“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 … (but) 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.”
So writes Australian Anna Funder in the opening chapter of her 2002 non-fiction work Stasiland. It is an account of life in East Germany, behind the infamous Berlin Wall, in the latter half of the 20th century – after the end of World War II in 1945 and before the Wall was brought down in 1989, the Communist regime was uprooted, and Western democracy ushered in.
Having learned German – to the bemusement of her family – as a schoolgirl, Funder lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, in her early 20s. She first visited East Germany in 1987, and again in 1994 – five years after the fall of the Wall. She returned two years later, got a job in the television industry and started to collect the stories that would eventually make up Stasiland – the personal accounts of East Germans who stood up to regime, and/or were wrongfully imprisoned.
Funder examines both sides of life in East Germany under Communism and the Stasi, its notorious Ministry for State Security – from the viewpoints of its citizens and those who worked for the Stasi both officially and unofficially, whom she enlists from placing personal advertisements. And the latter was many – the country was teeming with Stasi agents and their informers. Funder is scathing in her assessment: “These obedient grey men doing it with their underpaid informers … seem at once more stupid and more sinister. Betrayal clearly has its own reward … and this regime used it as fuel.”
The book’s seeds were sown from the story of Miriam Weber, which Funder had first heard on her 1994 visit, and whose biography bookends Stasiland. In 1968, aged just 16, Miriam became an “enemy of the state” after she and a girlfriend distributed leaflets protesting against the police reaction to the Leipzig demonstrations, triggered by the demolition of a church and the next generation questioning its parents’ blind adherence to Communism. After being detained and interrogated, Miriam attempted, on New Year’s Eve of that year, to go over the Wall – and almost made it. Her failure resulted in further detainment, torture and eventual imprisonment.
After her release, Miriam was courted by sports teacher Charlie Weber, whom she eventually married. But Charlie, too, invoked the ire of the Stasi, was put under surveillance and eventually arrested and placed in a remand cell, where he ostensibly committed suicide and his funeral took place under the organisation’s foreboding shadow. Two decades later and Miriam was still trying to piece together the real story of what happened to her husband, of whom – if anyone – lay in his coffin. It is truly heartbreaking, but Miriam’s resilience shines like a beacon despite the obvious psychological damage she has endured.
Sadly but unsurprisingly there are stories like this everywhere in the old German Democratic Republic, some sitting right under Funder’s nose – such as her landlady Julia, whose slightly eccentric tics belie a history of petty injustices incurred by the state. A straight-A, multi-lingual student whose innocent relationship with an Italian man piqued the interest of the Stasi, she was consequently and repeatedly denied the opportunity to work in a country where officially there was no unemployment, and was continually under surveillance, effectively an exile in her own homeland, where she refused to join the informer ranks and was accordingly punished for doing so.
The Stasi was chillingly effective in severe psychological debasement and also a dab hand in the physical department. There is the unbelievably appalling case of Sigrid Paul and her son Torsten, whose breech birth was badly handled and whose ill health eventually forced doctors to spirit him across the border, where he remained in hospital for the next five years, basically brought up by nurses, whilst his parents were sequestered behind the Wall. Sigrid and her husband’s desperate plan to defect, with the help of a network of students who provided a safe passage across the border, was repeatedly thwarted. And Sigrid eventually made the heartrending decision not to betray the students at the expense of seeing her son, but was still imprisoned and shockingly, persistently tortured. You will find it almost impossible to believe that one human being can do such things to another – especially in the name of the state.
Like her countrywoman Helen Garner, Funder excels in this type of first-person reportage, removed only a few degrees from the “gonzo” style of journalism pioneered by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and his ilk. She emits a remarkable degree of humanity and empathy in the retelling of these tales, many of them so horrific and inhumane, nightmare Orwellian tales that are tragically all too true.
Remarkably, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s – barely a decade after the destruction of the Wall – Funder finds there is a certain amount of nostalgia amongst some East Berliners for the Stasi era. As several note, life under capitalism has more than its share of challenges – amongst them housing, food, social security, health. Time might not heal all wounds, but it does taint memories, and can skew a past viewed through rose-tinted glasses.
Stasiland is an important, must-read book, for no other reason than it is vital that we keep these atrocious stories alive in the hope that we, mankind, never repeats them. Although I fear that in a world that descends further into chaos with every passing day, this might prove a moot point. But I hope not – and the survival of hope is the overarching message behind Stasiland. We ignore it at our own peril.