Monday, April 16, 2012

Guest Review - Stasiland by Anna Funder

Stasiland: A Brief History of the World’s Most Brutal Surveillance State

By Anna Funder

Copyright 2011

HarperPerennial - Nonfiction

304 pp.

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.

About the guest reviewer: He prefers to keep his name anonymous (but that's him, at left). My guest reviewer is a long-time history buff with a particular interest in the Cold War. He especially enjoys reading non-fiction and agreed to write a guest review of Stasiland when Bookfool began reading the book and discovered how little she knows about both the time and place.

Many thanks to my guest reviewer!

©2012 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Nice job, Guest Reviewer! I think you've got a bright future in book blogging if you're interested. :)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kookie! I agree! :)

  2. What a great review, guest reviewer! I love that you got so in-depth with the coverage of this book, and a lot of the things that you mentioned in your review were new to me. Thanks for sharing this with us! You did a great job!

    1. I don't know if my guest reviewer visits my blog, so I'll pass your comments on to him, Zibilee! Thanks!

  3. I've been wanting to read this ever since Nick Hornby raved about it in one of his books. It came out here recently, finally, and it's on my to-buy list. YOur guest reviewer did such a wonderful job that the book is moved up to the top of the list now!

    1. Ooooh, Nick Hornby raved about it? I tend to love his recommendations. I'm thinking I'll give it a second go, now that I've read up a little, but that's dependent upon whether or not I can get the book back from my guest reviewer, LOL . I'll tell him you enjoyed his review! Thanks and hope you enjoy it!

  4. I read Anna Funder's novel All That I Am earlier this year and saw enough to make me want to read this book!

    Good review Guest Reviewer!

    1. I must have missed that review, Marg. I'll have to go look it up.

      Will pass on your kudos to my guest reviewer, thanks. :)


Thank you for visiting my blog! I use comment moderation because apparently my blog is a spam magnet. Don't worry. If you're not a robot, your comment will eventually show up and I will respond, with a few exceptions. If a comment smacks of advertising, contains a dubious link or is offensive, it will be deleted. I love to hear from real people! I'm a really chatty gal and I love your comments!