Author: Anna Funder
No. of Pages: 304
Origins: Harper Perennial
Bottom Line: A fascinating, poignant, eye-opening, and exceedingly well-written portrait of life inside the Wall and after its demise that brings a long-needed spotlight on this former regime that seemingly disappeared overnight.
“In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their fellow citizens, there are thousands of captivating stories. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany. She meets Miriam, who as a 16-year-old might have started World War III; she visits the man who painted the line which became the Berlin Wall; and she gets drunk with the legendary Mik Jegger of the east, once declared by the authorities to his face to no longer to exist. Each enthralling story depicts what it’s like to live in Berlin as the city knits itself back together–or fails to. This is a history full of emotion, attitude, and complexity.”
Thoughts: There are few defining historical moments in one’s life – the type that sears itself on one’s memory so that one can always remember where one was or what one was doing when the moment occurred. For me, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of those moments. Coming home from school, I first caught a glimpse of this historic event while trying to get my daily fix of Jeopardy. I was transfixed by the site of the people swarming the Wall on both sides, taking pick-axes to it, helping each other over it and just standing there and celebrating. It was a visually thrilling and life-altering image because it is what started me down the path of studying German.
In 1993, I was lucky enough to visit Germany as part of a student program, during which a two-day stop in Berlin was part of the itinerary. Four years after the fall of the Wall, there was still a marked difference between the East and the West. The desolation, the starkness of the architecture, the creep factor of the death zones, which could still be seen even though the Wall was all but gone – these left indelible memories. Part of the tour was through the former Checkpoint Charlie, which at that point was already set up as a tourist destination. There is something exceedingly disturbing about the boom gates, the tanks, and the passport office required that was required to visit another part of the city.
In college, one of my German professors was from East Germany. I used to bombard him with questions about life in the former GDR (Democratic Republic of Germany, or the official name of the country), changes he has seen, his opinions on the German socialist regime versus the new capitalistic one. We would argue/debate about the merits of capitalism and democracy quite frequently. At the time, being the young college know-it-all, I chalked up his opinions to being deluded and considered him a brainwashed fool to think that the East was better than the West.
I mention these stories because they all played a part in the reason why I chose to read Stasiland. Interestingly, much of what I had seen with my own eyes and experienced through the debates with my professor so many years ago was corroborated in the stories Anna Funder shares. There is no denying that there were definite drawbacks to living in the GDR. The stories about Stasi infiltration/observation, the net of informers, and their interrogation/intimidation tactics are absolutely horrifying. Yet, to deem the GDR an unmitigated failure is not accurate either. The sense of complete loss and abandonment that people still felt years after its end indicates a regime that was successfully working on some levels.
As one would expect, many of the stories that are shared within the pages of Stasiland will get one’s Western blood boiling. One in 50 East Germans informing on friends, neighbors, and family. Horrific interrogation tactics that border on the medieval. Intimidation and bribery tactics that include threats to family, to careers, to freedom. Being able to look at the West and its wealth of riches and know that to even attempt to try to reach it would mean incarceration at a minimum and possible death. This was life in the GDR.
However, for every horror story Ms. Funder shares, there are also stories of tremendous strength, courage as well as complaisance and acceptance. The sixteen-year-old girl who fails to capitulate even after she was imprisoned for trying to escape. The mother who tearfully chooses between being reunited with her son for a day versus betraying a friend in the West. A rock band that refuses to amend its politically charged lyrics after direct orders and threats to do so. There are also the stories of everyday existence, of those who did not necessarily oppose life in the GDR. They recognized its shortcomings but were not interested in leaving or surreptitiously protesting. Ms. Funder does an excellent job presenting a very fair view of life in the East.
Stasiland highlights the positives and negatives of life in East Berlin as a microcosm for life in East Germany. There are the stories that bring a reader to tears, with its elements of loss and ignorance of civil rights. There are also stories that cause a reader to pause and reevaluate one’s perception of life in the East. Throughout it all, Ms. Funder maintains a sense of wonder not only at the existence of such a regime and especially of the Wall but also at the quick destruction of almost everything related to the regime after the unification of Germany in 1990. As Ms. Funder found, something that pervasive cannot be swept under the rug or sanitized without causing mental anguish to former citizens regardless of their feelings for the regime itself. East Germany is a topic that does not generate much historical discussion, but as Ms. Funder found, it continues to be a part of the German identification process and the ramifications of its governing policies still pervade the German culture, making this a topic that should not be ignored but should continue to be studied. Stasiland is an excellent first step.