Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Goodreads: In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their fellow citizens, there are thousands of captivating stories. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany. She meets Miriam, who as a 16-year-old might have started World War III; she visits the man who painted the line which became the Berlin Wall; and she gets drunk with the legendary "Mik Jegger" of the east, once declared by the authorities to his face to "no longer to exist." Each enthralling story depicts what it's like to live in Berlin as the city knits itself back together—or fails to. This is a history full of emotion, attitude, and complexity.
My take: I entered Berlin nearly two years after the wall came down, the full import bowling me over when I walked past Checkpoint Charlie. Remnants of the wall were few and far between. The museum that replaced Checkpoint Charlie was sanitized. But even without the physical barrier, I'd entered a different country and time. The buildings were in disrepair, the cars all the same and rarely running. One was now used as a planter. While on the western side English was universal, kindness and willingness to help the lost American was peppered with frustration at the lack of verbal communication on the other side. Subways didn't cross the invisible line. Buses routed themselves within the eastern side. I passed a synagogue still bearing the marks of Krystallnacht. The economic divide was still a strong barrier.
With the German language in her arsenal, along with the mixed blessings in her media job, Anna Funder gets personal with those who lived under the Stasi regime. Although Funder presents historical facts, this is also part memoir of the interviews she conducted and experiences she had researching. She finds a woman who nearly made it across the border, later marrying a man she loved dearly and who died mysteriously, still searching for answers of his death during an interrogation. A surprising story by her landlord that is unexpectedly revealed one evening. She meets former Stasi, former informants, she taken to the prisons, detentions, and torture chambers. She finds the attitudes different from one person to another. The Wall shaped each of these people. Indignation, fear, indifference, national pride, personal pride, and nostalgia are all emotions she finds in the people of former East Berlin.
The stories are not sanitized nor are they wrapped up nicely in the end. They are simply individual stories of individuals that may or may not represent many citizens of Communist controlled Germany. It was a police state. While fear was a tactic to keep the citizens in line, crime (outside of the Stasi) was prosecuted. It was a state of safety in some ways. The economy was poor but stable. There are mixed emotions for Communist ways.
I found it disconcerting yet it provided explanation of a time not yet history and too fresh to categorize. It is the bridge between Nazi Germany and Hitler's rule and the solution for stabilizing post-war Germany. What Funder glosses over is that the Russians exacted their price from Germany for the war on the Eastern front. Precious resources were quickly and quietly shipped to the Motherland. Also not necessarily discussed is from what pool the Stasi were chosen. They were the lower ranking Nazis not tried in Nuremberg and not smitten by a political ideal but by their own power.
It is both a fascinating and emotional read.