Stasiland: A Brief History of the World’s Most Brutal Surveillance State
By Anna Funder
HarperPerennial - Nonfiction
Like a double exposure photograph of German culture taken both last year and twenty years ago, Stasiland does a fantastic job of connecting readers not only to East Germany's surveillance state history, but the present, where the effects of that regime are still felt today.
Stasiland could be defined as a work of "Olstalgie," the German word describing a recent trend of nostalgia towards and increased interest in the disappearing history of the now-defunct Deutsche Demokratische Republik (known to the English speaking world as East Germany), a short-lived socialist dictatorship established by the Soviet Union in their zone of occupation at the end of World War II. Anna Funder, an Australian living in Germany, began what eventually became Stasiland while working at a TV station in Berlin. As East Germany merged into the West and ceased to exist in the early 90's, most of the television and radio programs about the former nation, and its terrifying security service in particular, are written from a Western perspective. Her curiosity of the "East German" view led her to place an ad in a local paper aimed at former employees of the security apparatus, the Stasi.
The Stasi, for those that don't know, was a brutal, unchecked spy service that focused most of its attention on its own citizens. At one point, despite the country's small size, the Stasi was powered by over 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers. The smallest of behaviors, such as having your TV antenna at an angle that would allow for reception of West German TV, could trigger intensive surveillance and even criminal prosecution. The Stasi were reviled by the Germans; when the Berlin Wall fell, most former Stasi men concealed their connection to their previous occupations.
Funder's attempt to find former employees (and victims) of the security services was a success, and her interactions and interviews with these individuals are the central focus of Stasiland. She describes, in good detail, her meetings with interviewees, and the book bounces back and forth between stories told by Germans and Funder's comings and goings.
The interviews conducted by Funder are fantastic. East Germany was a bizarre world, and only through the stories of those who lived through it can anyone truly understand what it was like. Funder should be given great credit for the way in which the humanity of all parties involved is presented. The former Stasi men are easily pegged as cold, inhumane tyrants, but the interviews in Stasiland allow them their chance to tell the world why they participated in such a heinous system. While Funder does not necessarily sympathize (and neither, I suspect, will most readers) with these men, she allows readers to understand their motivations. Misguided as most of the spies were, many of them genuinely believed they were performing a necessary duty for their country.
I have been fascinated by East German history for years, and my intense interest in the subject matter is the foundation for the few gripes I have with this book. Funder spends an awful lot of text describing her feelings and her surroundings in present day Germany in ways that don't really move her narrative along. Several sections of the book grew rather tedious because of this, and on several occasions I found myself skimming for a page until the focus returned to the Germans themselves. This isn't necessarily to say that her writing is bad (it's not), but the personal stories are just so engaging and interesting that they overshadow Funder's day to day life in the present.
I'd recommend this to anybody who appreciates good nonfiction. While I think readers with an existing interest in East German history will love it, I think anybody can appreciate, if not enjoy, the remarkably tangible conveyance of experiences in totalitarianism and tyranny.