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.
on 27 November 2009
Some of the reviews written above complain or find fault with Ms. Funders interjections or opinions during the course of her conversations with the people she meets yet I believe this adds very much to the charm and integrity of her account. She is reacting to the stories of people who lived under a regime that would have seemed incomprehensible to a girl born on the other side of the world (Australia, 1966) when the Wall had already been in existence for five years. It could have been something happening on another planet. It is significant, I think, that Ms. Funders never actually saw the Wall. It was gone by the time she got to Berlin. But the legacy of the Wall lived on in the damage it had done to the people imprisoned behind it and this is what her book is about. It is not a scholarly work with footnotes, nor is it a series of interviews conducted in English with an (unacknowledged) interpreter doing the donkey work which is what we have come to expect from our television superstars. This is not Gitta Sereny interviewing concentration camp commanders, nor even Hannah Arendt commenting on the 'banality of evil' as she witnesses the trial of Adolf Eichmann. No, this is a very different thing altogether. This is a young Australian woman of Danish descent (she thought that was close enough to "pass" as German, but it turned out it wasn't) who decided to study German as a kid to the bewilderment of her family. She liked the weird agglomerations of the language that made nuanced new words. She goes to Berlin and starts to meet people who lived under the DDR regime, already 7 years defunct by the time she gets there. That's where the stories come from. So she's judgemental. Why not? She can hardly believe what she is hearing. This is late 20th Century Alice in Stasiland -- just as weird as the Lewis Carroll original: there is no unemployment even if you are unemployed, this is a multi-party state even if there is only one party, the Wall protects you even if we shoot you for trying to leave. Something is seriously askew here. Objectivity in these circumstances would have led to the following "balanced" report from Berlin in former times: 'Obviously the Jews must be doing something deeply subversive, otherwise Herr Hitler wouldn't be so angry with them'. Indubitably. In fact, I find several parallels with this occasionally poetic (very rarely over-written) account of Ms. Funder with that of the "Berlin Stories" of Christopher Isherwood written from the same city during the early 1930s when the Nazis were just coming to power. In the same way as Isherwood she captures the feeling and mood of the city, the swampy setting, the wide grey streets, the bustling trams, the cavernous apartments with brown linoleum, the trees, the parks, the drunks, the feverish gaiety, the underlying gloom. Ms. Funder gives us a personal (and why not?) snapshot of a certain time and place just as Isherwood -- 'I am a camera' -- did for another period in the history of this city.
on 24 June 2004
The former GDR is perhaps still to close to be history, and there doesn't seem to be many books out there on the subject. Anna Funder's "Stasiland" fills that gap, and does so beautifully. She evokes a lost country, where the grotesquely overfed intelligence service had spilled out into all areas of society. In the end, Stasi controlled - and in many cases ruined - the lives of just about everyone in the GDR.
The first chapter paints a brilliant (and rather funny!) picture of the dark absurdity of a dictatorship. It is amazing how bogged down in detail, how ridiculously self-important it became. The fake moustaches, the cameras hidden in flowery granny handbags seem to come straight of "The Avengers". But soon, the tone turns sombre, as we begin to grasp how this "rule of Marxisten-Senilisten" drained joy and choice out of people's life. I had to keep reminding myself that this is fact, not fiction, as the drama and poignancy builds like a novel.
The whole account is deeply personal. Funder alternates the analysis of her investigations with descriptions of her own film noir-ish life in Berliner pubs and stripped apartments. It appears that she combines her exploratory drive with great poetry and a real knack for story-telling: her language is always lyrical and atmospheric, creating a real sense of time and place. Bridging the gap between story-telling and journalism, Anna Funder has written a unique and beautiful book.
on 26 August 2003
I read this book in order to help me gain a knowledge of life in Cold War East Germany. The book is a fascinating insight into the way the Stasi (State Secret police) affected everyone's lives. Citizens were manipulated into helping the Stasi, but it had many willing members too. The book follows the author as she meets those who have been affected by the Stasi. One woman's husband was taken away and presumably murdered for seemingly acting against the state and there are examples of those who were high-powered members of the Stasi who found it difficult to adjust following the Wall's collapse. Definitely recommended as the book is fascinating, though to be honest I didn't find it that useful as a history resource. An interesting read.
on 17 November 2011
I am one of very few westerners who lived and worked in the GDR (for two years from 1979) and I read this book in a spirit of curiosity: how on earth could an Australian arrive at any understanding of the place, especially since she is approaching it retrospectively, after the GDR ceased to exist? No doubt this book is a creditable piece of investigative journalism but there are problems.
Her agenda is to tell the stories of people who resisted the regime and suffered at the hands of the state security. This she does with sensitivity and in great detail and I do not doubt what she relates. But the impression created is that it was not possible to live in the GDR without experiencing this stress and hardship. This is where I regret very much that she had not herself lived there and experienced the good and ordinary things which could provide a counterbalance to the stories of pain she reports: those long tracts of life that consist simply of normality, of outings, get-togethers with family and friends, afternoons of leisure and idleness, playing sport, making music, the tedium of uninspiring workdays, the small but real everyday freedoms of a society without the pressures of the drive to make profits. To tell a story of unbroken oppression is to play to a western prejudice. In this I feel for my friends, former citizens of the GDR, who are constantly patronised by western attitudes which hold that, in a state where the Stasi was so active, people can have had no life worth living. Funder's book compounds this offence.
I found that living on the eastern side of the Wall threw into relief the ideological differences between the two systems which it divided. It was no longer possible to assume one's own thinking, as a product of the West, was in any sense unbiassed or neutral. Again Funder could have benefitted from this experience of relativity: her unspoken assumption is that the Federal Republic/the West has somehow 'got it right' and offers a viable measure against which the failures of the GDR can be assessed. This is to neglect the widespread idealism which helped to motivate the foundation and development of the GDR, an account of which would require much more historical analysis than Funder provides, her nods towards historical context being all too perfunctory and, perhaps, a little misleading: she conveys a sense that the Federal Republic did more to denazify than the GDR whereas in fact the opposite was the case.
It troubles me that responses to this book indicate that readers think they are being given 'the full story' or 'the truth' about the GDR when in fact what they are reading is a highly selective piece of journalism which concentrates on only the negative aspects.
on 10 January 2011
A few years ago I saw 'Goodbye Lenin!' and was fascinated by the idea of life in the GDR. This was further cemented by seeing 'The Lives of Others', so I chose this book hoping for some greater insight to life in East Germany during this time. Sadly, this book disappointed on many levels.
Anna Funder is an Australian who lived and worked in East Berlin some six or so years after the Wall fell.
She used this times as an opportunity to interview Ex-Stasi members and their victims in order to understand their lives, and bring out the truth that the West apparently wanted to ignore. The stories she uncovers are by turns shocking and affecting, and the bravery of some of those people is truly humbling.
However, these stories are set against some very contrived writing about clouds, drunkards, and her 'feelings'. One gets the feeling Funder tries to imbue the mundane with a sense of divinity and purpose that does not really exist. She does, as previous reviewers state, talk far too much about herself, the condition of her lino flooring, and other such trivial observations, you wonder what other more interesting stories were lost in editing so we could hear Funders' rambling.
All in all I think the people in this book could have been served better . Their stories are astonishing, and I feel Funder would have made a better book had she listened more, analyzed a little less, and stopped obsessing over linoleum.
(Readers who seek to know more about life under a repressive Socialist regime would be better off reading 'Nothing to Envy' by Barbara Demick.)
on 7 November 2004
Having researched the collapse of Communism in a former Warswaw Pact state for an undergraduate dissertation a decade ago, I was instantly drawn to this account. It is not, and nor does it claim to be, a scholarly text. Instead it is an absorbing piece of investigative journalism, chronicling the lives of East Germans (including a number of ex-Stasi) during an extraordinary period of history. It is a time when people acknowledge (at least in public) certain fictions as fact. For example, the GDR was a multi-party democracy and that East Germans were not in any way responsible for the holocaust.
As a consequence, in order to remain sane, many people withdrew into an 'internal immigration' in order to keep something of themselves from the authorities. The coping mechanisms, and justificiations, employed by the central characters in this book are memorably drawn out by Funder. It is a time of black humour, where the landlady Julia closes her phone conversations to her Italian boyfriend with "Night All" 'to the others listening in', and rock star Klaus shouts to his adoring audience "There are people in this room reporting on us".
'Stasiland' is also an account of how the the central characters have adapted following the collapse of the wall. Unsurprisingly, it is often the watchers rather than the watched who have thrived - as telemarketeers, real estate agents and insurers. They are 'schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their own self interest'. The case of Herr Bock, who recruited informers in the former GDR and is used post-1989 by West German companies to acquire state assets at bargain basement prices, is partcularly revelatory - and distasteful. It is in this section that the author's intrusion, as an informed commentator, adds to the text:
'Terrific. Here he [Bock] is once getting the trust of his people and selling them cheap'.
This 'Stasiland' at its best: Funder interacting with the interviewee, whilst involving the reader in her thoughts and reactions to the conversation.
However, there are times when her presence is less insightful, obstructing the flow of the narrative. Did we need the account with the tramps (one of them given the moniker 'Professor Mushroom') in the park? Or the accounts of the beautiful women who look at her in the train or at the coffee stall? Worst of all is the scene where the author goes swimming and is disturbed to find that there are no lanes in the pool, no order. People criss-cross and show little consideration for each other. Is this a metaphor for the new capitalist Germany, as Funder appears to be implying? She is surprised that this pool, like almost every other swimming pool in the world, has specific hours for swimming in lanes, for women and children, for 'bathing' etc etc.
'So this is orderly chaos'.
No, it is not. It is the way public swimming pools *work*, attending to the diverse needs of their local communities - be they in Beijing or Blyth.
However, such passages, though highly irritating, arethe exception. Generally, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in the social history of the twentieth centurys 'most surveilled' state. In these times of a global War on the Terror and proposals in the UK for a national identity card, it may even become required reading.
on 3 December 2014
A book that is easy to read and difficult to put down. Anna Funder succeeds in making non-fiction read like a best seller about a dystopian society. I had to keep reminding myself that the book is about real people and real events and not Orwell nor Zamyatin characters. Some stories seem so preposterous that they must be made up: Stasi disguises of wigs and moustaches; a guard dog that does not guard; a spy who looks obviously like a spy. At times it reads like a spoof of a totalitarian system.
This was real life; and not always bad. There was full employment (unless you officially did not exist), everyone had a home (even if it was bugged), you had enough to survive. Rock groups were the idols of the music scene. Spotify has albums of Ost Rock and they do feature the rock band named in the book.
East Germany is a country filled with paranoia, it knows not who to trust and consequently trusts no one; often with horrendous consequences.
Stasiland fills your head with images of concrete grey Plattenbau and brown linoleum. Plattenbau can be seen on the way from Central Berlin to Schönfeld airport. Stark, grey concrete tower blocks, a relic of a different age. East Germany is still there to be seen.
Anna Funder has written a very personal account of former East Germany. How much it represents most lives is difficult to tell, but evidence of the régime and its philosophy is still seen in modern Germany.
on 6 August 2016
I think the subject matter is absolutely fascinating, but I was so disappointed with this book. Funder does actually write quite well and even brings humour into the tragedy, eg Von Schnitzler's ludicrous behaviour when interviewed. However, instead of focusing on the stories themselves, she devotes far too much time talking drivel about her own process as a journalist (eg the buses and trains she got, how she advertised for Stasi men in a newspaper, her apartment). The result is superficial, shallow, boring and unrewarding. I did not want to read Funder's memoir and nothing in the title or blurb indicated that this was Funder's memoir. I wanted to read about the lives of the East Germans themselves in what was at that time probably the closest thing to a true Orwellian police state ever realised. I felt frustrated because I didn't learn enough about the lives of the East Germans themselves, and don't care about Funder's life. This topic deserved a much better book. I wonder whether that book should have been written by an East German who lived under the regime rather than an Australian.
I do have to say, the reviews and blurbs on the cover of the book are just daft. The book is not "a masterpiece"; it is not "a contemporary classic"; it is not "brilliant", and I did not see anything in the book which would justify describing Funder's search as "passionate". Utter drivel.
on 26 September 2006
I found the book ultimately disappointing - the author spends far too much time and energy on her opinions and feelings and a lot of the situations she describes feel contrived and, in some a few cases, outright fiction. I would have preferred a more straightforwardly factual account, with less of Funder's stylistic experimentation. The words of her interviewees, stark and real, paint a far more vivid picture than she ever could.