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

The events could provide the basis for a literature test, such as “Identify which of the following is Orwellian and which is Kafkaesque.”

It is entirely legal to file an application to leave the country in which you live to emigrate elsewhere. But by filing an application, you are suspected of wanting to leave, which is a criminal offense. Thus, a legal act makes you a criminal.

A country’s internal security agency has one officer or informer for every 63 people. Including part-time informers, there is one informer for every 6.5 citizens. Or when a very popular rock band begins to be a bit too political, they are not banned. Instead, they are told, “You no longer exist.” Not only do they no longer appear on the radio or in the press, the record company reprints its catalog to omit the band.

Unfortunately, these situations don’t come from a classroom. Instead, they are just a couple of the true stories of East Germany in Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. The citizens of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or “GDR”) were caught up in this perverse world for years. And it’s the people who are the real focus of Anna Funder’s book, both the spied upon and those who worked for State Security Service (“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.

What did this mean culturally and psychologically? “Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or the other of you could be one of them,” Funder writes. “Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence.”

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.

About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.