When Anna Funder visited the former East Germany in 1994–five years after the Wall came down–she found it to be a very strange place, “a place lost in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if things had tasted different here–apples like pears, say, or wine like blood.” The German Democratic Republic, as it called itself, had been a suffocating surveillance state, dedicated to the monitoring and control of every aspect of its citizens’ lives–enforced by a huge organization known as the Ministry for State Security, Staatssicherheit, abbreviated Stasi.
Funder, an Australian, came to Germany in the 1980s after studying the language in school, and often wondered what went on behind the Wall. She became convinced that the stories of the people who had lived in East Germany…both those who had suffered under the regime and the perpetrators of the suffering…needed to be told. In 1996, she moved to the former GDR city of Leipzig and gathered the stories that resulted in this book.
Her first interviewee was a woman named Miriam. In 1968, protest demonstrations arose in Leipzig–the proximate cause being the government’s demolition of an old church–and were quickly crushed. Miriam and her friend Ursula were appalled at the regime’s brutality. “At sixteen you have an idea of justice, and we just thought it was wrong.” Miriam and Ursula were not anti-regime at this point, just anti-beating-people-up-for-protesting. They bought a child’s stamp set and used it for a makeshift printing facility, making posters and putting them up around town. Quickly, they were caught and both were held in solitary confinement for a month and repeatedly interrogated. Eventually, they confessed and was released to await their trials.
Miriam had no intention of going back to prison, and decided to go over the Wall instead.
She came very close to making it, but ultimately failed. (Telling the story to Funder many years later, she expressed concern about the fate of the police dog which had fallen down on the job, allowing her to almost get away.) Again she faced interrogation, this time for 10 hours a night, and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. Following her release, she met her husband-to-be, Charlie, who was a phys ed teacher. He also wound up in trouble with the regime: swimming out too far into the Baltic Sea led to his arrest on suspicion of wanting to leave the country. Although he was released, he fell under further suspicion after assisting Miriam’s sister and her husband in their unsuccessful escape attempt. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1980 as part of a roundup of potential troublemakers on the eve of West German Chancellor Schmidt’s planned visit, and soon thereafter Miriam was told to come pick up his things–that he had hanged himself in prison. Miriam suspected, apparently with good reason, that he had in fact not committed suicide but had rather been beaten and killed by Stasi.
In 1989, Miriam was expelled from East Germany, on less than one day’s notice. A few months later, the regime fell and the Wall came down. When Funder talked with her, she had been unable–despite her stringent efforts–to find out what really happened to Charlie.
She chose to live in an apartment building without elevators…they were too reminiscent of prison cells. Brave and strong and broken all at once is the way Funder describes Miriam’s psychological state. Sometimes, Miriam liked to drive up to the former Stasi building and park right outside. “‘I just sit there in the car and feel…triumph!’ Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone.’”
There are other stories–for example, that of Sigrid Paul, whose son was born in 1961 with severe health problems. His life was saved by West Berlin doctors, and when the Wall went up he was separated from his parents. Stasi attempted to enlist Mrs Paul in a plot whereby she would be allowed to be with her son IF she would assist them by meeting with a certain person–a border-crossing activist named Michael Hinze–in the West. Remembering the case of Wilhelm Fricke, who had been kidnapped from West Berlin by the Stasi, she was sure they had the same fate in mind for Michael Hinze–and she refused their deal. But the psychological price was high.
“Me–bait in a trap for Michael! And of course that was an absolute no. I couldn’t.” Her back is straight, and her hands are clenched into fists on her thighs. “Karl Wilhelm Fricke,” she says, “was my guardian angel!” She starts to crumble and break. At this moment, she does not look like a woman who was saved from anything. “I had to decide against my son, but I couldn’t let myself be used in this way.’ Her back slumps and she is crying again.
Funder talked with numerous former Stasi and other GDR officials, most of whom were nostalgic for the past and unrepentant about the regime’s atrocities. Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, for example, hosted a television program called The Black Channel, which was dedicated to exposing the “lies” told by the Western media about the GDR…and when interviewed by Funder still defended his support of the Wall as something humane and the killings at the border as acts of peace. Mr Winz, who had worked in counterintelligence and now ran an association of former Stasi officers, strongly defended the Old Regime and argued that things had gotten much worse since the end of the Communist regime.
“This capitalism is, above all, exploitation! It is unfair. It’s brutal…Each industrialist is a criminal at war with the other, each business at war with the next!…Capitalism plunders the planet, too–this hole in the ozone layer, the exploitation of the forests, pollution–we must get rid of this social system! Otherwise the human race will not last the next fifty years!”
The stifling and almost surrealistic nature of the GDR’s totally-government-dominated society comes through strongly in this book. “In the GDR people were required to acknowledge an assortment of fictions as fact. Some of these fictions were fundamental, such as the idea that human nature is a work-in-progress which can be improved upon, and that Communism is the way to do it. Others were more specific: that East Germans were not the Germans were responsible (even in part) for the Holocaust; that the GDR was a multi-party democracy; that socialism was peace-loving..Many people withdrew into what they called ‘internal emigration’. They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities.”
The regime attempted to tightly control the language. Julia, one of Funder’s interviewees, was at the Employment Office looking for a job–she turned to the man behind her in line and asked, “So how long have you been unemployed?” She was immediately chastised by an official for using the term “unemployed”…”You are not unemployed; you are seeking work. When Julia responded, “I’m seeking work because I’m unemployed,” the official started to shout: “I said, you are not unemployed, you are seeking work! and then, almost hysterically “There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic.”
Julia did pick up a little money working as a tour group leader…but she couldn’t call herself that–because the German word for “leader” is “fuehrer,” and that word had been banned due to its Hitlerian connotation. So instead, she was a Stadtbilderklaererin…a “town plan explainer.” Similarly, a locomotive engineer could not be called by the traditional term train-driver, but was instead a Lokkapitaen…a “locomotive captain.”
For those with spirit and integrity, the stifling environment was agonizing. “Every Wednesday before the Party meetings, Dad would be in a foul mood,” said Julia of her father, a teacher, “really grim.” “(He) spoke up against things he disagreed with, such as recruiting eighth-graders for the army, or teaching boring Russian socialist-realist novels. He would come home hollow. ‘They dressed him down like a child in there.’” Julia’s father retired as soon as he could, and required medication for depression. “Living for so long in a relation of unspoken hostility but outward compliance to the state had broken him.”
And if someone didn’t appreciate the wonderfulness of life in the GDR, why, there was clearly something wrong with him. Browsing through documents at the Stasi Law School at Potsdam, Funder saw a dissertation topic “On the Probable Causes of the Psychological Pathology of the Desire to Commit Border Infractions.”
The overall head of Stasi was Erich Mielke. In an interview, Funder notes that Mielke’s office was on the second floor of his headquarters building, so the office number normally would have started with a “2.” But Mielke had the entire first floor renamed the mezzanine, so that his office number could be 101.
Room 101, in George Orwell’s 1984, was the ultimate torture chamber in the regime’s “Ministry of Love.”
There is a lot of very good descriptive writing in this book. Two examples:
A bar in Leipzig:
Auerbach’s Cellar is a famout Leipzig institution It is an underground bar and restaurant with oak bench tables in long alcoves under a curved roof, just like a cellar. The walls and ceilings are covered with ark painted scenes from Goethe’s Faust: Faust meeting Mephistopheles, Faust betraying Margarethe, Faust in despair. Goethe used to drink here. It is a good place to meet the devil.
In the morning Miriam takes me to the station To my relief I find a copy shop, so I can give Charlie’s poem back to her. She comes to the platform and waits till the train moves out, silent and slow. The girl opposite me lip-smacks her puppy; on the platform an older dog huffs and rearranges itself in jealousy. Then Miriam waves and walks away, straightbacked into the sunlight.
An important book, well-written, which deserves to be widely read.
See also Claire Berlinski’s post A Hidden History of Evil, which is about the unread Soviet archives. and my review of Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of life in Germany between the wars, including the early Nazi era.
Funder has also written a recently-published novel, All That I Am, which tells the story of a group of anti-Nazi Germans, some of the characters are based on real historical people. I’ll be reviewing it in the not too distant future.