REVIEW: Stasiland

stasiland

By Anna Funder. London, UK: Granta Books, 2003. 288 pages.

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I have a confession to make. I was at first put off by the title of this book.[1] It sounded so reductive, as if one might sum up East German experience as having to live with the Stasi, the East German State Security Service. As a scholar who works on issues of East German identity in cinema, I had lived in the former East Berlin in the 1990s as Funder did. I had, during that stay and subsequent others, heard and read first-hand and second-hand accounts of life with the Stasi, both from ordinary citizens and from those more visible in the culture industry. I had been amazed and horrified, had written some of these stories down and shared them with family and friends. But I felt hesitant to present them as representative, because I knew that East Germans experienced life in the GDR, and therefore with the Stasi, in a variety of different ways, depending on whether their circumstances and personalities put them at odds with the state. It would therefore be difficult to give a picture that all would regard as fair.

It was with some skepticism then, that I packed her book into my carry-on luggage for my most recent flight to Germany. And again I have a confession. I have never slept so little on a transatlantic flight. I had nearly finished Funder's book by the time I reached my destination.

Funder takes a different approach than I might have presumed based on her title, and a legitimate one, I believe. She packs her journalistic expertise behind the task of telling the stories of selected individuals who suffered under the Stasi, as well as several stories of those who worked for the Stasi. She has chosen both ordinary individuals and a few unusual personalities from the former East Germany. Her approach is autobiographical to the extent that she embeds her stories in the frame of her own stay in East Berlin and her reflections on the atmosphere there. She takes a personal and yet investigative approach as she establishes herself as an outsider who is less than complacent about the East Germans around her living in a unified Germany where the injustices of the Stasi past seem inadequately addressed.

Funder does not presume to give us a single, accurate sum of East German experience with the Stasi, but she does present a series of portraits carefully knitted together alternately with her own observations on German culture and with just enough background information on German unification and everyday culture of the former East Germany to provide a context for what her characters have to say. Funder's book is compelling because she has a quick wit and a keen eye for the individuals she observes. She shows compassion, and yet is not overly tolerant of those who do not deserve it.

The East German State Security Service was a massive operation that depended on the work of full-time employees, of which it had 97,000 when the wall fell. It also employed "unofficial operatives" (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or "IMs" in German). These persons were recruited by the Stasi to spy on their friends, neighbors, co-workers and in some cases, even their spouses or family members. According to Funder's research, the web of the Stasi was so complete that the ratio of Stasi officers and informers to citizens was one agent for every sixty-three citizens, if part-time informers are included, some estimates reach 1:6.5 (p. 57). Individuals who visibly resisted the official party line could be regarded as enemies of the state and were likely to become targets of the Stasi.

It was a visit to the former central offices of the Ministry..

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