BOOK REVIEW: Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

There has been a revival of interest in soviet-era East Germany over the past decade or so. Films such as Goodbye Lenin and the Oscar winning The Lives of Others, and television series such as (the criminally underrated) Deutschland 83 have explored what life was like for those living behind the wall.

The book that perhaps kicked off this revival is Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin wall. Originally published in 2003 it has recently been re-released in a gorgeous new edition by The Folio Society.

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Written when Funder was living and working in a recently re-unified Germany, as the title suggests the book concentrates on the GDR’s secret police, the Stasi, and its victims. The author was inspired to approach this subject when she realised how little it was being discussed in 1990s Germany and the danger it would therefore be brushed under the carpet in the atmosphere of reconciliation.

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Funder seeks out both the victims of the Stasi but also ex-employees of the secret police in order to understand what happened during the soviet period and the impact it had. She speaks to Miriam, whose husband was allegedly murdered by Stasi interrogators, and to Julia, denied entrance to University and blacklisted from working due to an Italian boyfriend.  She speaks to Klaus Renft, a star in the former East Germany until he overstepped the political mark and was banned from performing. Each of these stories reveals the sheer petty arbitrariness of much of the state’s actions. Miriam’s in particular is heartbreaking as she still seeks the truth of what happened to her husband. In many ways her life cannot continue until she knows that truth.

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On the less heroic side of the ledger, Funder interviews those involved in surveillance, trying to understand why they did what they did. Some have seen the error of their ways and seek to make amends. However, most of those Funder speaks too who worked for the government still cling to the illusion that they were engaged in work of value. These moments are the most chilling of the book and, I suspect, the ones that will stay with the reader longest. Of them, the most disturbing is the interview with Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the face of an anti-Western television programme in the GDR called ‘The Black Channel’. This weekly dose of propaganda sought to illustrate the supposed decadence of West Germany and the superiority of the East. It went so far as to explain why those who died trying to escape over the wall deserved to perish. It’s shocking to read how, even now, Herr vo Schnitzler believes what he did was right and justified, and how those who died due to the actions of his superiors did so legitimately.

Funder’s book is a stunning work of empathetic journalism and a must read for anybody with an interest in the period. It’s often said that there’s nothing so lost to us as the immediate past, Stasiland should stand as an example to those seeking to fight against this and bring shameful recent actions into the light.

Anna Funder

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Anna Funder’s writing has received numerous accolades and awards. Her essays, feature articles and columns have appeared in The GuardianThe Sunday TimesThe Sydney Morning HeraldThe MonthlyNy TidBest Australian Essaysand Best Australian Science Writing. A sought-after speaker, Anna has toured in many countries. A former DAAD (Berlin), Australia Council, NSW Writing Fellow and Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, in 2011 Anna was named in the ‘Top 100 People of Influence’ by the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2011 Anna was appointed to the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts.

Before turning to writing full-time in the late 1990’s, Anna worked as an international lawyer for the Australian Government focusing on human rights, constitutional law, and treaty negotiation. After jettisoning a legal career to write STASILAND, she jobbed for a time as a radio and television documentary producer at the ABC. Anna holds BA (Hons), LLB (Hons) and an M.A. and a Doctorate in Creative Arts, and speaks fluent French and German. She grew up in Melbourne and Paris, and lives in Sydney with her husband and three children.

Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall was published by The Folio Society.

You can purchase a copy of Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall from the Folio Society:

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Review by Joseph Surtees

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Read Joseph Surtee’s Interview with Max Porter below…

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