Are we headed back to Stasiland?

Anna Funder's Stasiland has become a classic of the literature on communist East Germany. 30 years after reunification, the book could serve as a warning for now.

Anna Funder before a surviving remnant of the Berlin Wall in 1993.
Anna Funder before a surviving remnant of the Berlin Wall in 1993.

Berlin-"I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz.....a monstrous expanse of grey concrete designed to make people feel small."

From the first page, Anna Funder's Stasiland grabs you by the collar, puts you in her shoes, and takes you through a drab, oppressive winter's day in mid-1990s East Berlin.

It's an unexpected opening for a book about the Stasi - but it perfectly sets the scene in what has become a non-fiction classic that has been translated into 18 languages and published in 25 countries. It remains on reading lists in schools and universities the world over. 

We're thrown into the life of a young Australian woman exploring former East Berlin in the years following the Wende. We're with her every step of the way as she pulls off what few authors – German or otherwise – have managed to do: shed a bright light on the myriad, pernicious ways that the East German state infiltrated and upended the lives of citizens who refused to conform to the doctrine of the ruling SED party - in a readable, elegant work of literature. 

At the pace of a slow-burning thriller, the stories of a handful of intriguing characters are revealed: from Miriam, who was caught trying to climb the Wall at 16, to Klaus, a rocker whose career was shut down by the regime. To this day, it's mind-boggling to read about the lengths the Stasi would go to monitor, control, intimidate and gaslight the "enemy within" - ordinary citizens with a conscience.

The focus is on the victims, but Funder also takes the time to meet ex-Stasi men or unrepetent characters like TV propagandist Eduard von Schnitzler (in a memorable and hilarious scene). Near the close of the book, she visits an office in Nuremburg where 40 "puzzlers" are reconstructing files shredded by the Stasi in the last days of the GDR. There, she finds out it could take 375 years for the estimated 15,000 garbage bags of paper scraps to be pieced together. In other words, many victims and their families will never know what the Stasi had on them. 

Last December Funder, who lives in Australia, revisited Stasiland and in a long eassy for Australian magazine The Monthly took stock of how Germany has processed the history of its second dictatorship in the 20th century. As the muted celebrations marking the 30 years of reunification were underway in early October, Funder talked to me on the phone from Sydney. 

Maurice Frank: Re-reading Stasiland brought back a lot of memories from East Berlin in the 1990s for me.

Anna Funder: It had this weird beauty about it for someone from the west. The decay of the decrepit buildings in a place like Prenzlauer Berg allowed for a kind of romance to take place in your mind about who had lived there and what had gone on. Before the Wall fell, from 1987-88, I had been a student at the Freie Universität. There I knew a group of writers and painters who were older than me who had come from the East. When the Wall fell and I was walking around in East Berlin and other places in the former GDR, I had my friends’ stories in my head. I also had a friend who had been part of an anti-Nazi group and was 60 years older than me, who I knew while growing up in Australia. I had her stories in my head as well. It was a very exciting time. But it depended on who you were. It was probably less exciting if you were ex-Stasi or ex-SED.

Infobox image
Anna Funder is the author of the 2002 non-fiction book Stasiland, which was awarded Britain's Samuel Johnson Prize, and the novel All that I am, which won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin fiction prize among many others. She lives in Sydney. 

You actually bothered to talk to these people. To this day a lot of foreigners and West Germans aren’t that interested in talking to East Germans about what they went through.

The central aesthetic and political preoccupation of my life is the question of how a human being can recognise and resist illegitimate power. That is obviously writ large in the history of Germany in the 20th century. It’s what keeps us safe from dictatorships. The world right now is turning massively towards authoritarian regimes directed by strongmen. The resistance against that – the David and Goliath stories, the stories of conscience, the stories of artists and thinkers – that was really very obvious in East Germany, an extreme dictatorship where you’ve got massive, total surveillance. I wanted to find the stories of people of people who resisted and the stories of people who collaborated and participated. I was interested in that element of courage and resistance. I was drawn to so-called ordinary people. I could have talked to the people that everybody knows, the civil rights activists and so on, but instead I talked to a schoolgirl, a dental hygienist, a housewife, an alcoholic rock star.

Reading Stasiland, one really feels how the GDR state was ever-present.

It was always there and that’s why it is so interesting to look at how people have dealt with it in the last 30 years. On a personal level, it’s hard to have participated in something awful or even to have stood by. I think looking at those emotions of guilt, of participation, of being a bystander, is a really important thing to do because they lead to certain kinds of denial and rewriting of history.

Germans like to talk about how successful they have been with their Vergangenheitsbewältigung (grappling with the past) with regards to the Nazi period. In your essay you’re pretty damning when it comes to our dealing with the 40 years of East German history.

I don’t think the way of dealing with the GDR and the Third Reich are directly comparable. Because I think attempting to exterminate a people is categorically a different thing to deal with. At the same time, because it happened in the same place, sometimes literally with the same people – in the same nation, effectively – comparisons have to be made and can’t be avoided. Not direct comparisons. You can’t put Auschwitz in a box and say nothing else resembles this or comes close. That Vergangenheitsbewältigung is something that Germans are, to a great extent, justifiably proud of – if you compare them to almost anybody else – the Russians, the Japanese – they haven’t done that. But the Germans only really did it from the late 1960s on. There’s a big gap, a gap of shock – there is the Trümmerwelt (world of ruins). There were material reasons, reasons of shock and need, which meant that couldn’t happen for a generation. There’s this black hole of forgetting and denial where everyone just tries to get on with things.

And my question is: is that what we have also seen with the GDR? Political prisoners, civil rights campaigners, people of conscience – people who were essentially fighting for democracy and decency – were punished by the GDR state. Though they fought for democratic values they are not rewarded or recognised for that. Democracy came, but they are not rewarded in it. Capitalist democracy compensates people with money but they aren’t given that kind of recognition. They are thrown instead onto the welfare pile with the poor, to whom they literally belong because they were denied the education and work history that the Stasi fellows had. But they deserved recognition, and in capitalism that comes with recompense. The new German state has essentially rewarded the Stasi and the SED with high pensions and very few prosecutions. Of course, lots of Stasi think of themselves as reviled and impoverished but that’s only relative to how they felt in their own regime when they were safer and richer than anybody else.

The Stasi would come over even before the Wall fell and do awful things to him and his family.

The painstaking work of piecing together shredded Stasi files 
The painstaking work of piecing together shredded Stasi files Photo: Anna Funder

You monitor events in Germany pretty closely. Are we deleting the GDR past too quickly?

I think there was definitely a push to eliminate all physical traces. The Wall came down with spectacular speed till there were hardly any bits left. On Bernauer Straße there’s a reconstructed bit of the Wall, where the past is sanitised. I think this expressed a kind of haste to put all of this behind glass, to memorialise it, concrete it over, make it into something that was not real. At the same time, though, the bell jar has been taken off East Germany. And all the perpetrators and all their victims are walking around and bumping into each other at the supermarket. As the hairy hand comes over your shoulder at the delicatessen counter to get a number, you turn around and it might be your former interrogator.

When you were promoting the German translation of Stasiland in the former East, ex-Stasi men would sit in the front row. How did it feel to be observed by the characters from your own book?

It was a combination of terror and knowing that I had made my point if the people who didn’t like what you’re saying were the correct ones.

An organisation representing the ex-Stasi took legal action against you.

They wanted to get an injunction of part of interview I did with a former Stasi man who was part of das Insiderkommittee [an association representing former Stasi] changed its name, really hilariously and with no sense of irony, to Gesellschaft zum Schutz von Bürgerrechte und Menschenwürde (Society for the Protection of Civil Rights and Human Dignity). It’s hilarious that they adopted this western human rights language as a group of former Stasi officers and sued me to shut me up. My publisher folded and deleted that paragraph which contained things that were on the public record which had already been published in Der Spiegel, things that groups of ex-Stasi were alleged to have done to civil rights activists, mostly stuff they’d done to Jürgen Fuchs [an activist who had left the GDR]. He lived in West Berlin and the Stasi would come over even before the Wall fell and do awful things to him and his family. Even in the 1990s, they would get together and do things like deliver pornography to his wife.

Do you see parallels between East Germany’s system of surveillance and what we see happening today?

I think there are many. It would take a book to describe it. If you’re coming from a world of total surveillance, it teaches you a lot about human nature. It teaches you that information is power, surveillance is power. In the essay I talk about Zersetzung [the Stasi technique of breaking people down, literally “decomposition”]. If you have control over all the information you can ruin someone psychologically by poisoning their social world and ruining their mental health, that’s what Zersetzung was: you’d gaslight them, spread rumours about their marriages, about their integrity, by breaking into their house and changing their brand of jam. It’s about changing their hold on reality. It’s not all that different from the total surveillance now, though it appears that we have given away our personal information voluntarily. In no regime ever has that amount of information just been put to benign use. East Germany was in control of that surveillance and now it’s corporatized. We’re seeing it play out in political messaging, massive disinformation campaigns. People can be very easily ruined. You see it in the kind of mob or gang mentality of cancel culture or misogynists shutting down feminists online. It’s different, but it’s very dangerous.

And now it’s not just one country with a wall around it, but the entire world….

If you were in East Germany it would have felt like the entire world. There was no way out. There was nothing you could do that they wouldn’t know about. There’s no way out of Facebook surveillance, out of electronic surveillance. And the power is centralised. It’s the way in which masses of information on people is collected, and then that power is used over people by people – because people are people and it’s going to play out in similar ways. And the resistance will be the same sorts of people saying “no”. East Germany is a kind of parable, in some way, if you like, for the misuse of power and information on the one side, and resistance to it on the other.