Ryan's Reviews > Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Stasiland by Anna Funder
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's review
Nov 25, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011-favorites
Read in November, 2011

An investigative report about life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Australian writer Anna Funder was a work of genuine pathos. The stories of common people in it seemed to have come directly from Orwell's dystopia. As Funder's narrative had shown, the heyday of East Germany did not just resemble the alternate reality of Nineteen Eighty-Four, its very ideology was as if patterned after Oceania. It was a system isolated and enclosed by an impregnable fence, with human beings as the subject of the experiment and the bureaucratic apparatus secure in place. In East Germany, the application of totalitarian theory took its own course for all of four decades. After an audit of history, the human cost – the pain, the sacrifices, the lives squandered and lost – was staggering.

Early on, the reader was given an overview of what transpired in the land of the Stasi police:

   The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. In its forty years, 'the Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long.

In the GDR, people learned to inform on each other. They were used by the state to gather information on potential "enemies". People spied on people, and all records and reports were systematically collected and archived. As Funder described it to a colleague in the book, the Stasiland was "a place where what was said was not real, and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard from again, or were smuggled into other realms." Intimidation and surveillance, those classic strategies of depriving individuals their privacy and peace of mind, were used in good measure.

The style of the book was far from a dry journalistic report. It read very much like a novel. Like fiction, except it wasn't. Funder wrote indelible images of a repressive regime in a restrained but effectual manner. The hybrid form of creative nonfiction, where searing human stories took over the nightmare of reality, was used to maximum effect. The portraits of people in it were well drawn and their experiences immediate and harrowing. There were haunting scenes in it, moments of quiet and understated anguish, that would make one's hair stand on end.

( Full review )


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