Adventures in Stasiland
I recently read Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta Books, 2003). Funder, an Australian journalist who lived and worked in Berlin for a couple of years in the late 1990s, became fascinated by the experiences of people in the former GDR during her stay, a place where, as Funder describes ‘what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard of again, or were smuggled into other realms…’.
Funder provides a well-researched overview of the scale and scope of the Stasi in the former GDR presenting some interesting (and at times quite mind-boggling) facts and statistics: in just 40 years the Stasi generated the equivalent of all records previously produced in Germany since the Middle Ages; laid out upright and end to end the files the Stasi kept would form a line 180km in length; when the wall fell the Stasi had 97,000 official employees and an additional 175,000 informers in a country of 17 million people, giving a ratio of one Stasi officer or informant per 63 citizens (a higher ratio than the KBG in the Soviet Russia at the peak of Stalin’s terror and, if part-time informers are added to the total of Stasi representatives in the GDR, some estimates place the ratio as high as 1 Stasi representative per 6.5 citizens). She describes the methods employed to keep citizens of the GDR under such close surveillance: the boxes of fake wigs and moustaches found in Stasi offices to assist surveillance operations (one former Stasi officer she interviewed demonstrated ‘a sense of fun’ about his former occupation describing the joy of choosing different disguises by coming into work and deciding ‘who shall I be today?!”) and the list of observation signals displayed in the old Stasi HQ (‘like a choreography for very nasty scouts’ observes Funder).
But this was not a simple case of grown men harmlessly living out their boy-hood spy-game fantasies (and Stasi officers were – almost overwhelmingly – male). Other methods employed by the Stasi were legally and morally suspect even in the totalitarian climate of what was allowed in the communist GDR. The ‘standard practices’ applied of course: mail would be opened and inspected, telephone calls intercepted and residences and hotel rooms bugged – but the Stasi even went as far as to develop a method of connecting individual typewriters to the print they made (‘as if to fingerprint thought’ Funder muses sombrely). Smell sampling was also widely employed as ‘evidence’, interrogation subjects were frequently subjected to sleep deprivation to gain ‘confessions’ (which was technically illegal, even in the GDR) and following the death of a number of communist-era dissidents from a rare kind of cancer in the 1990s – all of whom had been held in Stasi prisons around the same time – evidence was uncovered of the use of radiated tags and sprays to ‘mark’ people and objects that the Stasi wanted to track. The full extent of the Stasi’s penetration into East German society will probably never be known – despite the opening of Stasi files to the public in August 1990 and continued revelations about their activities being uncovered today, in the panic during the events of November 1989, the Stasi were ordered to dispose of many of their ‘most incriminating files’, which were shredded and destroyed (Funder describes how over 100 burnt out shredders were discovered in a room at the fomer Stasi HQ in Normenstasse, Berlin following the collapse of communist authority in the GDR).
All of this is, of course, fascinating. But what really makes Funder’s book is the ‘human element’: the personal stories she collects from people who had lived in the former GDR and their experiences of dealing with the Stasi. Funder draws perspectives from both sides, speaking to those who represented and actively participated in the power structures of the old GDR (including numerous ‘Stasi-men’ who she contacts though newspaper adverts) and also to some of those who opposed, rejected or confronted the regime in various ways. She is always clear about the importance of this material, stating that ‘for anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told’. So we are told the stories of Herr Winz, Herr Christian, Herr Bock and Herr Bohnsack (all former Stasi employees), of Hagen Koch (who had been appointed as Eric Honecker’s ‘personal cartographer’ and had personally walked the streets of Berlin in August 1961 to paint the line where the Berlin Wall was then erected) and of Carl Eduard von Schnitzler (who had presented Der Schwarze Kanal (‘The Black Channel’) a propaganda programme broadcast across the GDR from 1960). Conversely, Funder also explores the experiences of those such as Miriam Webber (who became an ‘enemy of the state’ after an attempt to cross the Wall into West Berlin when she was just 16, and whose husband Charlie later died in mysterious circumstances whilst being held in Stasi custody), Julia (Funder’s landlady who was targeted by the GDR after establishing a long-distance relationship with an Italian man and pressured to inform on her friends and family)and Frau Paul (whose seriously ill baby was being treated in a hospital in West Berlin when the Wall was suddenly erected, who was later arrested and imprisoned by the Stasi and offered the chance to visit her son if she agreed to act as their ‘bait’ in a sting operation to arrest someone they were after while she was there – she declined their ‘offer’ and as a result would not see her son until he returned to East Berlin several years later, a virtual stranger to her).
These individual stories all combine to provide some intriguing insights into life in the former GDR, but what is perhaps most fascinating is the degree to which they illustrate that its history cannot be understood in simple black and white. Instead, a massive grey area exists when attempting to explain or understand the system that developed under communism, and the motives of those who chose to participate in, or oppose it. So while many of the former Stasi-men show little regret or remorse about their former roles (‘We had people everywhere!’ proudly proclaims Winz, while von Schnitzler still steadfastly maintains that the Berlin Wall was ‘humane’), their stories reveal how many of them too were damaged despite – or because of – their involvement in the system. So Christian was arrested, imprisoned and later demoted to manual work on a building site for three years after he failed to disclose his extra-marital affair to his superiors (‘Any one could have an affair of course’ he explains, in an attempt to describe the perverse logic behind his arrest ‘but EVERYTHING had to be reported’) and it emerges that Koch ran into problems when he married a girl who the Stasi viewed as ‘GDR negative’ and was later arrested when he attempted to resign from the Stasi, while his wife was forced to divorce him under threat of losing their son if she did not (they later re-married).
Conversely, despite several people recounting their awful experiences with the Stasi, many former citizens that Funder spoke to continued to display significant amounts of nostalgia – or ‘Ostalgie’ – for the former GDR now that it no longer exists. Post-socialist development and re-unification have failed to live up to the expectations that many held in 1989, and ironically, many mourn the loss of ‘security’ they now associate with the GDR in a time when people recall that ‘prices were lower, everyone had work and transportation was free’. The current system is ‘better than the Weimar Republic and better than Hitler, but bring back the Communists!’ one elderly woman confides to Funder, and even Julia, who was targeted and persecuted by the Stasi, talks of the rise of problems such as unemployment, drugs, homelessness and prostitution which she still identifies today with ‘the West’ and seems to equate the fall of the Berlin Wall with the loss of her own personal security (for reasons that become apparent as her story unfolds).
You get the sense that Funder is trying her hardest to remain impartial, but nevertheless some of her frustration with this ‘Ostalgie’ does come through when she talks of the post-communist ‘myth’ that has emerged about how life was better in the GDR in many respects because ‘if you didn’t buck the system then it wouldn’t harm you’ – despite the stories she collects clearly demonstrating the opposite – and the tendency of some she encountered to present the GDR as ‘simply a harmless welfare state that looked after people’. As a result, while the primary focus of Stasiland is to explore life in the period before 1989, some interesting contemporary perspectives also emerge, particularly in relation to the existence of ‘mauer im kopf’ or ‘the wall in the head’ that still appears to influence many in Germany today.
Stasiland is available from Amazon.co.uk:
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