07 December 2011

Stasiland (Anna Funder)

   On the night of Sunday 12 August 1961 the East German army rolled out barbed wire along the streets bordering the eastern sector, and stationed sentries at regular intervals. At daylight people woke to find themselves cut off from relatives, from work, from school. Some made a dash through the wire. Others who lived in apartments overlooking the borderline started to jump from the windows into blankets held out by westerners on the footpath below. Then the troops made the residents brick up their own windows. They started with the lower floors, forcing people to jump from higher and higher windows.

An investigative report about life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Australian writer Anna Funder was a work of genuine pathos. The true stories of common people recounted in it seemed to have come directly from George Orwell's dystopia. As Funder's narrative had shown, the heyday of East Germany did not just resemble the alternate reality of Nineteen Eighty-Four, its very ideology was immersed in the depths of Oceania. It was a system isolated and enclosed by an impregnable fence, with human beings as the subject of the experiment and the bureaucratic apparatus secure in place. In East Germany the application of totalitarian theory took its own course for all of four decades. After an audit of history, the human cost – the pain, the sacrifices, the lives squandered and lost – was staggering.

Early on, the reader was given an overview of what transpired in the land of the Stasi police:

   The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. In its forty years, 'the Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long.

In the GDR, people learned to inform on each other. They were used by the state to gather information on potential "enemies". People spied on people, and all records and reports were systematically collected and archived. As Funder described it to a colleague in the book, the Stasiland was "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." The breakdown of reality certainly had an air of wonder about it, but it was a breakdown orchestrated from a meeting room in hell.

Intimidation and surveillance, those classic strategies of depriving individuals their privacy and peace of mind, were used in good measure. As it turned out, the participants in it – some hardline Stasi and their victims – were still playing the same game even after 1989. Even after the fall of the wall, harassment was norm for people who were critical of the former regime or who could reveal the identities of the ex-Stasi.

A former border guard who appeared on a television talk show was threatened with an acid attack and had to be placed under police protection. Home-delivered harassment is popular: one man had a ticking package delivered to his doorstep; wives have had to sign for porn not ordered by their husbands. The strangest incident I heard of was when a man was delivered a truckload of puppies, yelping outside his door and the driver demanding a signature. . . . The child of an outspoken writer was picked up from school by a person or persons unknown and taken to drink hot chocolate, just for an hour or so.

The tricks were almost funny. The idea being: that the fall of the wall did not guarantee complete freedom from intimidation. Everything could remain as before. Totalitarianism was a kind of latent disease that would strike humanity's immune system given the right physiological conditions for it to prosper. Right now, as we speak, the apparatus of the Stasi was still in operation. In any country, in any given day, the malicious smile of a Stasi was plastered on the face of an operative.

The style of the book was far from a dry journalistic report. It read very much like a novel. Like fiction, except it wasn't. Funder wrote indelible images of a repressive regime in a restrained but effectual manner. The hybrid form of creative nonfiction, in which searing human stories took over the nightmare of reality, was used to maximum effect. The portraits of people in it were well drawn and their experiences were made immediate and harrowing. There were haunting scenes in it, moments of quiet and understated anguish, that would make one's hair stand on end.

It was evident that no one could be spared the iron rule because the "enemies" were in plain sight, wearing everyone's face.

'Who were the people you were doing the "Operational Control" on?'
'They were enemies.'
'Oh. How did you know they were enemies?'
'Well,' he says in his soft voice, 'once an investigation was started into someone, that meant there was suspicion of enemy activity. . . . We searched for enemies in all the areas I mentioned: in the factories, in the state apparatus, the church, the schools and so on. In fact,' he says, 'as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of "enemy" became wider and wider.'

How could any citizen escape the definition when the damning definition would encompass all conceivable pronouns?

(Compare this to a novella by Machado de Assis called "The Psychiatrist", described by the Wuthering Expectations blog, in which the definition of "madness" had become so broad as to cast a wider and wider net and catch an increasing proportion of "mad" in the population. Using the same haphazard way of handing down human definitions, GDR embodied "both theory and practice", to borrow Tom's quote from Machado. Emily's comment to the review, regarding the similarity of the plot of José Saramago's novel Blindness to Machado's story, was very perceptive. The conceit of Saramago's novel – wherein people suddenly became blind one after the other, an abnormal disruption that led to chaos and horrible acts of cruelty as the blind were herded in a closed facility – was that it used blindness to conceal the fact that a bunch of seeing people, in the same situation, would react in exactly the same inhuman ways. Even if the epidemic of white blindness did not descend on the city, the turn of events would be the same as long as an extreme situation like food scarcity took hold and power was concentrated in one place.).

The conceit of Stasiland, and it was a real conceit, was that the Berlin Wall was also an imaginary structure. What happened within the walls only intensified or heightened what was happening outside it. What happened inside were happening outside; the goings-on inside just happened to be more prominent and more blatant.

The rise and fall of the GDR, as documented by the personal histories in the book, was a reminder to the present that lessons are not only manufactured by history. History was the lesson itself. Human beings in power, given free rein in a closed society, are capable of inflicting everything imaginable and unimaginable. Not forgetting is always a worthwhile undertaking as it is a substantial step toward asserting one's inalienable freedom and dignity. Remembrance of the unjust past is a proactive form of resistance, a way to guide the course of present events in an ideal direction. 

Funder's report distilled the best and worst aspects of people in an isolationist society. Her use of language was liberating. It trained its unflinching light on the dark, disgusting shadows of the past. Her writing was a courageous feat of synthesis and imagining. It provided ample space to observe the disposition of the heroic peoples whose stories were thoughtfully conveyed, the people who stuck blindly to their principles in the face of demoralization and deprivation of rights.

In the book, a woman was described as a person of "such great humanity" by another whose life may have been fatefully saved when the woman refused to cooperate with the regime. In its own way, Anna Funder's book deserved the same unqualified judgement. Hers was a work of such great humanity.

I received an uncorrected proof of the book from the publisher. The quotations above should be checked against the final published copy. 


  1. I've already expressed an interest in this, but your post has intensified that interest.

  2. 'The Lives of Others' is a good German film about the DDR Stasi.

  3. This is a wonderful book - it's a shame she decided to move into fiction with 'All That I Am' (although it's still worth reading).

  4. And still so many wish the wall would still be up - and not those on the Western German side. Oddly enough, for many, the majority, it felt like security. They didn't have to worry about jobs so much while now they have one of the highest percentages of unemployment in Germany. And also the highest rate of Neo Nazis.
    I think nobody was aware at the time just how different the mindset was and just tearing down a wall wouldn't immediately change this.
    I haven't read the book but it does sound interesting.
    I've just started the Machado de Assis as I found it sounded so intriguing. Trying to find a formula for a group of humans is an element of totalitarianism, isn't it?

  5. Gary, this post was actually long delayed. I received it a couple of months back. The topic was one of my reading interests.

    Kevin, I had to google that. Unfortunately the local video shop carries only the usual Hollywood catastrophe movie. Thanks for mentioning it. A cursory online search led me to Anna Funder’s review (a mixed one):


  6. Tony, I checked again your review (link here for reference) and had to surmise again that fiction was probably her way of avoiding being formulaic. Perhaps it gave her more freedom to imagine the story. I’m intrigued enough with the shift in fiction to want to have a crack at it if a copy came my way.

  7. Caroline, there was also a scene in the book where some East Germans waxed nostalgic over their former lives in the wall. Maybe any kind of past, however gruesome, will invite nostalgia. That's probably a side-effect of the Stasi regime's lengthy rule. One tend to lose a greater proportion of reality. Despite the economic prosperity they may have enjoyed previously, the cost to human freedom would invalidate the gains anytime.

    Your last question was spot on.

  8. Another case of far-seeing Machado - when he wrote there was no concept of totalitarianism. But he could see it.

    "Goodbye, Lenin" is an outstanding movie, a comedy, that is partly about East German nostalgia and the meaning of the fall of the Wall. It is also - it is mostly - a wonderful mother-son story.

  9. Tom, certainly a proof of Machado's genius.

    Thanks for mentioning Goodbye, Lenin! I suspected Anna Funder reviewed it also, and she did (here, another mixed review).