Friday, October 12, 2018

A review of Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall

Those who read this blog regularly probably know that I'm getting old.  I was born in 1972 and grew up when the Soviet Union and all of its satellite nations were still in existence.  I remember very distinctly writing a report about a divided Germany when I was in the sixth grade.  At the time, I had no idea that Germany was split into two.  I think I may have even chosen to write about Germany because I had a fellow military brat friend who was born in Landstuhl.  Germany had seemed exotic to me, since I was born in boring old Hampton, Virginia, just about an hour from where we were attending school.

I remember learning about East and West Germany and how East Germany, aka the German Democratic Republic, was a communist state.  It was my first introduction to the concept of totalitarian regimes.  As I grew older, I became more and more fascinated by the Iron Curtain and how Russia was pretty much keeping millions of people separated from the rest of the world behind fortified borders guarded by dogs and men with weapons. I'd watch the Olympics and see athletes from those forbidden countries excelling in sports and bringing home medals.  But unlike athletes from the so-called "free world", they weren't necessarily allowed to make a lot of money off of their athletic prowess.

Most interesting to me was the concept of East and West Berlin.  The city of Berlin, which I visited for the first time last December, was once split by a massive wall, built in 1961 and torn down in 1989.  The way was full of booby traps and was watched over by guard dogs and men with machine guns.  Anyone who tried to escape could be killed or arrested and sent to prison.  The western side of Berlin was as western as the rest of West Germany was.  The eastern side, hidden from the west, was a communist "paradise" that many people wanted to escape.

I don't remember where I saw it, but I was recently reading something-- an article or maybe even a book-- that mentioned Anna Funder's excellent 2003 book, Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall.  (ETA: It was mentioned in Jon Ronson's book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, which I recently read and reviewed.)  Although the book has been out for years and won major awards, including Britain's Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, somehow I missed hearing about it until just recently.  I just finished reading Funder's book this morning and I'm still kind of blown away by the stories within it.

Funder, an Australian who speaks German, was working at a television station in Berlin in the 1990s when she became interested in the Stasi, East Germany's brutal ministry of state security.  Her co-workers, who were not from the East, maintained that "Ossis" (a nickname for East Germans) were weak and stupid because they tolerated the regime.  Funder was curious enough to find out for herself what happened.  She placed an ad in a newspaper, asking for members of the defunct Stasi to speak to her about their experiences.  The end result is a marvelous book that offers a glimpse into what must have been both a stifling and terrifying existence.

Funder learned that the Stasi pried into everyone's lives.  They had people all over East Germany, ordinary folks, who were tasked with informing on their neighbors.  It was a nation of 17 million people, but those people were all spying on each other-- as many as one in every six and a half people was either a pair or unpaid spy for the Stasi.  Former Stasi men were surprisingly willing to divulge what went on during East Germany's heyday.  Some of the stories are funny, some are shocking, and some are heartbreaking.  Most are exciting in one way or another.

Funder writes of one man who, when he was 21 years old, was tasked with painting the line where the Berlin Wall would eventually go.  Because he was illegitimate, he was especially primed for work in the Stasi and he rose to somewhat high ranks until things went awry.  The man eventually lost his job and, temporarily, his marriage to a woman of whom the Stasi did not approve.  On his last day in his office, he stole a plastic plate that was hanging on the office wall.  It commemorated a third prize entry in a contest and was cheap and tawdry, but its absence was noted.  Years later, the man was on television and the plate was spotted by former Stasi men, who came to retrieve it.  The story that follows is both hilarious in its example just how anal retentive Germans can be and horrifying that they scrutinized everything so closely, even years later.

Funder writes of an ordinary woman whose son was born breech and, in the process of his difficult birth, ruptured his diaphragm.  He failed to thrive and was vomiting blood every time he tried to eat.  The physicians in East Berlin were unable to determine what was wrong with him and he was starting to die.  Doctors in West Berlin were able to save him before the Wall was erected, but he was basically trapped there for five years while his parents remained in the East.  For the crime of trying to escape to the west to see their son, the parents were arrested and sent to a terrifying prison for a couple of years where inmates were tortured and interrogated.  All this because they wanted to see their son, who was trapped in a hospital in West Germany.  When they finally saw him again, he was five years old and had no concept of what parents are.

The Stasi thought nothing of meddling in anyone's private affairs and they had files on everyone.  Anyone who wanted to achieve any kind of success or notoriety had to do so with the state's blessing.  And all success came at a price.  The Stasi would force friends and family members to betray each other.  Those who didn't comply would pay dearly.  Funder writes about how she visited Gedenkstaette Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen, a museum that used to be a Soviet run East German prison in Berlin.  I'm putting it on my short list of places to see if and when we visit Berlin again.

I was seventeen years old when the GDR ceased to exist.  Bill was actually living in Germany at the time and has guarded the German border with the Czech Republic.  In 1995, I moved to Armenia, which is a former Soviet Republic.  I grew up with this reality and am fascinated by it, even though it all fell apart between 1989 and 1991.  Weirdly enough, it doesn't seem like it was that long ago, although I've now lived over half my life without the Iron Curtain.  It seems crazy to me that I have adult friends who have no memory of that time.  I remember so well the threat of communism and how everyone used to talk about the "red button" that would lead to nuclear war with Russia.  I suppose that button is still a threat, but now the enemies are more complex.

Stasiland is very well-written and researched, and it really held my attention.  I was sorry when I finished it because it's probably one of the best books I've read in a long time.  Funder really got to know the people involved and kept in touch with some of her subjects.  Reading her account of East Germany makes me want to spend some time there and, perhaps, see some museums.  If this is a subject that interests you, I would highly recommend Funder's book.  It's very intriguing.



2 comments:

  1. I used to believe that the "Iron Curtain" was a literal curtain made of iron that separated the areas sontrolled by the communist regime of Soviets. i suppose the Berlin Wall wasn't too much unlike a literal Iron Curtain.

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    1. Except it just divided one city... I know a couple of people who lived in Berlin when it was split. It must have been a very strange experience.

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