The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.

People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)

Growing up during the latter years of the cold war, I had a macabre fascination for the wall. And because I’m currently researching the effect that the era’s culture of deceit has had on the erosion of truth in our culture, I recognised Anna Funder’s Stasiland as a must-read as soon as I saw it.

And I’m not ashamed to admit: I wept. The whole is bookended by the heart-breaking story of Miriam and her agonisingly short-lived marriage; and then at its centre, the book pivots round Funder’s landlady, Julia. I’ve not been able to get these two tragic women out of my mind. They are clearly the era’s victims – but along the way, we also get introduced to sinister, creepy, deranged, but also the sometimes alarmingly sane employees of the system. [Funder simply put out classified ads asking for former Stasi people to come forward for confidential and anonymous interviews. And they did. She met some exceptionally senior people.]

This is a book that transcends the boundaries of journalism, history-writing, personal memoir and even literature – this is a very unusual work of often piercing and acutely observed writing. No wonder it has won prizes, plaudits and multiple translations. They are entirely deserved.

Too many thoughts were provoked by it all, really. But here are a few that struck me as needing further reflection:

The Flight from Reality

It is chilling how reality is simply not permitted when ideology clouds everything. Despite her intelligence and many gifts, Julia has been blacklisted by the Stasi because of her associations (you need to read the book to find out how unfair that was) – whenever she tries to get a job she is blocked, even after doing well in interviews. So she takes matters into her own hands…

Julia went to the Employment Office, took a number and stood in an interminable line. She was among people who might had similar experiences, both explicable and not, to her own. She turned to the man behind her and asked, ‘So how long have you been unemployed?’
Before he could answer an official, a square-built woman in uniform, stepped out from behind a column.
‘Miss, you are not unemployed,’ she barked.
‘Of course I’m unemployed,’ Julia said. ‘Why else would I be here?’
‘This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office. You are not unemployed; you are seeking work.’
Julia wasn’t daunted. ‘I’m seeking work,’ she said, ‘because I am unemployed.’
The woman started to shout so loudly theother people in the queue hunched their shoulders. ‘I said, you are not unemployed! You are seeking work!’ and then, almost hysterically, ‘There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’

Funder’s reflects on this escape from reality, and articulates what it must do to language:

In my mind I tote up further GDR fictions: that der Führer was excised not only from their history but also from their language; that the news was real on television; and contrary to Julia’s lived experience, that there was no unemployment. By no fault of her own, Julia Behrend had fallen into the gap between GDR’s fiction and its reality. She no longer conformed to the fiction. Loyal and talented as she was, she was now being edged out of reality. (p104)

So there is a huge danger to any ideology in that it can blind us to reality and it enforces a twisting of language. Just as the apartheid regime in South Africa did, so did the GDR, and so does political correctness, and even church-speak. There is an inevitable slipperiness to language – but here, there is a deliberate exploitation of its slipperiness by those in power. We must heed these warnings from history.

The Death of Privacy

The Stasi was a Leviathan, uniquely able to extend its tentacles everywhere. These stats were chilling

After the Wall fell the German media called East Germany ‘the most perfected surveillance state of all time.’ At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees – more than enough to oversee a country of 17 million people. But it also had over 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler’s Third Reich, it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin’s USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR, there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens. (p57)

This puts into perspective that extraordinary film The Lives of Others (in which Ulrich Mühe plays the lead – see photo). If you’ve not seen it, it is a MUST. But Julia’s story conveyed the ravages of the regime even more poignantly than the film did. In a cruel irony, she was raped soon after the wall came down. But as she reflects on her experiences with Funder, she is still haunted, almost ten years later, by her Stasi interrogation. ‘Major N’, who conducted it, clearly knew EVERYTHING about her, and thus calmly, methodically, deliberately stripped her psychologically bare. For instance, she had to endure the humiliation of having every single love letter she’d ever written being read back to her – during which, the officer would stop now and then to seek clarification of certain words in a brutally clinical routine.

Funder suggests that what happened to her around the rape was extreme (the police didn’t really want to know). She replies:

‘Yes, it is,’ she says, ‘when you become conscious of it. But the strange thing is it’s only now, in this room, that I feel the shudder run down my spain. At the time I criticised other things – not being allowed to study or have a career. But looking back on it, it’s the total surveillance that damaged me the worst. I know how far people will transgress over your boundaries – until you have no private sphere left at all. And I think that is a terrible knowledge to have.’ She flicks her hair as if to get rid of something. ‘At this distance I understandfor the first time it was what [her interrogator] did in that room.’ (p112)

No one is immune

One of the most chilling characters in this story, however, was a Stasi trainer – ‘Herr Bock’. This will speak for itself. I confess it had me reeling – you can’t hep wondering how you would have coped:

[Herr Bock] taught a course for Stasi officers destined to work in Defence. The title is euphemistic. The internal service of the Stasi was designed to spy on and control the citizens of the GDR. The only way to make sense of its name is to understand the Stasi as defending the government against the people…

‘Let us take,’ says Herr Bock, ‘as a specific instance the department of the church.’ The church – pastors and people – was the only are of society in the GDR where oppositional thought could find a structure and could coalesce into something real. Consequently, theological colleges attracted bright, independent-minded students. ‘All our people had to have theological training themselves so they’d pass for members of the churches they infiltrated.’ He cross an ankle onto his knee. ‘How did we do it you might ask?’ He snaps his finger. ‘Answer: we went into theological colleges and recruited the students themselves!’ He rubs his hands together. They make a papery sound. ‘You know, he says, ‘we were supremely effective. It is not widely known that in the end, 65 per cent of the church leaders were informers for the us, and the rest were under surveillance anyhow.’ (p196)

I’ve many friends who lived behind the iron curtain – and indeed, talked to people who have faced similar experiences in African countries – and one of its cruellest legacies is the sheer impossibility of trust. There can be few worse experiences than subsequently discovering that a best friend, or even a fellow-disciple, has been an informer. There’s no going back. It certainly adds a whole new dimension to Jesus’ agony at Judas’ kiss.

JFK's famous visit to the Berlin Wall

Having said that, there were some darkly humorous moments in all this. Take this:

I am reminded of the story of a factory worker who, after she was approached to inform, announced loudly the next day at the canteen table, ‘Guess what! You wouldn’t credit it, but They think me so reliable that I’ve been asked to inform!’ Her cover was blown, she was useless and she was left alone. (p267)

Or this wonderful irony:

I once say a note on a Stasi file from early 1989 that I would never forget. In it a young lieutenant alerted his superiors to the fact that there were so many informers in church opposition groups at demonstrations that they were making these groups appear stronger than they really were. In one of the most beautiful ironies I have ever seen, he dutifully noted that it appeared that, by having swelled the ranks of the opposition, the Stasi was giving the people heart to keep demonstrating against them. (p197)

When ideology is idolatry

An idol never delivers the goods. An earthly paradise will always crumble and oppress. Human constructs always contain flaws. The problem is that in our metanarrative incredulity (to paraphrase Lyotard), we then throw babies out with bathwater. Note the connections Funder makes with her own strict catholic upbringing in Australia.

But I am mulling over the idea of the GDR as an article of faith. Communism, at least of the East German variety, was a closed system of belief. It was a universe in a vacuum, complete with its own self-created hells andheavens, its punishments and redemptions meted out right here on earth. Many of the punishments were simply for lack of belief, or even suspected lack of belief. Disloyalty was calibrated in the minutest of signs: the antenna turned to receive western television, the red flag not hung out on May Day, someone telling an off-colour joke about Honecker just to stay sane.

I remember Sister Eugenia at school, with her tight sausage-fingers explaining the ‘leap of faith’ that was required before the closed universe of Catholicism would make any sense. Her fingers made the leap, pink and unlikely, as we children drew the ‘fruits of the Holy Spirit’ – a banana for redemption as I recall – and all I could think of was a sausage-person walking off a clifftop, believing all the time the hand of God would scoop him up. The sense of having someone to examine your inner worth, the violence of the idea that it can in fact be measured, was the same. God could see inside you to reckon whether your faith was enough to save you. The Stasi could see inside your life, only they had a lot more sons on earth the help.

The GDR, in its forty years, tried strenuously both to create Socialist German Man and to get the people to believe in him. Socialist German Man was to be different from Nazi German Man, and different from western (Capitalist Imperialist) German Man. History was taught as a series of inevitable evolutionary leaps towards Communism: from a feudal state through capitalism and then – in the greatest leap forward to date – socialism. The Communist nirvana was the world to come. Darwinian diagrams flash into my mind showing man on a scale of increasing uprightedness and lack of body hair: from monkey to Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon t Modern. Here now in front of me is Socialist Man, smooth and keen and very, very verbal. (p156)

Very depressing indeed. But understandable. And while we must be so careful not to wash away our babies, it is a salutary reminder of how our ecclesiastical constructs can devour us as idolatrously as any other ideology.

But I want Julia to have the last word. For in very undemonstrative, undramatic tones, she mourns the loss of her naive faith in a system that promised to protect her but which so very nearly destroyed her. It’s agonising to read that she seems to have found few grounds for trusting anything again…

… And I think too, I was disappointed in the state. I realised for the first time that it wasn’t really the good father state you have in the back of your mind. I saw it can be so dangerous, so very dangerous, without me having done anything at all. (p112-113)

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. AndrewFinden

    Great post! Another book to add to my wishlist 🙂

    Have you ever been to the GDR museum in Berlin? It’s a quirky little museum which seeks to show how life in the GDR was for every day people, and it’s strangely uplifting at times to see the way people managed to not only get by, but actually make a life out of such circumstances.

    I’ve also had some interesting talks with various colleagues – one quite famous german singer was actually fairly cynical about the film (I thought it was great), and it was interesting to hear him talk about about how, not wishing the GDR to return, he laments the loss of the closeness he had with a small select group of friends – the ones he knew he could trust.
    Another friend of my age was not yet a teenager when the wall came down – though she didn’t live in Berlin – and it’s interesting to hear how she was also quite naive about the whole thing, as child she quite liked her little country, and she was bemused when ads started to appear; she couldn’t understand why anyone would need to advertise lollies – if you wanted some, you went to the shop and bought them – the concept of competing brands was completely foreign!

    Have you also seen the film ‘Goodbye Lenin’?

    1. quaesitor

      thanks v much Andrew – fascinating. not seen Goodbye Lenin but have just ordered…

  2. Emma

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for a great review I read this some years ago and it chilled me then, but had forgotten about it-sad to be reminded of the evil but a really interesting moving book.
    If you haven’t seen it I’d second the recommendation for Goodbye Lenin.

  3. Emma

    Oh PS please do a review of Stone’s Fall I’ve just read it and loved it and would be interested to know what you thought

    1. quaesitor

      thanks Emma – i’ve been wanting to do Stone’s Fall – i think it is truly remarkable. In fact I’ve loved all Iain Pears books having got into his through reading Instance of the Fingerpost. Just the most incredible imagination.
      But i’m not really sure where to begin with them all! But i’ve got some thoughts in the pipeline – thinking of comparing all his multi-perspective novels and seeing what comes out…
      watch this space… but don’t hold your breath!

  4. Phil

    Hi Mark. Will now have to add another book to my ever swelling wishlist.


    1. quaesitor

      i know that sinking feeling all too well, Phil

  5. AndrewFinden

    Recently got hold of this – an amazing book. I loved the occasional ‘Aussie’ turn of phrase.. as a fellow ex-pat in Germany, I could relate to her a lot!

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