This week’s selection for Book of the Week is not written by a professional historian, but rather by an Australian journalist. So in one sense — the academic one — you might call it lighter reading, but it’s certainly heavy in the emotional sense.
Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [deutsch]) tells the stories of real people whose lives were very much defined by the existence of the Berlin Wall and the East German communist dictatorship (the GDR from here on out): not just the regime’s victims, but also its supporters and still-proud employees.
From the dates she gives, it appears Funder gathered most of her interview material while living in Germany in 1996, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even now, in 2009, dealing with the recent German communist past is a very touchy issue (not to mention the National Socialist past). You can imagine how much more difficult it was in 1996 while Funder visited the country.
I believe her book is fairly unique in the depth it provides to multiple individual stories, some of which are brutally painful. Several individual autobiographies exist — I think of those that I have read, such as Fremd im eigenen Haus and Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1, plus one that I have in my possession and hope to read soon, Sie nahmen mir nicht nur die Freiheit –, but I’m not currently aware of any other instance where a print journalist has taken it upon him/herself to seek out and interview multiple persons affected by German communism. I stress print because there definitely are some German television documentaries dedicated to this topic.
Even more extraordinary is the fact that it was left to a “western” journalist, Ms. Funder, to publish such a book. But enough of the meta information about Stasiland: let’s dive into it contents.
As already mentioned, the book tells some extraordinarily painful stories. One of the subjects, Miriam (I presume most names in the book are not real), performed what we might be tempted to call “harmless agitation” against the regime as early as 1968, the year of the “Prague Spring” in neighboring Czechoslovakia. She and a friend distributed leaflets and were caught in the act. After spending time in jail (during which she was subjected to 11 days of sleep deprivation), she decided upon her release to flee the country. She failed in her attempt at freedom, served out a one-and-a-half year sentence and was forever thereafter blacklisted, making it difficult to find employment. I don’t want to give away all of Miriam’s story here, because I would rather you read about it in the book. I will only say that the bare facts which I’ve just told you about her are only the beginning — there is worse yet to come.
Then there is Frau Paul. Hers is the story which brought me to tears. It involves her young, ill son, from whom she was separated. No details here: read the book.
Miriam and Frau Paul are a few of the victims whose stories Funder tells. Funder herself does not stand by as a disinterested observer. Not only is Stasiland not a history book, it is also not simply a journalist’s account of interviews. Funder chooses to strongly assert the first person throughout the book and to weave the individual stories together with her own. She writes about her beer consumption, her impressions of some of her co-workers, her dying mother, her own emotions and reactions to the stories she hears. This will disturb those who are looking for some kind of purely objective recitation of the deeds done to and by people in the GDR. I found her personal touch rather refreshing and noticed that I was engaging with Funder herself throughout the book, which in fact served to increase my interest.
I’ve yet to specifically mention any of her stories of those from the “other side”: those working for the GDR regime. Funder does something which rather shocks her (west) German co-workers: she puts an ad in the paper asking for former Stasi officers to call her for anonymous interviews. A handful comply. She interviews Herr Winz from Stasi counter-espionage, who gives her a copy of the Communist Manifesto as a gift. Then there is Herr Christian, who used to keep a close eye on motorists stopping at rest stops to see if they might be preparing for an illegal border crossing (there were even cameras in the gas pumps). But for shear wackiness and dedication to his old regime and his friend Erich Mielke, Herr von Schnitzler stands out as the interviewee most likely to remembered. I refer you to the book so that you may enjoy Herr von Schnitzler’s rants.
I usually like to include a quote from the books that I feature in the Book of the Week series. Here’s one I underlined as soon as I read it. It quotes Frau Paul, whom I alluded to earlier. Anna Funder remarked to her that surely a wall (the Wall) could not be resurrected. Frau Paul:
“Who would have thought that a wall could be built!” she says. “That was also impossible! And who would have thought at the end that it might ever fall! That was also impossible!”
The two photos used in this article show Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. They both come from flickr user bruchez, who has kindly offered them under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The recommended attributions for these photos are as follows: