In my quest to read five non-fiction books in 2015, I started off the year with two of the best books I’ve ever read, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers two weeks ago, and now Anna Funder’s Stasiland. Anna Funder is an Australian author who has written both fiction (the critically acclaimed novel All That I Am) and non-fiction. Stasiland was published in 2001, not long after Funder made a return visit to Eastern Germany in 2000.
My mum handed me Stasiland earlier this month when I told her I wanted to read more non-fiction, because “it reads like fiction”. I don’t think it quite reads like fiction, but it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. Combining the stories of the people she interviewed for the book with her own accounts of her travel throughout Germany and her reactions to the stories she was being told. Funder interviews people who both worked for and were victims of the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic, and is smart to admit her own biases when she was conducting her interviews.
Funder’s inspiration for writing the book came when she was working at a television station in the former East Berlin answering letters. One letter writer accused the station of glossing over what life was really like in the former GDR, and assuming that reintegration with Western Germany was a success. Funder brought this letter to her superiors, but she was turned down and decided to investigate the matter herself. She travelled to ex-Stasi buildings that had been transformed into museums, where she met someone who introduced her to her first interviewee, Miriam. Miriam was declared an enemy of the state when she was a teenager for putting up posters and was arrested when she tried to cross the Wall into West Berlin. After her imprisonment, Miriam met her soon to be husband Charlie, and after applying to move to the West, Charlie was arrested and died in prison. There were some issues with his funeral, and Miriam can never be sure whether or not she buried her husband, or what happened to him. Funder then advertised for interviewees, and she unearthed some fascinating stories. The stories of the former citizens of the GDR ranged from families who were separated by the Wall and kept trying to escape West to the life of the closest thing Eastern Germany had to a rock band.
These stories are tragic, but by far the most fascinating stories told were those of former Stasi officers, including the man who painted the line, which then became the Berlin Wall. Some still believed in the Stasi regime, and the most fascinating part of the book was the discovering how the GDR saw Germany’s involvement in the war. One interviewee described Nazism as “something terrible that happened to us” (quotation from my memory), and Funder didn’t understand what he meant, and neither did I. It wasn’t until another former Stasi officer explained how propaganda worked, that you learn that the GDR regime advocated that the Nazi Party and World War II were the product of imperialism and capitalism, and therefore something that was inflicted upon Eastern Germany by the West. This book wouldn’t be half as good as it is without these interviews, and former Stasi officers were not the only ones wishing for the good old days. Many former GDR citizens saw the reunification as a negative, and the cause of the increased homelessness in Eastern Germany.
Funder’s writing is also some of the best I’ve ever read. She is at her best when she describes the differences between the dictatorships in Latin America to the former GDR
One can more easily understand a desire for cases stuffed with money and drugs, for women and weapons and blood. These obedient grey men doing it with their underpaid informers on a weekly basis seem at once more stupid and more sinister. Betrayal clearly has its own reward: the small deep human satisfaction of having one up on someone else. It is the psychology of the mistress, and this regime used it as fuel.
The Stasi recruited and trained spies to inform on their family and friends and it is with that that they had total control over citizens of the GDR. Funder perfectly captures the horrors of such a regime by interviewing the people who were victims of the Stasi and the Stasi who created the horrors themselves.