Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stasiland - Anna Funder

In recent times I have developed something of a fascination with the history and politics of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), although there is surprisingly, and frustratingly, little material readily available in English (unless I have not been searching hard enough...)

One of the most affecting documents which I have come across is the book Stasiland, by Anna Funder. In this book, Funder speaks to a number of people, both ordinary citizens and servants of the state machinery, about life in the DDR, focussing mainly on the activities of the Stasi, the notorious state security service, and other elements of the apparatus.

Stasiland is very gritty, and Funder manages to convey the grime and gloom of the DDR era, as well as the lingering legacy of those days.  It possibly helps that she is/was something of an outsider, and therefore able to see the wood from the trees, peering through the complacency, nostalgia and illusions, and being less inured to the drip-drip of indoctrination, and what became perceived "norms". Perhaps this all enabled her to recognise more acutely some of the absurdities and anomalies of the DDR system, in comparison to those who became jaded and resigned to its existence.

The whole book feels like a prolonged glimpse back into a dark tunnel from which all concerned have emerged with varying degrees of pain and regret.

Some of the case studies examined here are extremely moving, poignant and humbling.  In cataloguing events, and coaxing recollections from the protagonists, the author captures some of the darkness, desperation, paranoia, claustrophobia, fear and courage. The one which hit me hardest was the story of the woman who attempted to escape to the West when she was around sixteen years of age.

As well as powerfully relating the stories of various individuals, Stasiland also serves as an abbreviated and condensed history of East Germany. At various stages, aspects of the DDR saga are told, helping to place these stories in some kind of context. The passages on the momentous events of 1989/90 I found particularly enlightening.

Overall, one detects a profound relief that the old regime has disappeared, but also a kind of ennui and emptiness, as if nothing has really taken its place,  a state of flux. Freedom, but also sterility and confusion. It  must be borne in mind that this book was published in 2003, so things may have moved on slightly since then.

The book paints a more complex, nuanced picture of the DDR than is often portrayed in the mainstream media, and it delves beneath the lazy cliches and stereotypes.

There are stories of courage and principle, of how some people even out-witted the system, and played on the fears, insecurities and paranoia of some of those within it. Perhaps the machinery was not quite as monolithic as has often been assumed, and there were kinks which could be exploited. By the same token, not everyone had the savoir-faire, leverage or contacts to confront the system.

The book also carries with it the mixed feelings which were harboured by some at that time about the disappearance of the Wall.  The certainties and "security" instilled by the socialist system were recognised and even missed in many quarters. It would be interesting to know to what extent this ambivalence persists to this day.

Stasiland does not just strive to discredit and demonize the old structures, but gives ample scope for the expounding of misgivings about the Western ways. These sentiments are not just from the mouths of philosophers, but from those of genuine, sensible citizens.  This side of the story is dealt with very maturely and sensibly. One quotation which really sticks in my mind was an observation about the number of types of ketchup available in the West!

Reading this book, I found myself jumping between sadness, anger and awe. Much of it is scarcely a joyful read, but in places it is quite inspiring, seeing how ordinary people seek to maintain and protect their dignity and their families and friends in the face of a callous foe.  It also serves as a valuable snapshot of a fascinating stage in history.

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