Only the other day, a friend (and regular commenter here in Clockwatching… towers) recommended that I try reading something out of my ‘comfort zone’ in order to stimulate my creativity. He was, of course, entirely right. Perhaps something of his wisdom had already started to permeate my brain, because last week – slithered in among all the other things I was managing to do – I read a book that I will never forget. That book is Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder.
Originally published in 2003, Stasiland is a monumental work of research into life in Germany during the Stasi regime, which began shortly after the Second World War and lasted until November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Funder (who is Australian, and began her book while working in Germany during the 1990s) explores not only the stifling, claustrophobic terror of life in east Germany during this time, but also the many reasons for the development of such an ‘under siege’ mindset among the Stasi’s high officials, some of whom believed that they were still fighing fascism (once embodied by the Nazis, and now embodied by the West) and others whom, it seemed, just couldn’t find a way to relinquish the power they had once held. It is written almost like a novel, with Funder taking us into the lives and minds of her interviewees so completely that I felt, at times, as though the ‘characters’ were fictional. Perhaps I was simply trying to convince myself they were, because I found it hard to deal with some of the events I read about in this book. It is not written simply as a recounting of conversations, or a cold transcription of interviews (though there are times when Funder does take us through personal encounters with some of the people who feature in the narrative), but we feel like we’re living these experiences with the people who suffered through them. It’s first-hand testimony, and it pulls no punches.
The primary figure in the book is Miriam Weber, whose story begins when, at sixteen, she makes an attempt to flee east Germany, over the Berlin Wall, in order to reach the freedom of the west. She is found, and tortured by the Stasi, and eventually released into a world where she cannot find employment and where she is broken, mentally and physically, by her experience. Her name is on a list, and everywhere she goes, and every job she applies for, and everywhere she is asked for her name or her identity papers, she is met with walls of bureaucracy and stalling. She feels the clamp of the Stasi in every corner of her life. When she eventually marries her husband Charlie, the Stasi are not far away. Her husband is taken from her by the powers that be, and she never sees him again. Her quest to find out the truth of what happened to him runs through the entire narrative, and her quiet pain and rage seem, at times, to overwhelm her.
We also learn about women whose relationships with men outside of east Germany are monitored (through letter interception and telephone tapping), and upon whom pressure is placed to bring the relationship to an end; we read several times of people who, for one reason or other, are on Stasi watchlists and who cannot find employment anywhere. At one point, one of Funder’s contacts arrives at an ‘Employment’ (as distinct to an ‘Unemployment’) office, and asks one of the other people there, conversationally, how long he has been unemployed. ‘Young lady,’ snaps an official. ‘You are not unemployed. You are seeking work.’ ‘I don’t see how it’s different,’ she retorts. ‘You are not unemployed! There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’ shrieks the official. We read of a raped woman who is forced to undergo a physical examination by a male police officer while naked on a table. I learned about Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who hosted a TV show (one of very few shown in the GDR) called Der Schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), designed to mock and denigrate all that was western, and of other high-ranking Stasi officials whose homes were maintained like shrines to the old order. Several of the Stasi men mentioned in the narrative were still alive at the time Funder was writing, and it’s chilling – and fascinating – to read their take on what they were doing, and the state they were serving, and why they made the choices they did.
Some stories were funny, like that of a former Stasi official who stole a plate from his office just before the Wall fell, and who lied repeatedly when police came looking for it. He took huge pleasure in showing Funder where he had it displayed, in pride of place, on his living-room wall, like a personal protest to a regime he had grown to hate. She also allows us glimpses into her own personal life, her fears and triumphs, her feelings at the loss of her beloved mother, the difficulties of writing a book such as this one. But the story which I will always remember is that of Frau Paul and her family, whose son Torsten was taken away into the west in order to receive life-saving medical treatment while a very young child (after having received ill-considered, careless treatment by doctors and nurses in the GDR). The Stasi, as was their wont, find a weakness in Frau Paul’s life and use it, cruelly, to try to force her to inform on a young man whom she knows will be put to death if she speaks out against him – and they tell her that if she does what they want, they will give her a pass to visit her child, whom she hasn’t seen for months on end. Her choice brought tears to my eyes.
The most knowledge I had of the Stasi before reading this book was from watching the (excellent) film The Lives of Others; if you enjoyed that movie, Stasiland might be for you. It’s hard going, at times; it’s hard to believe, almost the whole way through. But it’s never anything less than brilliantly written, compelling, and deeply moving. It’s highly recommended.