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immer an der Wand lang
on 10 November 2014
On the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is hard to imagine that the German Democratic Republic ever existed. On the day before the wall fell, it was hard to imagine it could ever end.
Younger readers may not appreciate just how impenetrable the wall seemed. If you were behind the wall, you stayed behind the wall. There were no east European visitors to the west, and precious few western visitors to the east. Of all the eastern bloc nations, East Germany seemed to be the strictest, most monolithic of the lot. The wall was their public face. When the wall fell, the Federal Republic of Germany quickly subsumed its eastern counterpart; there were stories of poverty and skinheads, but the history of the GDR was quickly wiped from both books and minds.
So it is interesting to read Anna Funder’s account of time spent living in the former GDR in the 1990s, meeting some of the people whose lives had been affected by the Ministry for State Security – or Stasi as it was commonly known. It is clear that Funder has a particular agenda – that the Stasi were monstrous and that the socialist system was an abomination – but through the people’s stories, a more subtle picture emerges. We see a government that was bound by rules and protocols that sometimes applied. We see a multi-party democracy that was encouraged to exist as long as it was ineffective. We see a population that had a sense of fair play and, even within the socialist system, was willing to challenge and push boundaries. We also saw a border that was more permeable than many people thought, with annual trade conventions bringing western visitors; day trippers through Checkpoint Charlie; and dissident easterners sold to the west for hard currency. The baddies – Erich Honecker and Erich Mielke (Head of State and Minister of State Security respectively) are brought to life and seen as real people with real personalities rather than just faces on posters and posed photographs.
The strongest story by a long distance is Miriam, a young woman who got into trouble for political activity whilst still at school. Her story continues throughout the book. There are other characters, some memorable and others less so. Funder’s landlord Julia had her own story to tell – a sort of Miriamesque story. There were others who had been Stasi employees or casual informants. Some were repentant, others defiant. Some characters had made the adjustment to the new world order successfully; others had struggled. My favourite, though, was the East German radio commentator Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, notorious for his defence of shoot to kill policies for escapees and still predicting a revival of the socialist state despite being unable to show his face in public.
Some readers have criticised Funder’s gonzo approach to the book. She is very much in stage centre; the book is as much about Funder’s journey of discovery as it is about those she discovered. It’s a matter of judgement, but the balance feels right. Funder’s experience of brown lino, concrete walls and nights in the beer cellars adds a depth and colour to the stories. It creates a narrative drive that makes the book flow and feel less like a parade of shocking facts. It also allows the insertion of an editorial direction; it lets Funder explain the wider political context; events of national importance or historical significance without clumsily placing them in the mouths of her interviewees.
If I do have a beef, it is that sometimes the editorialising is take too far and conclusions are set out in black an white when they might have had a stronger impact if readers had been able to figure them out for themselves.
Stasiland is as successful a collection of personal narratives as I can remember reading. The subject matter is inherently interesting and shocking; the field is largely unexplored elsewhere; the structure works well and the writing is engaging.