Recently I re-read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, fifteen years after first reading it. Orwell’s future vision is an inherent part of our culture now, commoditised and trivialised, denied shock value or reconsideration due to its very familiarity. Re-reading the book and returning to Winston Smith’s world, however, is to feel a distinct unease. Nineteen Eighty Four is a book that has a potent physical effect on the reader (this reader anyway) — the claustrophobia of Winston Smith’s world, the subtle monstrous insanity of its rules and regulations and the ultimate futility of resistance produce a distinct sense of horror and helplessness within the reader, activating an involuntary empathy. Orwell’s prose is never better than here, and the shock of recognition at the similarities between elements of his fictional nightmare world and our own grow with each year. Nineteen Eighty Four is one of those truly great books that becomes greater with age.
I write this by way of introduction to Anna Funder’s Stasiland because her book shares much of Orwell’s concerns and indeed, provides an excellent, if equally traumatic, real-life counterpoint to Nineteen Eighty Four. Where Orwell was writing in reaction to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, Stasiland provides a collection of personal stories from the police state that was seemingly modelled on Big Brother — that of Cold War East Germany caught behind the Berlin Wall.
East Germany’s secret police were known as the Stasi, and the absurd yet terrifying lengths they went to in order to meticulously survey and document the lives of millions of their citizens defies belief. Kafka’s worst nightmare does not even begin to match the reality of Stasiland. Some estimates reckon one in six people within East Germany was an informer. When the Berlin Wall finally fell, the Stasi headquarters were stormed by angry but peaceful mobs who found millions of pages shredded within each building, a last desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of the most perfect police state ever created.
Funder describes how there is a team of people charged with the task of meticulously reassembling all these documents so that citizens can find out what was written about them in the Stasi’s files and what became of loved ones, friends and relatives. It is an absurd, Sisyphean task but one that desperately needs to be completed and of course, will never be completed. The truth for many people is hidden in those mountains of fragments of paper.
In her approach to writing Stasiland, Funder also pieces together a portrait of life in the East German state from the personal stories of those who tried to escape it by crossing the Wall, those who fell victim to the secret police and those whose relatives never returned from the Stasi’s interrogation cells. These are not isolated anecdotes, Cold War stories, but recollections of how the Stasi years have impacted on individuals’ lives through to the present day. In each of those recollections, the fragility of humans is made bleakly apparent; the ease with which the Stasi could destroy lives not just through physical torture but by much more intangible mindgames. The state quite literally brutalised its citizens with its relentless untruths, its reshaping of reality through rhetoric and hermetically sealing East Germany off from the rest of the world; the psychological and psychiatric fallout of that brutalisation is still felt today, just as the eventual US exit from Iraq will be felt for years to come.
The scope of the book widens with each passing chapter, Funder feeling compelled to understand more about the mechanics of the Stasi’s repression and surveillance in order to do justice to the stories she has been entrusted with. This extends to interviewing ex-Stasi men about their previous jobs, which provides a critical counterpoint as Funder recounts East Germany’s brief history. The sense of Funder’s own widening interest and accumulation of knowledge carries the narrative forward effortlessly, whilst her prose is almost stark in its simplicity, as if to ensure that she does not interfere with the recounting of the stories she has been told. There is no luridness, melodrama or sentimentality here, and the compound effect of reading Stasiland is the same as Nineteen Eighty Four – one of rage and helplessness, that people’s lives should be so casually ruined for nothing.
For all the bleakness of its subject matter, Stasiland is not a difficult or miserable read, thanks to the quiet bravery of the people whose stories this book documents. Powered by Funder’s precise prose, Stasiland is an essential insight into the totalitarian regime and, whether intended or not, is also a warning about the manipulation of truth, the erosion of civil liberties and the consequences of perpetual surveillance.