This book is a journalistic voyage into how the lives of East German citizens were affected by their secret police during and after the Cold War. I assumed from the cover that this book would historically chart the establishment and development of that secret police through its archives. In fact, it’s a novelistic reportage based around interviews and site visits, some of which are set up formally, while others, most in fact, are informal and at times accidental.
The selection of who to interview seemed to be partly informed by who was to hand. This includes a person directly connected to Funder’s stay in East Germany. The positive aspect to this is that you get a very embedded, experiential and emotional description of East Germany from Funder’s account of where she goes when she meets people and the neighbourhood in which she stays. Quite a contrast to traditional histories that discuss only its significant figures through chronological and cross-referenced events.
Funder’s visits include, most interestingly, the ‘puzzle women’ – volunteers who re-assemble shredded documents left behind by the Stasi when it closed down. People in the UK will be able to listen to the BBC podcast about them.
Another encounter includes a famous broadcaster for the former regime. What’s particularly notable about him, as well as some other interviewees, is how so many of those who worked for the regime still adhere to its political outlook. What this shows is how hard it is to overcome the power of indoctrination – even world events fail to dissolve deeply ingrained feelings.
The weakness to Funder’s narrative is that it could easily loll some readers into the complacent view that we ourselves have the right viewpoint with our triumphant neo-liberal, globalised capitalism. Just put yourself in the shoes of those from the old East German regime: if the neoliberal, globalised capitalism we now live under now were to change tomorrow, then would we still be right, with those adhering to the new regime being clearly wrong? Imagine then how the new circumstances must be for former Communist adherents. I’m not entirely sure that Funder quite sympathises with this difficulty.
Nevertheless, she makes highly stimulating investigations, such as of those who have made a reasonably successful adjustment to the new East Germany. This includes an individual who has become a tour guide in Berlin. Even more interestingly – and this is a testimony to the contradictory beasts that people are – some have made a successful adjustment yet still have the sense that they miss some things about the past. Something comes alive in them when they talk about what were, by their own admission, ‘the bad old days’. This doublethink is reminiscent of British people who, when asked about Margaret Thatcher, can go from boiling anger to nostalgia and back again in an instant.
Stasiland is exactly the kind of book I love to encounter on the secondhand market. In a world in which instability is perceived as a foreign experience, Funder reminds us of how, not so long ago, our own uncertainties amounted to more than whether we’d still have our jobs in a few months. There is a serious lack of serious non-fiction like this available secondhand: if you have any in your book collection that you know you’re not going to read any day soon, then why not sell them to a secondhand dealer, donate them to a sympathetic charity bookseller, or, if your local library is getting desperate in the recession, ask if it could use some help with its stock.