There is a pivotal point near the end of The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s critically acclaimed 2006 film about the East German secret police known as the Stasi, where the movie changes from a pre- to a post-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall period. In one swoop, the paranoia, the personal treachery, the surveillance, and the grim monotony of communism that marked the German Democratic Republic are washed away, as if they had never existed. The secret police are made instantly irrelevant. The country itself ceases to exist. The people embrace the freedoms of their western neighbours, and never look back.
Anna Funder has a much different take on German reunification and the lingering effects of the Stasi and communism on eastern German society. Her nonfiction book, Stasiland, researched and written between 1996 and 2000, paints the portrait of a country struggling to let go of the past and move beyond a system that held, in a clearly demonstrable way, human control and social conditioning as its chief tenet. Funder goes out of her way to find both victims of the Stasi who are still seeking justice and the men and woman who were part of the regime who refuse to let go of the political beliefs that define their identities.
Funder provides us with a rich cast of these characters. There is Miriam, a woman whose husband was taken away by the Stasi and died in a East German prison. The authorities claimed he committed suicide but Miriam is convinced he was murdered. There is Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the face of the regime’s propaganda machine, who was beamed into the television sets of East Germans for decades for the sole purpose of critiquing western media. He remains a committed and unapologetic despot when Funder finds him. There is Hagen Koch, who at 21 was the young man who drew the line with a bucket of white paint that eventually resulted in the Berlin Wall itself. When Funder finds him, he has turned his honeycomb apartment into a shrine to the Wall. And there are the ‘puzzle women’, a group of workers whose sole job it is to re-assemble, with excruciating attention to detail, the thousands of documents that the regime had hastily shredded as communism was collapsing.
With each of these people, Funder tells a rich and robust story. Much like Barbara Demick’s recent book on the real lives of North Koreans (see my review of it here), Funder knows that historical background and broad geopolitical descriptions can get you only so far. The real story resides in the people who suffered under—or dedicated their lives to—the brutal regime that was the GDR. There is a warmth and openness to Funder’s storytelling, even when she’s describing the most heart-wrenching scenes.
What’s more, Funder also takes a rather nonconventional approach to assembling her narrative. There are times when Stasiland does not feel so much like a memoir of the GDR’s secret police as it does a memoir of a woman who is writing a memoir of the GDR’s secret police. At first this insertion of herself and her research methods into the story felt a little intrusive and narcissistic. But over time, the reader realizes how key it is that we see just how Funder goes about assembling her story. That method, in its own right, tells a lot about how the Stasi presence continues to hold a grip over the subjects of this book.
In an age where the chief struggle facing the west is religious extremism and our responses to it, it’s good to be reminded of a time when the threat we faced was far more secular and geographic. Stasiland is a wonderful window into the Cold War and its lingering impact on real people. It is also a cautionary tale about a world we may not yet have completely escaped.