by Anna Funder
Anna Funder takes the reader on a dark journey to a land so grim, so rotten, that it could not have been invented. Fourteen years after the Berlin Wall came down, we are taken to the Kafkaesque heart of the German Democratic Republic.
I went to Berlin in 1987. It was bitterly cold, the first week in December and the trip was a time of celebration of our graduation from university and second wedding anniversary. It was also a time of great sadness, a journey to see where a close friend had lived and been killed in a road accident. It also became very apparent on the trip, as I stood vomiting on wind-blasted street corners, that I was expecting our first child. Now the child is seventeen and making her own journey to Berlin next week, the first week in December. How oddly the story comes full circle.
Against such backdrop of extraordinary emotions it is hard to imagine any place leaving any sort of impression, but Berlin has remained imprinted in my memory, like a half remembered and bizarre dream. I remember it as very dark, bleak and windswept. It is also a dwarfing sort of place, making everyone feel strangely insignificant, not so much in the scale of the buildings, but in the crushing weight of history. The hideous and enormous Wall sliced the city in two, both bisecting and dominating its identity. There can be few such a symbols of folly presenting such a challenge to the human spirit. For me Berlin is a kind and human place too, where everyone has a story to tell and wants to talk about their dreams and ambitions.
In 1989 came die Wende the turning point, a peaceful revolution against the communist dictatorship in the GDR. In November Liepzig was at the heart of the peaceful, candle-holding protest, for here stood the headquarters of the loathed and feared Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security. In December Berlin felt the force of change and international film crews captured the elation of protestors sitting astride the Wall, holding hands across the divide, and taking down the hated structure stone by stone. Who could have predicted such a thing? How could my baby realise that this really was history being made?
Funder returns to the Runde Ecke, the ‘round corner’ building in Leipzig, formerly the Stasi offices and sees the fossilised remains of the terrifying system. The headquarters is now a museum, left exactly as it was when they fled in December 1989, files still waiting to be shredded, marks on the walls from greasy heads and the ‘smell of old men’ still in the air. I found it somewhat symbolic that hundreds of seemingly empty glass jars line the shelves, containing ‘smell samples’ of individuals or places, to be ‘shown’ to sniffer-dogs to hunt them down. Here people, children even, of the GDR were incarcerated indefinitely without charge. Some were tortured, killed and their bodies disposed of, spent and unwanted and completely hidden from their families or any outside authorities. This was a deeply secret world, and incredibly pervasive and successful – the government kept control of absolutely everyone, using whatever means. Laid end to end, the Stasi files on its countrymen would stretch for 180 KM. It was the most perfected surveillance system of all time, with a ratio of one Stasi officer or official informant per sixty-three members of the public.
Funder begins by telling the stories of the innocent – those who lived under and fell foul of the Stasi. These are stories of attempts to cross the Wall or challenge the system, met with sickening and inexplicable brutality. Funder conveys very well what it is like to be small and insignificant in the gargantuan and organised system of the Stasi.
Then she becomes curious to what it must have been like to be one of the guilty – to work inside ‘the firm’ and suddenly to have your whole world dismantled in 1989. She places an advert in a Potsdam newspaper, seeking former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators in the old regime, discretion guaranteed. The results are a series of encounters and narratives, which are surprising and touching and tell a story of a world gone decidedly wrong. Funder writes it all up with a level of detachment, exposing the bizarre and the cruel and above all the absurdity of the system.
Now East Germany has disappeared and hopefully become extinct. Those East Berlin students I talked to in 1987, who could only talk of their burning ambition to get over the Wall and live in the West have almost certainly achieved their goal. However, like Funder, I wonder how many generations will bear the scars of the Stasi and the Wall and whether the two Germanys can ever be other than parallel systems. I also wonder what my daughter will make of Berlin.