Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall (London, 2011).
It will come as no surprise to you to find out that whenever I go on holiday somewhere, I usually end up buying a book about the place. Sometimes I do this in advance so I can take the book with me, as I ended up doing with a small pile of Jack Kerouac books taken with me on a road trip down the East Coast of the USA. Sometimes I pick up a book on my travels and delve in, as I did with Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express on that same holiday (I read the latter and had to give up on the former, I find Kerouac a bit hard-going). Other times I return from holiday and am instantly looking for relevant books to pick up, as I did on my most recent trip to America, where I ended up with another pile of books on US history and Chinese and Japanese art (thanks to a very pleasant trip to San Francisco’s Museum of Asian Art).
Last week, I went on a short trip to Berlin, a place that has long been high on my ‘to-do’ list. The city, such a lodestone of cultural expression and possessed of such a rich history, has long fascinated me, no doubt given a recent shot in the arm by the excellent spy drama Deutschland ’83 on Channel Four. Needless to say, like everyone else I have met who has been there, I loved Berlin. What’s more, I came away wanting to know more about this incredible place and, more broadly the history of Germany – something that I had never really delved into after years of studying colonial Africa. When I got back I ordered some books. One of them is reviewed here, one of them I haven’t read yet, and the final one hasn’t been delivered to me. One of these books is about Prussia (more on that when I review it) and the other two were about the Cold War, a conflict in which Germany played a crucial role. Time for a history lesson, yay!
For those who don’t know, the Cold War was a decades-long conflict between the two superpowers who ruled the roost after the Second World War. In ‘the West’ (more of an umbrella term than a reflection of geography – Australia and New Zealand were in ‘The West’), there was the United States of America and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, founded in 1949). In ‘the East’, the Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact. While outright conventional (and, thankfully, nuclear) conflict between the two blocs was avoided, the period that was known as the Cold War actually included countless ‘hot’ wars. Sometimes these were proxy wars fought with US or Soviet support in places like Angola or Central America, sometimes they were wars in which the powers fought themselves such as the US in the Vietnam War and the Soviets in Afghanistan (‘also known as ‘How the Taliban got its Weapons’). The salient point is that while there wasn’t a World War III there was a great deal of violence, bloodshed and misery for people, often in the Third World (itself a term coined during the Cold War – the ‘First’ world was the west, and the ‘Second’ world the East, the ‘Third’ world described unaligned states like India), as a consequence of the posturing of the superpowers.
The European front line of the Cold War was the Inner German Border, then one of the most secure borders in the world. After the Second World War, the victorious Allied Powers (Britain, the USA, Russia) divided the country of Germany between them into occupation zones. Berlin itself was also divided into sectors. This might seem a bit confusing, but it is an important distinction that I didn’t about know about myself until visiting Berlin. What this meant in short was that after WW2:
- Some of what had been Germany was given back to Poland and France (the borders between the three were always a bit contentious).
- What was left of Germany was first split into four occupation zones (with British, French, US and Soviet sectors). Berlin, actually far inside the Soviet Sector, was also split into four (between the same countries).
- In 1949 the three ‘western’ sectors (British, French, US) became the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
- In the same year, the ‘eastern’ part of Germany, under Soviet control, became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany or the GDR/DDR – DDR is short for Deutsches Demokratische Republik).
- However, despite this Berlin itself continued to be split between the British, French, Americans and Soviets until German reunification in 1990.
Thus it was that the divided Germany became, symbolically and strategically, the front line of the Cold War. Its central European location meant that, if the Soviets were to invade the West, it would be through Germany. It is for this reason that Britain’s largest overseas military presence in the last few decades has been in Germany.
Nothing symbolised the divided Germany better than the Berlin Wall. Tired of the mass exodus of East German citizens to the West through Berlin, the rulers of the GDR decided to take extreme measures by closing the border overnight on 12 August 1961 and subsequently erecting what they described as an ‘anti-fascist protective wall’. The much-maligned Wall (die Mauer in German) was actually a series of fortifications as can be seen below. To get across the border wall one first had to scale another wall, get through an alarmed security fence, avoid dogs, security patrols, and guard towers in the well-lit ‘death strip’ (which was often mined) and then scale a second wall to get into the West. It was this second, higher, wall that directly bordered the West and probably gave the border fortification system its singular name. East German border guards were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to escape, and were given cash rewards and incentives for using their weapons.
Over 100 people died trying to get across the Wall. One of the earliest was 18-year old Peter Fechter. Fechter was a bricklayer who, along with a friend, tried to scale the Wall near the famous ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. Fechter’s friend made it over, but Fechter himself was shot in the pelvis in front of hundreds of witnesses. Peter fell back into the ‘death strip’, where he could still be seen, but not helped, from the West. American soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie were under orders not to go and help him so as not to provoke the Eastern border guards. Fechter took an hour to bleed to death and it was another hour before the border guards fetched his body away.
Preserved Berlin Wall, Tower, and ‘Death Strip’ – Bernaur Strasse.
As I mentioned above, Fechter was one of the first to die trying to cross the Wall, his death a stark reminder to those in the East wanting to cross over. But why did people want to flee the East so badly that they were prepared to risk death? Anna Funder’s Stasiland (we finally got to the book review!) gives us a sense of what life was like in the East which goes some way to helping answer this question.
As an historian and a cynic I am incredibly suspicious of neat, polarising narratives of anything. The Cold War is perhaps the quintessential example of this in modern history (provided that we still consider ‘The War on Terror’ to be current affairs). In the history, written by the victors in the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states represented a victory of freedom, democracy, justice, and so on. Of course, this narrative is up for contestation. The West did plenty of awful things in the fight against communism which make its attempt to take the moral high ground problematic. Brutal dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and General Pinochet in Chile were supported by the West for their anti-communist stances, the white-minority regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia liked to justify their domination of the black majority populations of their countries in terms of anti-communism, and the mass bombing and chemical warfare of Vietnam was easily as bad as anything the Soviet Union did (NB: I am not trying to ‘rehabilitate’ the Soviet Union here, I am simply saying the two sides were as bad as each other, not such a controversial statement really). However, when you have to build a huge wall and series of border fortifications to stop your people from emigrating, that is a pretty unambiguous statement that all is not well in your country.
Funder’s book is part-autobiography, part oral-history. It is written with a sort of lyricality that one does not normally find in history books, particularly the personal parts. I appreciate that, for some perhaps, these personal interludes about the author’s own journey into Germany’s past would be unwelcome distractions from the more important stories contained within, but it felt to me (a person who usually has little time for this sort of stuff) like they worked well to hold the story together. Funder, an Australian, begins by describing her time working at a radio station in Berlin in the ’90s where she describes her curiosity at the lack of interest in the stories of East Germans.
Her and me both. Perhaps I just have a thing for now-vanished Cold War era states, but the story of the East Germans after reunification is one that fascinates me. In a country where the state was working its socks off to indoctrinate the populace against Western imperialism, how have people responded and reacted to losing everything they once knew? The story of the reunification of Germany seems like the quintessential happy ending, and the pictures of jubilant crowds atop the Berlin Wall in 1989 seem to reflect that, what Funder reveals is something much messier, much sadder, and invariably much more complicated.
Though it had one of the highest standards of living in the Eastern Bloc, East Germany was still a state which suffered from shortages and oppression. Indeed the GDR’s leadership was famously reactive, refusing to accept the more open policies pursued by the Soviets in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev. The will of the ruling party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party or SED), was enforced by the truly frightening Ministry for State Security, colloquially known as the ‘Stasi’. The activities of the Stasi are, unsurprisingly, central to the narrative of Stasiland. Here grey-suited secret policemen watched over the population, with an army of informers at their disposal. It was the job of the Stasi to know everything about everyone, and it is believed that they produced and stored in 36 years a documentary record cumulatively greater than everything produced in Germany since the Middle Ages. The Stasi bugged apartments, steamed open mail, could prevent you from getting a job or seeing your family, tortured and imprisoned countless people, and assiduously collected as much information on East Germans as possible, right down to their scents – which were taken from dirty clothing or chair covers used in interrogations and then stored in airtight jars for the sniffer dogs.
If you want a visual interpretation of what it meant to live in a place where your every move was closely scrutinised, and where you never knew just who might be informing on you, watch the excellent film The Lives of Others. If you want to read a book about it, read Stasiland. Funder achieves a nice balance between the victims of the Stasi and members of the Stasi themselves (some proudly unrepentant). I can’t really go into much detail without spoiling the stories – but some selections include Miriam, a woman who tried and almost succeeded in jumping the wall aged 16, an aging rocker who was once told by a censorship panel that his band no longer existed, a former foreign-service Stasi agent and a man who painted out the line on which the Berlin Wall would be built.
In amidst these interviews is the slightly more trite but well-written tale of a journalist working on a story and being quite clearly emotionally affected by it all. In this sense it reminded me quite a bit of Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, about an Afrikaner journalist’s experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, unlike Krog, who felt a personal connection and implication in the Apartheid era, Funder simply feels a human connection with the lost, broken souls of the former East. These were people who had suffered so greatly under a totalitarian regime and now struggled to respond to its passing. She speaks of women who are afraid to turn up to appointments on time because they resent the orderliness and structure that such things represent, of ex-Stasi men who go to gatherings with agendas, and the use of formal ranks. Others have moved on, or try to live their lives as best they can in the new Germany. Inbetween these illuminating and often quite sad personal stories, Funder gives plenty of information about the Stasi and the GDR itself for those who enjoy their history a bit more impersonal.
In all of this, Funder remains sharply critical of the GDR. She herself condemns the so-called Ostalgie – as longing for the East is known. I even saw manifestations of it myself in Berlin with ‘Trabant Safaris’ (the Trabant was a much-maligned car which became a symbol of East Germany), and bright blue vans at food markets selling ‘DDR Eis’ (DDR Ice-cream). When I went to visit the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining strip of the wall, the river-front was crammed with hipsters and tourists (myself included of course). Across the road, major building work was taking place and behind it all gleamed the Mercedes Benz Arena, hosting expensive rock concerts for ‘stadium’ bands like Iron Maiden. Standing there amidst the detritus of a sunny weekend day, the chip wrappers and the recklessly shattered bottles of beer, I remember looking through the rickety construction site fencing that had been erected to protect the Wall from taggers to the towering arena beyond and wondering what Easterners would make of it all. Funder tells of people who miss aspects of the GDR, bemoaning the criminality and materiality of the West and recognising that if you played by the rules, there were things to like about the country, but she warns that all this was never worth the cost of personal liberty (and sanity) that came with it. While its rapid collapse in 1989-90 suggested that the good outweighed the bad, Funder’s book shows us that for many people the transition was rarely this simple and some part of them remains in that gone-away world, a time and place that once constituted everything they knew and now no longer exists.
I am going to give this five Euros (in recognition of Germany’s position as the economic powerhouse of Europe and also in recognition of the book being really good). €€€€€
For those interested in more information about Cold War era Germany:
- Western Allies Berlin – lots of information about the US, British, and French in Berlin.
- History.com – the Berlin Wall, many video clips re; the Wall and divided Germany.
- Listen to Anna Funder give a short lecture on her book. Be warned, this includes spoilers for The Lives of Others which Funder criticises as fantastical (I stand by it as an accessible depiction of Stasi methodology).
- Short clip from The Lives of Others showing the Stasi doing what they did best.
- A BBC documentary on life in East Germany.