When it comes to cities I’ve not visited that I want to visit New York trumps Berlin, but only just. In fact I have visited Berlin, once, sort of – I was on some dodgy semi-independent bus toury thing of Europe, Eurobus I think it was called, in the mid-nineties – independent in that you could choose where you wanted to stay and how long, semi-independent in that you could only go to the cities on the bus route. Berlin was towards the end of that route and I was uncertain about how much money I had left (this predates being able to check your bank balance from your sonic, sorry smartphone), and I assumed Berlin would be pricey, so having spent quite a few days in dirt-cheap Prague and Budapest I decided to give presumably outrageously expensive Berlin a miss. The bus drove through Berlin, , I looked out the window, we went on to Hamburg and I found an ATM that could give me a bank balance. My UK tax return had come through, and there was five thousand bucks in my account, and I could have spent days in Berlin, after all.
At that stage my fascination with Berlin was fuelled by my knowledge of the Weimar Republic and my reading of Christopher Isherwood. Pretty much everything I have learned about Berlin since has stoked my desire to visit that city. Anna Funder’s Stasiland stoked quite a bit more.
Netty wanted to read this. I wasn’t keen. I’m not sure why, although I guess maybe as an old if marginally reformed leftie I was expecting “everything about everything that the commies tried to do in the twentieth century was totally awful”. I wasn’t expecting nuance, slightly jaded sympathy for the aims of the communism, a preparedness to hear the voices of those who were determined to (mostly delusionally) defend the police state they helped maintain. But surprisingly Funder supplied pretty much all of those things.
Funder – who visited Germany, as recorded here anyway, just months before me – gets the profound decency of what communism was trying to achieve. She also gets the horror of the lengths communists were prepared to go to get there. The laughable adherence of the men (and they are all men, I think) who worked for the Stasi to the principles they were trained to uphold cannot stand the horror of what was inflicted on those (in Funder’s account, mostly women) who were found by the state to be in breach of its ideals.
There is commentary from Funder, of course, but it is measured and balanced. Mostly she is happy to simply allow those she interviewed to tell their stories. While it’s often grim reading there is plenty of (mostly dark) humour, especially in some of the system built-in idiocies.
East Germany did not kill people in the way Stalin’s Russia, or even Lenin’s Russia, did. But it killed people, and some of those stories are told here. It also blighted people’s lives, in unbelievable ways. And all in pursuit of a vision of society that was never going to be fulfilled. What’s particularly fascinating about Funder’s book is that it tells a story of a very specific society, constructed it seems almost overnight, that differed vastly from what it replaced – and which disappeared after less than half a century. Some of the people Funder interviewed may well be dead by now.
They’re horrified when people say it, but fundamentalists of all stripes – Muslim. Christian, Jew Nazi Fascist Commie Khmer Rough – have the same thing in common: the perfection of the human being. In godspeak perfection is unachievable, because “mankind” is stained forever by sin, but we’re expected to strive towards those unattainable ideals that god set us and (in its more extreme versions) kill those who transgress them: in the political fundamentalisms the belief is that perfection is actually achievable, here and now. East Germany was one of so many tragic failed experiments on that road.