Friday, April 14

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

I just finished one of the more amazing books I've ever read: Stasiland, by Anne Funder, about former East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. Communist East Germany).

I say it's about former East Germans, rather than about Germany, because it's told through ordinary people's stories of their experiences as East Germans. The stories all have a common focus: the country's Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi—sort of a supercharged version of the U.S. CIA and FBI combined.

The Stasi spied relentlessly on their own people in an effort to quell dissent and opposition to the government, but to ridiculous ends. Figures on the number of Stasi agents, and how this compares to other countries, are a bit squidgy. But estimates hold that at least one in 60—and perhaps as many as one in six—East Germans were spying on each other, either as Stasi agents, or as full- or part-time informers who collaborated with the Stasi. This is something like 10 times or more the number of Gestapo agents Hitler's Third Reich had, or KGB agents in Stalin's USSR.

The huge number of Stasi agents and informers led to some strange situations:
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 were really were. In one of the most beautiful ironies I have ever seen, 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.

The Stasi manipulated all aspects of people's lives, so if a person ran afoul of them for some reason, they might have problems like mysterious life-long difficulty in getting a job. Of course, since it was a Communist state, these people would still be supported in some way. But it made people frustrated, paranoid, and want to leave. And these were the ones who made out relatively OK in their run-in with the state.

Funder, the author, spoke to a woman who, as a sixteen-year-old, put up some fliers that were ever-so-slightly subversive and who got thrown in jail and tortured with sleep deprevation until she confessed to being a member of a conspiracy (which she wasn't). After being let out of jail after this experience, the girl immediately tried to escape over the Wall. She climbed over barbed wire and past a guard dog and almost made it before getting caught—which landed here more than a year in prison.

Although the courage of those who resisted the government, either in small or brash ways, are inspiring, what makes the book truly captivating is the conversations Funder had with ex-Stasi agents. Some of them were not so into their work, but seemed to have just gotten sucked up in the whole thing. Clearly, some of them were twisted: those who tortured prisoners, and so on. But many of them seem fairly ordinary, which makes it somewhat more disturbing. Almost like this could happen anywhere.

The most fascinating and encouraging facet of the whole book is how the government finally collapsed without any fighting. I still don't fully understand how the collapse happened, but it seems they were so out of touch that when protests against the government continued gathering strength, the Stasi and government leaders weren't sure what to do. They holed up in their buildings and stocked up on ammo, started shredding the rooms full of documents they'd collected from spying on people. Then when the protests got too strong, they just gave way and people occupied the buildings. Practically overnight, they were taken over and turned into museums of a government that vanished.

But the Stasi men are still around. Funder talked to a bunch of them, and tried to understand what it must be like for the rest of the former East Germans to know that the men who used to spy on them are walking amongst them still. Almost no one has been prosecuted for any part in the East German government.

But most Germans, either from the former East or West, seem determined to forget about the whole thing, Funder writes. East Germans don't seem too interested in talking about who was and wasn't involved, probably because so many of them were, and so many of the rest of them went along with it even though they didn't like it.

After World War II, the East German government made a lot of effort to distance themselves from the Nazi government, and make it sound like it was only West Germans who were responsible. Some East Germans would talk about it as something that happened to the country, rather than as something that they were collectively responsible for.

Although now there is a big effort to remember the Holocaust here, at the same time there seems to a similar process of forgetting about East Germany, Funder says. The Berlin wall has, except for a few hundred meters of it, been all torn down and crunched up to use in construction and building highways. Funder wrote her book to capture some of these stories of East Germany before, like the Wall, they disappear back into the walls and ground.


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