Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall

Anna Funder

Granta 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
In Stasiland Australian expatriate Anna Funder recounts her experiences, between 1995 and 2000, trying to understand the history of the German Democratic Republic as a police state, talking to both its victims and those who implemented it. Her focus is on their lives in East Germany, but she also touches on how they have coped since the fall of the Wall and the unification of Germany.

Three figures dominate. Miriam's small-scale teenage activism led to an attempt to escape over the Wall, on-going persecution as a dissident, and the unexplained death of her husband in custody. Frau Paul, separated from a baby getting medical care in the West, was involved with a tunnel escape and then imprisoned. And Anna's landlady Julia had the misfortune to pick up an Italian boyfriend: her refusal to collaborate with the Stasi then led to the curtailment of her career options.

On the other side, Anna talks to von Schnitzler, who compèred the state's "Black Channel" propaganda channel, Herr Bock, who recruited informers, Herr Bohnsack from the overseas espionage unit, who has struggled to be reaccepted in his local pub, and a range of other Stasi figures. The figure whose story is given in most detail, perhaps because he is the most sympathetic, is Hagen Koch, who as a fresh Stasi recruit walked the streets of Berlin in 1961, marking out what would be the route of the Wall, and who now attempts to preserve its history.

Anna's personal responses to the people she talks to, and their stories, are central to her account. And much of Stasiland is autobiography: "I've dragged my mattress into the living room, to be closer to the heater. Every evening I watch television until I fall asleep." Some of this provides background and context: her West German colleagues' reaction to her project, a visit to the puzzlers who are trying to put together documents shredded by the Stasi at the last moment, and so forth.

Stasiland makes no attempt, or pretence, at a rounded portrait of the German Democratic Republic. The people Anna talks to are almost all either clear-cut victims of the regime or relatively high-level Stasi personnel. Perhaps the one exception is Klaus Renft, the "bad boy of East German rock'n'roll", who says "I'm not that interested. I didn't let them get to me." Missing are the perspectives of more ordinary citizens — many of them also informers — and any feel for the more mundane effects of surveillance.

Overall, Stasiland offers an engaging introduction to East Germany as a police state, at least for anyone who finds Anna Funder a comfortable host and guide: to me she came across as curious, open-minded, and aware of her own limitations, so I really enjoyed the stories she uncovers and tells.

January 2018

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%T Stasiland
%S Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall
%A Funder, Anna
%I Granta
%D 2003
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1862076553
%P 288pp