Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Notes: Stasiland by Anna Funder

The collapse of The Soviet Block of Eastern European Marxist-Leninist states was probably the most major geo-political shift in my lifetime. Such realignments in world politics maybe only occur once or twice a century, and to have watched the process of the decline and fall of Stalin's Empire as a teenager was thrilling. It was so intriguing in fact, that I went on to study it at University in the mid-90s. From that tumultuous historical period there is an image which seems to summarise so much of what occurred - which is of Berliner's smashing down the Berlin Wall, which had divided their city into Capitalist and Communist zones since 1961.

This revolution was observed by the Australian journalist Anna Funder who had lived in Berlin for several years. While the collapse of the wall meant freedom for many on the GDR, looking eastwards Funder was intrigued by what the GDR had meant and set out to explore it. She did this during a period in which there was much pressure to airbrush the GDR from history in a mass exercise in forgetting which Funder likens to the de-Nazification programme of the late 40s. The wall itself she notes is a symbol of this, which apart from one rebuilt 'museum' section has been completely hidden and it is now impossible to trace much of its route without a map.

Funder's exploration of life in the East German state focussed on the Stasi, the men from the Ministry of State Security whose grip on the lives of ordinary East Germans was almost absolute. In her travels and interviews she met many victims of Stasi persecution, those kept apart from loved ones over the wall, those who tried to escape and became enemies of the State, those denied careers and jobs because of their unfortunate capacity for independent thought, those who were tortured, or who lost loved ones to prison brutality. The stories are moving, chilling, and cripplingly sad, especially as the psychological torture of victims continues. She also talks to those who are struggling not to be forgotten in the new Germany which seemed too busy with the massive process of reunification to really bother with their calls for justice, or even simply for access to Stasi files to find out what really happened to their husbands, brothers, children..

While that alone would have made an interesting book, Funder went further. In the years after German reunification, she placed adverts in the press asking former Stasi men to come and speak to her. Maybe surprisingly many of them responded to her request. They proved to be a varied and complex group of old men. Some were still ideologically committed, militant in their Stalinism, and unrepentant about Stasi crimes, which they still defended in the old redundant language of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat to seize power and defend the constructing of a perfect workers state from constant infiltration of western bourgeoise and fascist ideas, and products. Old propogandists like Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler are pictured in their East Berlin apartments, still angrily denouncing the west, beneath their busts of Marx and Stalin. Others, though were less nostalgic for the old days, and looked back regretfully on mistakes made. One for instance has nothing but contempt for the society which painted and decorated its public buildings - but only on the first floor which Erich Honecker could see from his car window - but which further up rotted and decayed; the society in which the state set impossible agricultural targets, which they knew farms could never meet, but then gave out medals to those who fabricated results most extravagantly. 

Funder is a very sensitive writer, who embeds the stories she tells and observations she offers inside some finely crafted sentences. She is able to capture, quite powerfully, the relentless loss of hope which so many experienced at the hands of the Stasi; as well as so many of the absurdities of the East German state system - which makes for compelling reading. Finally she probes at the growing movement of GDR nostalgia from younger people, who feel trapped between the gross disparities of wealth which occur under capitalism, and the gross loss of freedom and abuses of power which seem to be the inevitable outcome of attempts at communism.

I hope one day to visit Berlin. If I manage to do that, Funder's book will immeasurably enhance the experience. I will look for example for the old Stasi headquarters, and note how this most feared building became almost overnight, a museum. I could search for where the shredded Stasi files are being painstakingly stitched back together so that relatives can find out what actually happened to their family members who died in custody. Or hunt for where the people she interviewed tried to climb the wall, and make their way to freedom, where the killing zones, and gun-emplacements were.

This is a tremendous read, very informative, and moving with it too. It is a telling portrait of people whose stories and lives have too often been forgotten. 

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