BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week
All Lights Out in the GDR
“Irgendwann fällt jede Mauer” (“Eventually every wall falls”)
Graffito on the Berlin Wall
In his memoir of his imprisonment by the Nazis in the Danish fortress of Breendonk (translated into English as At the Mind’s Limits, Jean Améry describes and tries to rationalise his own experiences of torture. In the course of her gripping and alarming book about the former East Germany, Anna Funder finds, in East Berlin’s Hohenschönhausen Prison for Political Prisoners, the machinery of torture used by the Stasi, presumably into the late twentieth century. “It seemed too primitive for the mid-20th century and too primitive for here. This contraption belonged further east and further back in time, in some Pythonesque sideshow of history.”
That “further east” is a telling comment, implying that torture is something Westerners associate with non-Western cultures—and yet, as Améry and Funder amply demonstrate, 20th century Europe seems to lead the field in the institutional technologies of torture. Améry asserts that he who has been tortured remains forever tortured. Funder’s Stasiland insists that a society damaged in the way the former GDR was will take an awfully long time to recover.
The collapse of the GDR in 1989, signalling the end of Eastern Bloc Communism and a drastic shift in the balance of world power, was very much presented by the Western media in large-scale terms—velvet revolutions, mass protests against and the eventual demolition of the Berlin Wall, the end of an ideology and of a society of oppression, the culmination of nearly fifty years of political secrecy and violently enacted dogma. Stasiland addresses, in various ways, all of these broad issues through their flip side, personal narratives of individual lives, revealing other orders of experience and unfamiliar levels of suffering.
Funder presents what is essentially a journalistic narrative in the style of a fictional one, so that characters and thematic threads link up to elaborate deeper symbolic significances. Her ostensible subjects, the Stasi (Staatssicherheit, the State Security or Secret Police) and its effects on and legacies for the lives of East German people, expand into a broader discussion of how people organise their lives under intolerable conditions, how such conditions arose in the wake of the second world war, and how the last decade of a newly unified Germany has responded to these historical and contemporary realities.
The central problem that Funder explores is rooted in a statistic mentioned early in the book: “In the GDR, there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens.” This means an informer for every family, and an unthinkable post-liberation situation in which one in six people may be the one who informed on you. Furthermore, the Stasi kept files on approximately six million people, a third of the country’s population.
The Stasi’s method of imposing its ideology was to aim at co-opting everybody into its own network, so that there could be nothing outside, a policy excluding the possibility of disagreement. Funder observes drily that the Stasi attained such a level of detail in the information it accumulated about the people of the GDR, that it failed to predict the 1989 revolution, and thus its own and its country’s consequent demise.
The world Funder enters as an investigative journalist is the post-1989 result of this level of detailed surveillance. It’s also a world of bizarre anachronism, difficult to locate in terms of contemporary realities. Perhaps this is easiest exemplified in the gender divide that Funder alludes to and illustrates. The Stasi were nearly all men, and their victims, in Funder’s representative sample, largely women. “We pass a toilet with ‘H’ for Herren on it”, she writes: “Women couldn’t get past Colonel rank and there were only three of them anyway. This was a Männerklub.” The world of this ‘Man’s Club’ is also, understandably, threatening, and Funder’s writing captures well the atmosphere of residual menace experienced by a young female journalist encountering patriarchal dinosaurs.
But there are moments of grim comedy too (“Pythonesque” is Funder’s own word, quoted above), not least the revelation of the Stasi’s ludicrous plans to invade West Germany, which reveal the impossibility of their imagining a world other than the one they created:
The plans are methodical. They include the division of the ‘new territory’ into Stasi branch offices, and figures for exactly how many Stasi men should be assigned to each. And there’s a medal, cast in bronze, silver and gold by order of Honecker [the political leader of the GDR], to be awarded, after successful invasion, for ‘Courage in the Face of the Western Enemy’. No-one in the West had imagined the extent of the Stasi’s ambitions.
Funder’s narrative is held together by the personal stories she recounts, either those of the former Stasi men she interviews, or those gradually revealed by the women she befriends. As an Australian of Danish descent, she has the cultural outsider’s gift for the genuinely naïve response that enables levels of confidence unattainable to the insider, particularly the insider of this still-paranoid culture. The narratives of Miriam, Frau Paul and other women whose lives were devastated by the Stasi make chilling reading, and deserve to speak for themselves, in much the same way as the narratives told by the children transported out of Germany and Austria in 1938-39 on the Kindertransport can’t really be adequately glossed, but demand to be heard in their entirety.
Stasiland offers a careful but powerful analysis of what went wrong in East Germany after 1945, and how it affected the people Funder interviews. It is an important book, offering no simple solutions or easy generalisations, but reminding us of both the dangers of forgetting and the horrors of remembering—as Funder asks in relation to another leader of Germany, “To remember or forget—which is healthier? To demolish or fence it off? To dig it up or leave it in the ground?”