Thursday, February 9, 2017

Stasiland

Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder

Oh my gosh, guys, this was such an amazing book.  I was GRIPPED, I tell you.  I just could not put this down and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever was nearby.

Anna Funder is an Australian journalist who has studied and worked a good deal in Germany, and in the late 1990s she noticed that nobody really wanted to talk about the East German past at all.  She decided to interview people and get as many stories as she could while the people were still around to tell them; it had only been a few years since the Wall had come down, but East Germany was mostly run by old men, and they were only getting older.  Stasiland was published in 2003, which doesn't feel like a long time ago to me, but I guess it was.

The people of the GDR were the most surveilled people around.  "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."  The organization was actually 50% bigger than the East German military! They kept tabs on every citizen; there was listening equipment for every situation, and informants reported on ordinary, mundane events.

Not only did the Stasi use ordinary spy equipment, they jumped right into the bizarre.  Post-Wall, when a few dissidents died of unusual cancers, an investigation found that the Stasi had used radiation to mark people and objects they wanted to follow, and silently vibrating Geiger counters for surveillance.

The Stasi had ambitions that the West didn't dream of. They had a plan to invade West Berlin, complete with planned Stasi offices and staff for each one.  They also had a general plan for a crisis, in which nearly 86,000 East Germans would be quickly arrested and put into concentration camps.  The longer the GDR lasted, the more it tended to treat its own citizens as its enemy.  As an old Stasi officer explains to Funder, "Once an investigation was started into someone, that meant there was suspicion of enemy activity [and thus was an enemy]....as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of 'enemy' became wider and wider."

Stasiland just abounds in the sort of bizarrely ironic stories that Communistic states seem to produce; they'd be hilarious if they weren't more often too grim to laugh at.  Some of my favorites:
...pictures of protestors occupying the building on 4 December 1989, squatting in the corridors with the surprise still on their faces, as if half-expecting to be asked to leave.  As they entered the building, the Stasi guards had asked to see the demonstrators' identity cards, in a strange parody of the control they were, at that very moment, losing.  The demonstrators, in shock, obediently pulled their cards from their wallets.  Then they seized the building.  (p6)

[October 1989, as GDR falls] Here, at the Normanstrasse headquarters, there was panic.  Stasi officers were instructed to destroy files, starting with the most incriminating -- those naming westerners who spied for them, and those that concerned deaths.  They shredded the files until the shredders collapsed.  Among other shortages in the east, there was a shredder shortage, so they had to send agents out under cover to West Berlin to buy more.  In Building 8 alone, members of the citizens' movement found over one hundred burnt-out shredders. (p66)

[A former Stasi officer, in fact the one who chalked the line for the Wall, showing Funder through his museum of Wall artifacts, points out a girly calendar]  'That is the calendar for the border troops of the GDR,' he said.  'Do you know what is special about it?...That calendar was printed in mid-1990.  After the Wall came down.  It was printed because, even at that late stage, people here could not believe that the nation would simply cease to exist.  Despite all the evidence, they thought the GDR would go on as an independent country, with an army and a border guard of its own.  And that border guard would need its own girly calendar.'  (p169-170)

 I once saw 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....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. (p197-198)
There is much more that I'd like to tell you, but I also want to leave something for you to read, so I've taken a couple of paragraphs out. There's lots more, about media and music, and stories of people who got caught up in the machinery.   Seriously, this is a fantastic book crammed with stories that should not be forgotten.

5 comments:

maphead said...

Ahhh. Glad you liked it too.
Here's a link to my review:
https://maphead.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/stasiland-stories-from-behind-the-berlin-wall-by-anna-funder/

Jean said...

Thanks for the link! Everybody go look at Maphead's blog, he's forever finding the best non-fiction for me.

Gin Jenny said...

Oh wow, this does sound good. I had no idea the scope of surveillance in East Germany -- what a crazy world. I have this on my TBR list but I admit I've been putting off reading it because I know once I do I'll be down a rabbit hole of learning about the history of Eastern Europe after WWII (which currently I know very little about) and then goodbye productivity! :p

Jean said...

Oh, but it is endlessly fascinating. Do it!! :D

Karen K. said...

I just read this last month for my library's book group! We had the best turnout ever. Several people in the group had been to Berlin, before and after the wall came down. (I actually visited Berlin during college and crossed the border into East Berlin for a day. It was creepy.) This book was really chilling and horrifying, but I think it's important not to forget what's happened and what could happen again.