nthposition online magazine

Stasiland

by Kevin Higgins

[ bookreviews ]

This study of life in the German Democratic Republic might at first glance be dismissed as an attempt by a writer-tourist from a relatively comfortable liberal democracy - Funder is Australian - to finish off something that was already dead. Given that everyone this side of North Korea knows the GDR was a miserable police-state; and that its end was ignominious; what more could there be to say about how ghastly life there was? Funder’s fascination with the GDR was sparked by a visit to Leipzig in 1994: “East Germany still felt like a secret walled-in Garden, a place lost in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if things tasted differently here - apples like pears, say, or wine like blood.” She begins her quest with a visit to Runde Ecke, the Stasi museum, the building that had previously housed the East German Ministry for State Security. The citizens’ committee administering the museum had left all the desks just as they were the night the demonstrators took the building: “frighteningly neat”. There were mounted displays on particleboard screens: “My favourites were the pictures of protestors occupying the building on 4 December 1989... As they entered the building, the Stasi guards had asked to see the demonstrators’ identity cards, in a strange parody of the control they were, at that very moment, losing. The demonstrators, in shock, obediently pulled their cards from their wallets. Then they seized the building.” Given its subject matter Stasiland could easily have become, in the hands of a lesser writer, a worthy but grim effort with a core-readership of insomniacs who specialise in dead Stalinist states. But from the outset, Funder’s acute awareness of the absurdity that often accompanies the worst tyrannies, saves the book from that. In the museum she finds the following instructions to Stasi agents:
SIGNALS FOR OBSERVATION
1. Watch out! Subject is coming - touch nose with hand or handkerchief
2. Subject is moving on, going further, or overtaking - stroke hair with hand, or raise hat briefly
3. Subject standing still - lay one hand against back, or on stomach
4. Observing Agent wishes to terminate observation because cover threatened - bend and retie shoelaces
5. Subject returning - both hands against back, or on stomach
6. Observing Agent wishes to speak with Team Leader or other Observing Agents - take out briefcase or equivalent and examine contents. From this she conjures a blackly comic scene, made all the more laughable by the fact that this was supposedly being done in the name of world socialism: “I pictured the street ballet of the deaf and dumb: agents signalling to each other from corner to corner: stroking noses, tummies, backs and hair, tying and untying shoelaces, lifting their hats to strangers and rifling through papers”. Funder’s curiosity about this spy-dominated society (one full-time Stasi officer for every 63 people) is made all the more acute by her perception that many Germans, particularly those in the West, seem determined to forget it. A work colleague of hers at the overseas television service in what was West Berlin tells her in an outburst: “No-one here is interested - they were backward and they were broke, and the whole Stasi thing... It’s sort of embarrassing.” What really makes this book work is the way Funder leaves, or at least appears to leave, any preconceived ideas she may have had at the door, and allows the people she meets - both the victims and supporters of the old regime - to speak. The other piece of writing her open approach and dead-pan style most calls to mind is Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’. If someone is condemned, then they are condemned mostly by their own words. One of the most exotic characters here is Karl Eduard von Schnitzler, whose job as presenter of The Black Channel in the GDR was “to show extracts from western television broadcast into the GDR - anything from news items to game shows to Dallas - and rip it to shreds.” Funder interviews von Schnitzler and finds him still ranting in the glib, self-righteous way fallen-down apologists for horrible regimes often do. She reads him a long and very bombastic extract from a transcript of one of his broadcasts, which concludes with him saying that the Berlin Wall was “a service to humanity!” But in von Schnitzler’s mind he has nothing whatsoever to be sorry about. “When I finish, he’s staring at me, chin up. ‘And your question young lady?’ ‘My question is whether today you are of the same view about the Wall as something humane, and the killings on the border an act of piece.’ ”He raises his free arm, inhales and screams, ‘More! Than! Ever!’ He brings his fist down.” Like most demagogues, he’s a great believer in exclamation marks. Later, von Schnitzler refers to Erich Mielke, Minister of State Security from 1957 until the regime’s demise, as “a living example of the most humane human being”. When he passed away to his eternal reward in 1999, most of those who’d lived under Mielke’s ever watchful eye begged to differ, and the newspaper headlines read: ‘Most hated man now dead’. As the closest thing the German Democratic Republic ever had to a television critic, it’s perhaps not surprising that von Schnitzler finds time for a rant about the reality TV show Big Brother. However, even when he’s taking easy pot-shots at such ‘decadent’, ‘bourgeois’ targets, von Schnitzler manages to make western capitalist society at its most Martha Stewart/Brittany Spears venal seem infinitely preferable to any version of his socialist workers republic. The tragedy is that he believes every word of his finger-wagging defence of the GDR. Unlike many younger regime apparatchiks, von Schnitzler didn’t originally join the Communist movement out of a wish to make a soft living spying on and brainwashing his neighbours, but for what must have seemed at the time like high principles indeed: “von Schnitzler is one... whose ideas were moulded in the 1920s by the battle against the gross free market injustices of the Weimar Republic and then the outrages of fascism.” Of course, once a political (or religious) movement has convinced itself that it, and it alone, has all of the answers to humanity’s problems, then the telling of politically convenient lies and the demonisation of opponents does tend to become institutionalised. And so the lies multiply until the organisation in question [in this case East Germany’s ruling Party of Democratic Socialism] has, at best, a semi-detached relationship with reality. If people are afraid to tell you the truth, then you’ll never hear it; which is not to say that you’ll escape it, as Stalin’s children, from Honecker to Ceaucescu, all eventually found out. Perhaps the saddest story here is that of Miriam from Leipzig and her husband Charlie. Her story begins in 1968, when “the old University Church was demolished suddenly, without any public consultation.” A demonstration against the demolition was doused by the police with fire-hoses and arrests were made. Miriam, then 16, and her friend Ursula decided “this was not right” and so proceeded to stick up some leaflets which simply said “Consultation, not water cannon!” and “People of the People’s Republic speak up!” This one impetuous teenage act resulted in an eighteen month prison sentence in Stauberg, the women’s prison at Hoheneck. After prison Miriam says that she was “basically no longer human”. Over the next 10 years there followed an unsuccessful attempt to scale the Wall, and then the beating to death in custody of her husband, Charlie, which the Stasi went to elaborate lengths to pass off as a suicide. Miriam’s story, beautifully written by Funder, is on its own well worth the cover price. It is also a stark reminder that however much some of us on the Left may still find it galling to admit, when US Presidents stood on the western side of the Berlin Wall and talked about ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, those words did actually mean something.