Before reading this book my knowledge and understanding of East Germany was minimal at best. I’ve read a lot of books about World War Two but nothing specifically about Germany from 1945 onwards. I know The Wall went up in 1961 and finally came down in 1989 but what happened in between is a mystery to me, and it shouldn’t be. World War Two did not just end and everyone went home in 1945. And The Cold War did not start with a blank slate. After reading Anna Funder’s All That I Am and recently finishing Antony Beevor’s The Second World War, I thought the time was right to read Stasiland which I’d only heard good things about.
Anna Funder’s book is not a history book. It is a personal story about people she met while working in Germany in the mid-1990s. Her interest in East Germany and the Stasi (the Ministry of State Security) was piqued after meeting a woman and hearing her personal story about growing up in East Germany officially known as the German Democratic Republic (why do all the undemocratic nations put democratic in their titles?). Funder then begins seeking out former Stasi officers and other citizens of the GDR and gathers details and stories about their lives under The Stasi.
The book is absolutely fascinating to read. From the total dominance the Stasi had over East Germans ( they could choose your school, your job, your personal relationships) to the way some East Germans accepted this. There are also those who stood up to The Stasi, on both sides of The Wall. Some suffered unimaginable consequences while others seemed to miraculously call a bluff. However what happened in East Germany was truly extraordinary. On the one hand it seems like an extreme punitive measure gone way out of hand following WW2 but on the other hand it was a social ideal of sort that went horribly wrong. The psychological effect the splitting of Germany had was immense particularly on people’s identity both personally and collectively and not simply overcome when The Wall came down and Germany was unified.
Anna Funder brilliantly captures the tragedy of two separate Germanies and its long lasting effects. She skillfully puts a human face not only to the everyday citizens of East Germany but also those who were the instruments of the East German regime. It is a fascinating and brilliantly personal look at a country and a people trying to deal with a terrible and tumultuous recent history and the scars that continue to be bared and inflicted.