in the bushes with telephoto lenses. Everywhere you looked there were men with walkie-talkies. At the cemetery offices building work was going on: Stasi agents sat in pairs in the scaffolding.
‘Everyone, every single one of us was photographed. And you could see in advance the path the procession was to take from the chapel to the grave: it was marked at regular intervals all along by the Stasi men, just standing around.’ When they reached the grave, there were two of them sitting there on a trestle, ready to watch the whole thing.

Miriam’s husband, Charlie, had been brought in for questioning because he had applied to leave the GDR.

Fund talks not just to victims, but to former officers, and to nearly all stages in between. Including the Stasi people who went into private investigation afterward, the ones who went into intimidation, and the ones who pretended to do one or the other or both.

The reporting is first-rate, and the stories are simply told, though anything but simple in their repercussions. Just don’t pick it up if you have anything else on your agenda.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged , , , by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

5 thoughts on “Stasiland

  1. I will pick it up…later. Actually she was mentioned in another book I just read, “Wir sind kein Volk” by Wolfgang Herles.

    These stories also remind me of a trip to Bautzen where we were shown around by a former convict. He had sat for three years in the 50ies and had gruesome stories to tell. Afterwards we went to eat at one of his regular places nearby. The owner sat down at our table for a while to talk. He said: Dear me, we had no idea what was going on there…
    The thing is, how could they not? We finished our trout contemplating human kind.

  2. Agreed – an excellent book. As you say, exposes the rationalisations and justifications that people tell themselves while hurting others.

    One story that affected me was about the volunteers who are painstakingly working to piece together shredded files that the Stasi kept on people, and who estimate that their work will take decades more to complete …

  3. I’ve also just finished reading it. The odd thing is that despite its subject matter the book isn’t depressing, or even hard-going – it’s exceptionally readable, pretty uplifting and funny in places, and a compulsive page-turner. I strongly recommend it.

    Luke: it was estimated in the book that it would take 40 “puzzle women” 375 years to finish the work. Since there were only 31 people working there, not 40, I make that 484 years 🙁
    And at least one Stasi man described how he’d spent three days solid burning files at the end – so those 15000 sacks of shredded files may just be a fraction of what the Stasi held. The book does say after all that the GDR amassed as much documentation on its citizens as all German states had done in the whole of recorded history, put together, until that time 🙂

  4. Sorry about that – didn’t have the book to hand, had to make vague generalisations from memory. 484 years is still 48 decades, but perhaps “centuries” is a more psychologically accurate term … :/

  5. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I was snippily correcting you 🙂

    Anyway hopefully more people will be hired (perhaps they have been already in the intervening years?)

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