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.