Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stasiland by Anna Funder

Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall
by Anna Funder

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was only six years old. I remember very little about it happening — bits of news stories, our teacher mentioning it in class — and the next year, I knew a girl who had a piece of the Wall because her father had been stationed in Germany with the Air Force. In history classes over the years, we only ever made it as far as Watergate, so I didn't know a great deal about the rise and fall of Communist Germany going into Stasiland. What made me pick up the book was my friend, Karo.

Not to speak on her behalf, but Karo is a longtime friend of mine who was seven and living in East Germany when the Wall came down. She doesn't recall a lot about those days, and understandably, it's a difficult subject for her family members. Because I find that existence an interesting thing about her — being the age that I am and having always lived in America, one doesn't usually have too many German friends — I wanted to better understand it. Anna Funder's Stasiland makes for a good introduction.

The book is not exactly a history book, as it is just as much about Funder's process of interviewing people, and her living in Germany for a time. Though she grew up in Australia, she wanted to learn German because she found it to be a beautiful and strange language — "I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together." In 1994, while visiting the Stasi museum in Leipzig (a building which used to be the Ministry of State Security), Funder speaks with the museum director, Frau Hollitzer.

Later, Frau Hollitzer told me about Miriam, a young woman whose husband had died in a Stasi remand cell nearby. It was rumoured the Stasi orchestrated the funeral, to the point of substituting an empty coffin for a full one, and cremating the body to destroy any evidence of the cause of death. I imagined paid-off pallbearers pretending to struggle under the weight of an empty coffin, or perhaps genuinely struggling beneath a coffin filled with eighty kilos of old newspapers and stones. I imagined not knowing whether your husband hanged himself, or whether someone you now pass on the street killed him. I thought I would like to speak to Miriam, before my imaginings set like false memories.

I went home to Australia, but now I am back in Berlin. I could not get Miriam's story, the strange secondhand tale of a woman I had never met, out of my head. I found a part-time job in television and set about looking for some of the stories from this land gone wrong.

While she begins her research by interviewng people who suffered at the hands (silent or otherwise) of the Stasi, it occurs to her to ask questions of former Stasi officers themselves. She contacts them through, of all things, a newspaper ad. The results are mixed, as far as the intentions of these former officers go, but all of them leave her feeling unsettled. The men are all eager to show off the various ways they were "right" in doing whatever they did.

"What is it you do now, Herr Bock?"

"I am a business adviser."

I don't say anything.

"You look surprised," he says. "You are wondering what I could possibly know about business."

"Yes, I am."

"I work for West German firms who come here to buy up East German assets. I mediate between them and the East Germans, because the westerners don't speak their language. The easterners are wary because of their fancy clothes, their Mercedes Benzes, and so on."

Terrific. Here he is once more getting the trust of his people and selling them cheap. Stasi men are by and large less affected by the unemployment that has consumed East Germany since the Wall came down. Many of them have found work in insurance, telemarketing and real estate. None of these businesses existed in the GDR. But the Stasi were, in effect, trained for them, schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their own self interest.

Stasi who tried to leave the service received no special treatment, sometimes even after Germany began the reunification process. Several chapters are dedicated to Herr Koch, a man whose father also worked for the Stasi. It is a lengthy, complex, and at times absurd story — funny in that way that distance and time allow. There's too much to properly summarize here, but it's definitely one of the most interesting portions of the book.

Also complex, yet even more heartbreaking, is the story of Frau Paul, separated by the wall from her infant son, Torsten. Because of medical problems immediately after his birth, Torsten was sent to West Berlin, where the hospital there could better treat him. She and her husband were denied passage to see him, and when they planned to sneak across the border, they were imprisoned.

"This is where I was brought," she said [of Hohenschönhausen]. "I had no idea where I was. For all I knew, I could have been taken from Rostock to any place in the GDR. I certainly didn't know I was right in the heart of Berlin." The paddy wagon and the truck bay were designed so that the prisoners could be let out one at a time, and never see each other, or day light, or a street, or the entrance to the building.
It is not the first time Frau Paul has been back, but I don't imagine this is easy for her. I know there are places that I don't visit, some even that I prefer not to drive past, where bad things have happened. But here she is in the place that broke her, and she is telling me about it.

Frau Paul and her husband are not reunited with their son until he is nearly five years old.

The urge to forget, to not "drive past" the reminders of the GDR remains an understandable yet frustrating fact of life in the area. This is very, very recent history, yet little of the physical wall remains, and the blank spots are barely noted as having once been anything but what they presently are. At the time Funder was gathering information for Stasiland, less than a decade had passed, and the book was originally released in 2002. (Why it took until 2011 to be released in the US, I don't know.)

Some, like Frau Paul are involved in museum-like preservation projects of certain buildings, so that it is not as easy to forget what happened. With the people who were directly involved, Funder notes how many "different kinds of conscience there are." While some want to erase the memories, others swing the opposite direction and fervently obsess over the details. What went wrong when?

Funder does not claim to offer a full history or even necessarily a balanced one, apart from interviewing people who came from different sides. The subtitle of Stasiland — "Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall" — is an important distinction. These are individual stories. To encompass everyone, I imagine, would be impossible.

The book is also a bit like memoir in that Funder is a character in her own work. Her experience as an outsider trying to understand is the reader's way in as well. I won't pretend to know the accuracy in her observations, nor can I personally attest to the stories she hears. When dealing with a period of time where information was a commodity, one does have to wonder, especially with the Stasi men, what (if any) underlying motivations are at play. I don't know. I can only take them at their word.

I do think, however, that Stasiland is a valuable documentation of East Germany and its lasting effects. We, as humans, are often not very good at learning from our own history, but I'm not one of those who thinks it's hopeless to try. The more opportunity we have to learn from, and therefore not repeat, the more deplorable things we have done, the better. Though Stasiland's purpose is not a grand manifesto, it is an introduction. It is there to bear witness. By bearing witness, we begin.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

ETA: Karo herself tried to comment on this post, but Blogger kept eating the comment, so I'll just add her thoughts myself here:

"Wonderful review, I really have to read that book now. I had no idea Funder was Australian... I does make a lot of sense to see the whole thing through the eyes of many different people. Things changed so unbelievably fast - one day people were protesting, the next they were on their way to the West for the first time, and a few months later we were all West Germans. It must have been incredibly scary for most people to have their country erased from history at such a speed, no matter how horrible a system it was. It does feel like all that remains are stories. Literature took its time, but I would say it plays a major, if not the biggest, part in coming to terms with GDR history now. There's so much catching up to do for me, and how strange that it will be mainly through literature, while my own family was a part of it all. Lots of food for thought. I'll keep you posted x"

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