Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder 

The Berlin that Anna Funder first visited was only half a city. A student in the 1980s, she lived and studied in the West and could only wonder what stories lay on the other side of the Wall. Returning in the late 1990s to a reunified Germany, she begins to dig deep into the history of the German Democratic Republic and its Stasi – the State Security – in a time and place where most people did not even want to scratch the surface. With a foreigner's curiosity, she offers a new perspective, and sets out to reveal the grim truth.

A trip to the Stasi Museum in Leipzig leads her to hear the tale of Miriam Weber, whose husband mysteriously died when being held in a Stasi cell. In an interview with Sarah Coleman, Funder says: “it takes extreme courage to resist oppression – when you come across that kind of courage in a young woman like Miriam, it’s inspiring.” She embarks on a trail of meetings and interviews, fascinated by previously untold stories of bravery and resistance, and it is these, told with empathy and dark humour, that bring unlikely vitality to this investigation of a bleak time.

The effects of the GDR cannot be ascertained through neat statistical records of casualties and fatalities. That is why the unique style of Stasiland has so much to offer the subject. Its structure can be very diaristic, adhering to the chronology of the author's investigations and discussions rather than a historical timeline. It carefully weaves together individuals' stories – of victims, and of ex-Stasi men too – alongside the political and historical context; gradually a picture of the world behind the Wall develops. As Julia, Funder's landlord, says (p144): “For anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told.”

It is the unorthodox style of Stasiland that has divided opinions. Written in a style more commonly associated with investigative journalism, Funder's account is highly personal and therefore subjective, which is not to everyone's taste. Descriptions of her urban wanderings, of distracted trails of thought, and her quirky Berlin encounters, could be deemed superfluous, but there is an honesty and directness in her style that is extremely evocative. In a book about the human conscience and small tales of great courage, you wonder how you would have reacted in their positions – a question that the author is repeatedly asked.

Stasiland is an elegant play of fiction and non-fiction: a factual book with the poetry of memoir, addressing the truth and lies, the facts and the fictions of an authoritarian state. Comparing the invasive Stasi regime with memories from her Catholic schooling, Funder writes (p158): 'God could see inside you to reckon whether your faith was enough to save you. The Stasi could see inside your life too, only they had a lot more sons on earth to help.' Stasiland is an atmospheric, utterly absorbing book that does not pretend to teach the lessons of history, but begins to ask the questions that should be asked.

 

Stasiland was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and was winner of the 2004 BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

Other reviews...

'Stasiland is a brilliant account of the passionate search for a brutal history in the process of being lost, forgotten and destroyed. It is a masterpiece of investigative analysis, written almost like a novel, with a perfect mix of compassion and distance.'   Elena Lappin, Sunday Times

'In Stasiland Funder spiritedly attempts to understand a regime like the German Democratic Republic through the stories of ordinary men and women… the result is a terrific act of life-giving to a people – 17 million of them – who have hitherto lacked not just a voice but an audience.'    Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph

'A brilliant and necessary book about oppression and history… it both devastates and lifts the heart. Here is someone who knows how to tell the truth'   Rachel Cusk

'Stasiland will provoke both recognition and surprise in anyone familiar with Berlin as it used to be. For those who are not, it is an intriguing introduction to a city where life will always be an emotional cabaret'    Scotland on Sunday

'With the quick eye of the curious outsider she succeeds in teasing out personal accounts that offer a sometimes shocking, occasionally bizarre and often amusing portrayal of a place that, despite its undeniable achievements since 1989, is still something of a parallel world within united Germany'    Financial Times

'A fascinating book...it is written with rare, literary flair. I can think of no better introduction to the brutal reality of East German repression'    Sunday Telegraph

'Brilliantly illustrates the weird, horrifying, viciously cruel place that was Cold War East Germany... As well as the horror, Funder writes superbly of the absurdities of the Stasi'   Evening Standard

'Stasiland, part travelogue, part documentary, is a powerful account of a story that is still largely untold'    Scotsman