Interview with Anna Funder

Adventures in Stasiland

Anna Funder

In 1949, a year after George Orwell published his dystopian novel 1984, the world of Big Brother became a stark reality for 17 million Germans who found themselves living in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. A communist state that attempted to rise above Nazism, the G.D.R. soon substituted that system’s cruelties with abuses of its own. Its notorious secret service, the Stasi—which, at its height, had as many as one informer for every 6.5 people—was uniquely positioned to spy on citizens. Once it had designated someone an “enemy of the state,” the Stasi was empowered to monitor every detail of his life, from the novels on his shelves to his child’s friends or his favorite beer.

Australian Anna Funder’s first contact with East Germany came in the 1980s, when she was a student in West Berlin. “I wondered long and hard what went on behind that Wall,” she writes in Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall (Granta). A couple of day trips to the East only served to heighten her curiosity, and after the Wall fell in 1989, she returned to work in Berlin and began collecting the stories that would form the basis of her first book.

In Stasiland, Funder set out to find out how it felt to live in “the most perfected surveillance state of all time.” She interviewed Miriam Weber, who was imprisoned as a teenager after scaling the Berlin Wall, and Klaus Renft—the East’s Mick Jagger—who was once declared by authorities to “no longer exist.” She also talked to Sigrid Paul, a timid dental technician who found an untapped reservoir of courage when the Berlin Wall separated her from her baby son, desperately ill in a West Berlin hospital.

No less fascinating were the men who kept the Stasi machinery running smoothly, and in Stasiland, Funder includes their stories too. After placing an advertisement in a local paper, she was flooded with responses from ex-Stasi officers who, eager to tell their stories, came out of the woodwork to describe the bizarre methods the Stasi used to track their victims. These ranged from planting irradiated pins in suspects’ clothes to collecting “smell samples” from them.

Funder’s careful portraits of the people she meets from “Stasiland” shine a dazzling light on one of the world’s most paranoid and secretive regimes, and its effects on contemporary German society. Nominated for several literary prizes in her native Australia, Stasiland is a lyrical and quirky examination of a country gone wrong.

You started this book when you were working at a TV station in West Berlin that broadcast to foreign countries, and a viewer wrote to ask why the station didn’t do any stories on the former G.D.R. Your bosses said it was because nobody was interested in East Germans, that the whole story of the G.D.R. was embarrassing and best forgotten. Was that a prevalent attitude, and is it still?

I’m probably not the best person to talk about the West German attitude toward East Germans—but yes, that’s what I did notice. It was as though the hick cousins, the ones you’re related to but embarrassed by, suddenly come to stay in your house. Given 40 years of socialism and the very deliberate attempt to create a different sort of person, it’s hardly surprising that there was mutual suspicion. I didn’t get the sense that people were proud of those who had resisted the regime. Even though those resisters were relatively few, they were certainly there.

One of those resisters was Miriam Weber, whose story set the book in motion for you. She was a teenager who was put in prison after she attempted to scale the Berlin Wall, and who subsequently lost her husband to probable Stasi torture. What was it about her story that moved you so much?

I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but I think I can say now that I was looking for stories of courage. In a world that’s divided into Us and Them, it takes extreme courage to resist oppression—when you come across that kind of courage in a young woman like Miriam, it’s inspiring. I think I’m interested in it because I’m yellow-bellied myself—you’re always interested in what you don’t have.

Did it help that you were coming in as an outsider looking at the former East Germany, and what did the outsider’s perspective give you?

I think it helped enormously. If this book had been written by a German, people would have been looking for a political agenda and assuming that it had one. That’s not to say that I didn’t have all kinds of pre-existing prejudices. But being an outsider made my life easier in a very practical sense. Specifically, some of the Stasi men I interviewed wanted to talk to me because I was an Australian, where they wouldn’t have spoken to a German. One said to me in all seriousness, before handing over a copy of Karl Marx’s manifesto, “I want to talk to you because I think that perhaps your media in Australia will be open to socialism.” Also, it made it easier for some people to tell their stories, because if you’re telling your story to someone from Mars, you have to tell it very fully. You can’t use shorthand, or say, “Oh, you know what it’s like,” because that person doesn’t know.

What do you think accounts for the fact that so many ex-Stasi men were willing to come forward and tell their stories?

It varied. In some cases it was the chance to proselytize. Herr Winz, who I quoted before, did think that Australia would be a new market for socialism. In general, though, these were men used to having power and living in a place where there was no free press. To be stripped of authority so suddenly was a very big shock to them. I think they wanted to talk to someone who found them important. There are exceptions to that rule. Herr Christian, who worked as a Stasi encrypter and became a private detective after unification, had had some difficult times in the Stasi, and was imprisoned because he’d been unfaithful to his wife. So he had mixed feelings.

There’s a great line in the book where you say that after unification, many ex-Stasi men went into jobs in insurance, telemarketing, and real estate, and that they were suited for these jobs, having been “schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their own self-interest.” What’s your sense of how these men have integrated into German society? Are they accepted or vilified?

My impression from being there recently is that Westerners say, “We can’t judge the Stasi because if we’d lived in that system maybe we would have collaborated.” I think that’s a well-intentioned but mistaken thing to say. You can say, in retrospect, that what happened was wrong, and that people who perpetrated this system should be punished. The ex-Stasi men have work histories, employment records, skills, and education, so their employment prospects are quite good—much better than the rest of their countrymen. Still, the older and higher ranking ones are bitter, and some belong to organizations that meet regularly and perpetrate vengeful acts on citizens’ rights campaigners. People’s brake leads have been cut, perhaps pornography will be delivered to your door that you haven’t ordered, or your child will be picked up from school by a stranger and taken to drink hot chocolate.

There was a law passed in the early 1990s where Germany decided that if you’d been in a public position, for example if you were a policeman who informed for the Stasi, you couldn’t continue to hold that position. This was for the good reason that many people would have known that that person had been in the Stasi, and it would be inappropriate for such a person to continue representing the state. But with the exception of the higher-ups, there have been very few actions taken against ex-Stasi officials.

After the fall of the G.D.R., there was a lot of discussion over whether to open up the Stasi files to the public. West Germany, in its draft unification treaty, wanted to keep them under federal control but relented after there were public protests. Does that seem to have been a good decision?

Well, it’s an interesting issue. Access to the files was very hotly debated at the beginning of the 1990s. None of the other formerly communist countries granted access the way Germany did. It was assumed that blood would run in the streets, that people would seek private revenge on their informers. That didn’t happen, and I don’t know quite why, but I think people were just too demoralized by the betrayals. Now, as a result of a legal action by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, there are various limits being imposed on access to files, and repeated threats to shut them. It continues to be a very controversial issue.

The G.D.R. was run by “the two Erichs”—Honecker, the Prime Minister, and Mielke, the head of the Stasi. Honecker’s image was everywhere, but Mielke was an invisible, malevolent presence. What kind of a man was he?

Well, here’s a bizarre fact that I didn’t put in the book. I’d long been fascinated by George Orwell’s work, but I resisted reading 1984 until I finished the manuscript for Stasiland. After that, I devoured it, and I couldn’t believe Orwell’s prescience. When I went into Mielke’s office, I saw it had the number 101, which in 1984 is the number of the torture chamber. 1984 was banned in the G.D.R. but of course, Mielke and Honecker had access to banned material. The guide told me that Mielke wanted this number so much that even though his office was on the 2nd floor, he had the entire first floor renamed the Mezzanine so that he could call his room 101.

He was a small man who liked to display medals in shiny rows on his chest. He also liked marching songs, inspecting troops, and killing animals, which he’d lay out for inspection as though they were troops. He was deeply paranoid, sophisticated in some ways and utterly thuggish in others. By the end, it seemed as though he’d gone completely mad. After the Wall fell, he stood up in Parliament and said, “But I love you all”—as if everything he’d done had been in the service of the nation and out of love of the people.

At the height of G.D.R., there was as many as one Stasi informer per 6.5 citizens (including part-time informers). In the book, you quote various people who speculate on why East Germans were willing to inform on their neighbors. Herr Bock, a Stasi officer who recruited and trained informers, says it gave people the feeling that they were important and that they had one over on their neighbor. On the other hand, there’s a psychologist who says it satisfied something in the German mentality, a need for order and discipline. What’s your theory?

I didn’t really come to any hard and fast conclusions—but I think one of the interesting things about this situation is that it’s a slippery slope people face all the time. If your boss takes you out to lunch and asks you to criticize someone in the office, or a friend wants you to rat on another friend—those things happen frequently, and you can do it or not. The fact that this nation ran on such betrayals is a terrible exploitation of a very human trait. People from both East and West told me that Germans had a love for order, discipline, and subservience to authority. But who’s to say if those things pre-date the systems that were imposed on Germans in the 20th century—Nazism and communism.

One of the biggest questions the book poses is whether it’s healthier (for a person, a group, a country) to remember a painful past, or to try to forget it and move on. Did you come to any conclusions about that?

I think the question of how useful it is to rework trauma is a very individual one; it’s a balancing act for each person. There’s one school of thought that says you deal with a past trauma in analysis and then you move on, but that’s a fiction we tell ourselves. You don’t just get something out and move on. In a political sense, not a psychological one, I think it’s incredibly important to compensate people who’ve suffered under a terrible regime—until that’s done, there’s no moving on, and it’s a double repression.

One of the most moving sections in the book concerns Sigrid Paul, whose very sick baby son was spirited across the border to a hospital in West Berlin to save his life. Frau Paul subsequently tried to escape to the West, failed, then refused to betray the West German student who’d helped her, even when the Stasi offered her a deal that would have meant seeing her son. She was jailed for five years. One reason her story is so poignant is that she still sees herself as a criminal. Has the Federal Republic of Germany ever established any prizes or commendations for people like her who resisted Stasi blackmail?

It’s possible that there have been prizes given out to the most famous of the resisters. I started working on this book in 1995, and if that had happened at that point, I didn’t know about it. In Frau Paul’s case, not only did she not get any kind of reward, she also found it difficult to get any kind of restitution for being a political prisoner. That’s an extreme situation, but it’s not that uncommon. It’s generally quite difficult for people to prove that their current illnesses are due to having been in a Stasi prison.

Now that there’s a younger generation coming of age that didn’t experience the regime of the G.D.R. so directly, is integration becoming easier?

I think it is. I think if you were a kid or a teenager when the wall fell in 1989, you were pretty much unscathed by the regime. In 20 years time, the G.D.R. will look like a 40-year blip in German history. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be worthy of continued examination. In current-day politics we swing between left and right on a very narrow spectrum, but it’s worth remembering that extremism is never very far away. After World War II, there was a big survey conducted in Germany where people were asked about Nazism, and many people said that it was a good idea, it just suffered in the implementation. I think that sort of thinking is the beginning of the end—obviously, in any political system it’s the implementation that counts.

Are there any plans to publish Stasiland in Germany?

It’s under consideration at the moment, and I think it will be published there, but it’s a sensitive issue. So far it’s been sent to more than 20 publishers in Germany, and had more than 20 rejections. One rejection letter said, this is the best book by a foreigner on this issue—which, given that it’s the only book by a foreigner on the subject, isn’t much of a compliment—but in the current political climate, it can’t be published. It’s generally believed that people want to forget about the past and move on—but I find it curious that they wouldn’t want to know about this when so much remains unresolved. I think that as long as Miriam doesn’t know what really happened to her husband Charlie, and Frau Paul and other political prisoners don’t have restitution, this is an issue German society needs to know about.