German Joys Mini-Review: Stasiland

Just reading Stasiland, a 2003 book by Anna Fuller, an Australian journalist and recovering lawyer who traveled through East Germany interviewing people who had something to do with the East German security state, either as members or as persecutees of the Stasi (the abbreviation for the East German Ministry of State Security).

Stasiland is loosely episodic and somewhat memoir-like, so it takes a little while to build up momentum. When it does, though it grips you. Many of the stories Funder tells will probably be familiar to Germans, such as:

  • The Klaus Renft Combo, East Germany’s only halfway-rebellious rock bank, who were tolerated uncomfortably by the State until they went too far and were disbanded by official decree in 1975, during a meeting the band later taped and broadcast;
  • The Lipsi, a "dance craze" officially ginned-up and imposed by the East German state in the 1960s to compete with rock and roll (Funder calls it "a dance invented by a committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing");
  • The frightening ideological mania of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a convinced Communist whose job it was to appear on East German television and explain, in long, unhinged tirades, why Western TV shows were despicable capitalist lies and propaganda designed to conceal a hellish, dollar-driven war of all against all. Even years after the wall fell, "Von Schni–" as he was called (because of viewer’s tendency to switch off the set as soon as his show came on), screamed at Funder that Germany needed it back "More! Than! Ever!"

Funder also gives full justice to stories that would otherwise have been lost in the flood of news — including tales of reuniting families, empying prisons, and former secret-service officers seeking to submerge quietly into their new jobs as security consultants or detectives — attending the fall of the wall.  Funder interviews about an equal number of ex-Stasi officers and ex-political prisoners. It’s odd to see how normal the ‘dissidents’ are. Few were particularly outspoken — the State wasn’t persecuting them for shoving blurry anti-regime pamphlets into mail slots or writing "bourgeois" plays, but only for trying to escape the country. Their stories are frightening, moving, and told by Funder without sentimentality.

The ex-Stasi officers Funder interviews, who responded to Funder’s newspaper advertisement requesting interviews(!), often defend their former wiretapping/interrogating/torturing of their fellow citizens. She interviews them in their stuffy, dark-brown living rooms in Germany’s suburbs. The explain to her how they recruited informal spies, exploited the State’s all-pervasive social role to bend people into line, and generally did a bang-up job of keeping the East safe from imperialist assault.  They take pleasure in describing how easy it was to get ordinary East Germans to spy on each other and turn each other in.

One more appealing figure is Hagen Koch, tells of how he gradually became disillusioned with the Stasi, and in 1985 applied to leave for the regular army. As a last act of defiance, he took from his office wall a small award plaque for "cultural work" done by his unit. The Stasi formed a committee and launched an investigation of the plaque’s disappearance, but Koch stonewalled them. During a 1993 TV interview, the plaque appeared in the background.  Shortly afterward, he claims, West German detectives visited him and told him he was being charged not only with stealing property from West Germany (which inherited all the East’s property), but also for lying during the East German investigation of the plate’s disappearance. He never had to go to prison, but his wife lost her job.  Whether the story is true or not (the lawyer in me says the claims were probably too old to prosecute), it could be true.  This tale of the man-hours spent and lives damaged over a meaningless €2.50 feel-good trinket says as much about the German soul as any volume of Schiller.

There aren’t many books written by native English-speakers about ordinary people in modern Germany, but Stasiland, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004, stands out. There are some minor flaws, such as the fact that the memoir-like portions of the book sometimes don’t integrate well with the stories being told, and an irritating tendency to use Australian slang like "skerrick." However, these are minor quibbles. Stasiland is by turns funny, thoughtful and moving, and well worth a read.

5 thoughts on “German Joys Mini-Review: Stasiland

  1. > This tale of the man-hours spent and lives damaged over a meaningless €2.50 feel-good trinket says as much about the German soul as any volume of Schiller.

    Yep, sure. Like the torture camp at Guantanamo says all about the American soul. See, stereotypes work both ways.

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  2. It may be a stereotype, but it’s, ahem, an accurate one, so I get to call it a “cultural observation.” Guantanamo says little about the average American, because the average American won’t ever be a soldier or intelligence officer put in the position of overseeing foreign captives.

    A much better analogy would be to compare it to the stereotype of Americans as being fat. Why? Because Americans *are* fatter than the rest of the world. It’s not an incorrect superficial assumption (what we commonly think of as a stereotype), it’s an well-grounded generalization. Even a visitor who spent several years in the U.S. and had worked to overcome cultural prejudices would not dispute the generalization that Americans are, on average, fat. They just plain are.

    And it’s the same way with the German obsession for following rules and tracking property. Just go to forums for expatriates living in Germany. Every one of them, from every one of the Earth’s colorful countries, has at least good dozen stories of Germans bureaucrats, shop employees, in-laws, or neighbors insisting on the strict and rigid observance of a rule, or on documentation of a trivial amount of money or property, long after people in another country (or at least a non northern-European country) would have said “heck, it’s hardly worth the effort anymore” and given up. The stories are usually ended by the Brazilian, or American, or Mozambican making a joke about whether it’s really worth it to fill out 3 triplicate forms to document 1.29 cents in travel expenses, only to be met by utter incomprehension on the part of his German friends, who are already halfway through filling out the second form.

    Any expats out here want to add a shout-out and confirm my thesis? Or am I alone here?

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  3. Well, I spent a year both in the States and in France and both times I found the bureaucracy and the (in my mind) senseless rule following behavior quite exhausting, despite of being German. I can come up with a ton of examples of French bureaucracy (you should hear the expats talk in Paris) and, although I was a bit young at that time, still with a few American things. My theory is that everybody, regardless which nationality, will complain about inefficiency and a tiring bureaucracy, as soon as he starts living in another country. Maybe we are all simply accustomed to our own red tape…

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  4. Twice in the recent decades has Germany experienced the situation that a state is virtually dissolved, and the area, infrastructure, population, and so on, are overtaken by a new state. If anyone has a good recipe how to handle this task gracefully, effectively, and with justice done to all, I’m sure we’d all like to hear it.

    The way the Germans handled this seems to be, generally, to assume that the responsibility for the crimes of the former state lays at the head, and to disempower and punish (if mildly) the heads of the regime. I don’t know if this is “just,” but look at it from the point of view of the West German democracy: It has survived and has kept the old from influencing the new. Many old Nazis got off easily, that’s true. But not much survived of the Nazi ideology. Only the very power elite of the SED got so much as a slap on the wrist, that’s true also. But nothing at all is left of the societal order that they ruled over. In the long run, vindictiveness will get you nowhere, but surviving and doing your own thing is vital.

    By the way, the victims asking for recompensation should keep in mind that they are asking the Federal Republic of Germany to pay up for the misdeeds of the German Democratic Republic, its enemy of 40 years. It seems they are asking, in the end, that the state agree wholeheartedly with them that tremendous injustice was done to them and at the same time feel such a bad conscience to indemnify them lavishly. That may theoretically be an ideal solution, but in reality it’s absurd to think it’ll happen that way.

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