Anna Funder. Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall. London: Granta Books, 2003. 288 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-86207-580-1.
Reviewed by Laura Green McGee (Department of Modern Languages, Western Kentucky University)
Published on H-German (July, 2004)
I have a confession to make. I was at first put off by the title of this book. It sounded so reductive, as if one might sum up East German experience as having to live with the Stasi, the East German State Security Service. As a scholar who works on issues of East German identity in cinema, I had lived in the former East Berlin in the 1990s as Funder did. I had, during that stay and subsequent others, heard and read first-hand and second-hand accounts of life with the Stasi, both from ordinary citizens and from those more visible in the culture industry. I had been amazed and horrified, had written some of these stories down and shared them with family and friends. But I felt hesitant to present them as representative, because I knew that East Germans experienced life in the GDR, and therefore with the Stasi, in a variety of different ways, depending on whether their circumstances and personalities put them at odds with the state. It would therefore be difficult to give a picture that all would regard as fair.
It was with some skepticism then, that I packed her book into my carry-on luggage for my most recent flight to Germany. And again I have a confession. I have never slept so little on a transatlantic flight. I had nearly finished Funder's book by the time I reached my destination.
Funder takes a different approach than I might have presumed based on her title, and a legitimate one, I believe. She packs her journalistic expertise behind the task of telling the stories of selected individuals who suffered under the Stasi, as well as several stories of those who worked for the Stasi. She has chosen both ordinary individuals and a few unusual personalities from the former East Germany. Her approach is autobiographical to the extent that she embeds her stories in the frame of her own stay in East Berlin and her reflections on the atmosphere there. She takes a personal and yet investigative approach as she establishes herself as an outsider who is less than complacent about the East Germans around her living in a unified Germany where the injustices of the Stasi past seem inadequately addressed.
Funder does not presume to give us a single, accurate sum of East German experience with the Stasi, but she does present a series of portraits carefully knitted together alternately with her own observations on German culture and with just enough background information on German unification and everyday culture of the former East Germany to provide a context for what her characters have to say. Funder's book is compelling because she has a quick wit and a keen eye for the individuals she observes. She shows compassion, and yet is not overly tolerant of those who do not deserve it.
The East German State Security Service was a massive operation that depended on the work of full-time employees, of which it had 97,000 when the wall fell. It also employed "unofficial operatives" (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or "IMs" in German). These persons were recruited by the Stasi to spy on their friends, neighbors, co-workers and in some cases, even their spouses or family members. According to Funder's research, the web of the Stasi was so complete that the ratio of Stasi officers and informers to citizens was one agent for every sixty-three citizens, if part-time informers are included, some estimates reach 1:6.5 (p. 57). Individuals who visibly resisted the official party line could be regarded as enemies of the state and were likely to become targets of the Stasi.
It was a visit to the former central offices of the Ministry for State Security in Leipzig in 1994 that first fascinated Funder. A citizen's initiative had seen to it that the place become a museum. Funder realized she wanted to meet the people whose lives had been affected by the evidence of Stasi activity she saw there. And thus began her quest. In Berlin again in 1996 for a longer stay, she worked for a television station in the former West Berlin, where she observed a lack of interest in the contemporary experiences of the people of the former East Germany. So she set out to discover on her own these "untold stories."
Funder draws the reader in with her account of Miriam, whose politically motivated teenage prank would have been just that, had it not occurred in the former East Germany. She shows how Miriam became an enemy of the state and lets Miriam tell how her husband Charlie died mysteriously while in a Stasi prison, a thread of unexplained history that accompanies the reader through to the end of the text. In the chapters that follow, Funder visits places of relevance for her quest, such as the former Stasi Headquarters in Berlin, she characterizes Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, and brings home the gravity of the Stasi threat by explaining how the Stasi had plans in the late-1980s to arrest and incarcerate 85,939 citizens in the event of a domestic political crisis (p. 62). We can be thankful that those charged with such plans did not carry them out. Instead, they panicked and barricaded themselves inside their offices or busied themselves destroying evidence of their deeds. And the so-called "peaceful" revolution followed. But, as Funder impresses on the reader in the course of her book, peace has not come to all who live in the former East Germany. In addition to her stories about victims such as Miriam and Julia, Funder pursues the perpetrators to try to understand what made--and makes--them tick. Her interviews with former Stasi informers, and her visits to historical Stasi locations with several of them, indicate that many have consciences untroubled by what they did to others. Her findings suggest that perhaps there are still pockets of a Stasi conspiracy in existence here and there, because supporters of the Stasi evidently still exist and may be organized. If nothing else, there are individuals in complete denial of the harm their actions might have caused others in the past. And these people live side-by-side with their victims in the unified Germany. The examples from her victims' stories show that for the Stasi there were no holds barred in protecting the state from its people--marriages were broken and parents separated from children, attempts were made to destabilize targeted individuals or cause psychological distress and even paranoia. The absurdity of the situation and the thinking that drove it become apparent in Funder's report.
Besides giving ordinary people a chance to tell their stories, Funder also interviews some better-known personalities of the former East Germany--for instance Klaus Renft of the famous Klaus Renft Combo, an East German rock group. She also speaks with Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, whose weekly television show "The Black Channel" bashed West German television. She wants to ask him if there is anything he would like to take back, but she finds him a man without remorse. She reveals the failure in his logic as her conversation with him shows that, although he built a career critiquing "western propaganda," he continues to buy fully into the propaganda of a land that no longer exists.
Obviously, Funder presents compelling and informative reading. So as not to risk revealing too much, I will draw to a close. But one last note beforehand: it did not escape me that almost all of the victims Funder portrayed in greater personal detail were women, and the perpetrators--such as the "Stasi men" who responded to her newspaper ad--were men. There are no female Stasi agents among her portraits, and the male victims she does portray are family members of her female victims. Coincidence? A few possible explanations show that this observation should not be regarded as a substantial failure of Funder's work. Funder does not claim to present scholarly research, but rather a series of portraits. Perhaps her contacts with women led more easily to revelations of personal tragedy at the hands of the Stasi. Further, East German society, for all its lip service to gender equality, was one governed by men at the top and in positions of administrative importance, so these would have had greater representation among full-time employees of the Stasi such as those who answered Funder's ad. The observation does, however, lead this reviewer to wonder to what extent women were represented among the ranks of the inofficial operatives of the Stasi. But that is a topic for a different book.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can make is that Funder's book is an interesting read both for those already acquainted with the Stasi and with life in the former East Germany as well as for those who know little about it and would like an introduction. Her tone is not neutral--there are some things she lets the reader judge for him/herself and others she is quick to comment on, but overall this does not detract from her portrait of the Stasi and its victims. Her contribution is precisely the one she set out to make--to give voice to an eastern point of view, be it that of victim or perpetrator. She makes it clear that much suffering occurred in the former east and suggests that very little has been (and is being) done to bring the truth to light and to achieve justice. As her book suggests, this failure to address the past has and will continue to have repercussions.
. Editor's Note: Funder's book recently received the prestigious and substantial Samuel Johnson Prize; see http://www.arts.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2004/06/13/bojohns on.xml. It is noteworthy that neither the editor nor any of the members of the Prize committee were historians. Her book's ability to engage experts and non-experts alike speaks to an on-going interest of this list, namely, the ability of historians to find a voice in broader public discourse.
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Laura Green McGee. Review of Funder, Anna, Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall.
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