Book Review: Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

Early into reading Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, I came across a passage that made me think, “That is truly Kafkaesque.” For some reason, that sent my mind on a digression into the difference between something being Kafkaesque and something being Orwellian. While I eventually sorted it out in my own mind, it turns out that in the overall context of the book, it wasn’t a key issue. Put simply, Funder’s discussions with people who lived through the East German experience leave no doubt it was both.

Kafkaesque? In East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or “GDR”), it was entirely legal to file an application to leave the country and live elsewhere. Of course, if you applied to leave you were suspected of wanting to leave. Wanting to leave was the criminal offense of “Attempting to Flee the Republic.” Thus, a legal act made you a criminal.

Orwellian? The State Security Service (“Stasi”) had 97,000 employees in a country of 17 million. But the Stasi also had more than 173,000 informers. That meant there was one Stasi officer or informer for every 63 people. Some estimate that if all part-time informers were included, there was one informer for every 6.5 citizens. Or take the case of a highly popular East German rock band. When they sounded too political, the Stasi did not ban the band. Instead, they were told, “You no longer exist.” Not only were they not on the radio or covered in the press, the record company reprinted its catalog to omit the band.

Caught up in this perverse world were the East Germans themselves. And they are the real focus of Funder’s book, not only those who were spied upon but those who worked for Stasi. Funder, an Australian, displays her affection and admiration for the East Germans throughout her book. The book was sparked during her employment with a TV station in West Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was puzzled why producers felt that the GDR was a subject best forgotten. She embarked on her own search to find out what it was like to live in what the German media called “the most perfected surveillance state of all time.”

Although written as a first person account of her exploration, Stasiland succeeds in allowing East Germans to tell their own story and bringing an entirely human face to both the spies and the spied upon. Stories of those affected by the Stasi’s pervasiveness, of course, abound but Funder does a fine job of finding stories among everyday people that go to the heart of life there. Surprisingly, when she placed a newspaper ad asking to speak with former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators, she was flooded with responses. Why were there so many Stasi veterans? As a Stasi instructor told Funder, there was more and more work to do as time went on “because the definition of ‘enemy’ became wider and wider.” In fact, being investigated may have been enough alone to make you an enemy of the state.

The stories that arose in this type of atmosphere range from heartbreaking (parents separated from their ill child for years because of the Wall) to bizarre (the Stasi’s collection of “smell samples”). Like the reader, Funder is an outsider in this society, allowing readers to share her feelings and reactions as she learns of the big and small moments of life in the GDR. By recounting events and viewpoints from both sides, she also provides readers a more complete look at and better understanding of the GDR and its residents.

First published in English in 2003, Stasiland won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize of Non-Fiction in 2004. Yet the stories and the people behind them seem timeless and the book remains as worthy a read today as it did then.

Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or the other of you could be one of them. Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence.

Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

1 comment to Book Review: Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

  • Interesting! Kafkaesque versus Orwellian….With due respect, I wonder if both those geniuses made a misstep in thinking that it would be the government we needed to fear, not the corporations….