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Return to Stasiland

Dec 16, 2019 • 16m 31s

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Anna Funder on how understanding the Stasi can help us comprehend the age of surveillance in which we live.

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Return to Stasiland

143 • Dec 16, 2019

Return to Stasiland

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former members of the Stasi are still working to control conversation about the regime they once served.

Anna Funder on how what happened in East Germany might help us comprehend the age of surveillance in which we live now.

ELIZABETH:

So Anna in 2002, you write your first book, Stasiland. It follows the lives of four people who battle the East German regime and the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. The book was published in 25 countries, but its reception in Germany was markedly different to everywhere else. How so?

ANNA:

Well, it was rejected many, many times by publishers in Germany, it was rejected by 23 publishers. The twenty-third publisher wrote back, they were the only people, I think that we heard from.

ELIZABETH:

Anna Funder is an author. She wrote about the ongoing power of the former East German regime in the latest issue of The Monthly.

ANNA:

And they said, this is 2002..? Yeah... In the current political climate, we can't really see our way to publishing this book, although it is the best book that we have seen on this issue. Meaning, I think, on how former victims and former Stasi were faring in the new Germany.

ELIZABETH:

So before we go further, are you able to give sort of a short history of who and what the Stasi was?

ANNA:

Yeah, so the Stasi, they called themselves the shield and sword of the East German Communist Party, which ran East Germany.

[Music starts]

ANNA:

So they were effectively the internal spy service spying on the population of East Germany.

Archival tape -- unidentified reporter:

“At the heart of the Cold War, East Germany’s infamous Stasi secret police kept meticulous records about those it spied on, imprisoned and tortured.”

ANNA:

Their function was to conduct all-encompassing surveillance on all people and all aspects of their lives in the nation. In a dictatorship where there is no free press by definition, they also functioned as an information conduit to the party on what was actually going on.

Archival tape — unidentified reporter:

“The Stasi was an instrument of control. It built up a dense web of more than 170,000 informants to monitor the country’s entire population.”

Archival tape — unidentified male:

“Total isolation, no contact to the outer world. Nearly daily interrogations. It was torture for me.”

ANNA:

So in a place where you have no newspapers, and you have no letters to the editor, and you have no real elections... a kind of paranoid, power hungry government, this one party that was in power from ‘49 to ‘89... really wanted to know what was going on. So the Stasi would find out by spying on everyone.

Archival tape — unidentified reporter:

“Many former citizens are still haunted by the dark times revealed in those files, when family and friends became informers, when freedom was only a dream.”

ANNA:

In the end there was one person either employed full time by the Stasi, or informing in the population, one person for every six. It's much higher than the relative numbers in Hitler's Germany or in the USSR. So someone in every school, kindergarten, pub, family, apartment block, factory was informing on the people around them.

ELIZABETH:

So back to the book, after you get these 23 rejections, the 24th publisher accepts it and it launches in a fairly recently reunited Germany. What happens after the book’s released?

ANNA:

I was very happy that a kind of small West German publisher took it on and she invited me to do a ten-city book tour of Germany in 2004. So I went and the book was launched at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2004 in the Runde Ecke, which is the former headquarters of the Stasi.

And this West German publisher, I realised when I was watching her from the wings as she was on stage, was incredibly nervous, and she's standing at the lectern and she's giving this speech. I could see her knees were knocking, I could see her white knuckles holding onto the lectern. And I thought, what is the problem? You know, she's really just launching this book. And I got up on stage and I looked down and I could see why she was so terrified, because in front of us, the first two rows were full of ex-Stasi or ex-party men.

I knew one when I saw one, I’d interviewed a lot of them. I'd written about them in the book. And they were wearing essentially the ex-Stasi or ex-party uniform at that time, which was polyester trousers with a nice firm crease, a bomber jacket and a lot of Brylcreem. And they were incredibly angry. They were huffing and puffing and through this sort of through their noses. And as I started to read from the book and talked a bit, they reached into their jackets and pulled out notebooks and started taking notes on me.

And so this was a kind of intimidation action. But also, I can remember the point at which I just thought, no way. You guys are so used to frightening people that now you're doing it to me in United Germany. What on earth are you going to do with those notes? And also I had this flash where I just thought the psychology of the situation is that they are getting pleasure out of trying to frighten me. And I don't want to give them that pleasure. So it's got a perverse way. It kind of emboldened me.

At the end of this reading, like in many literary sessions, the floor is opened up for questions. Absolute silence. The men stood up, huffed and puffed their way and walked out of the room. And this happened on every former East German city of my tour. Only when the people who looked like they had been former Stasi men or former party members left, would somebody else stand up and talk about what the regime had been like for them.

[Music plays]

And that night in Leipzig, it was a woman who stood up and said, “I don't understand why it takes a foreigner to write these stories”. And I thought, well, I think that your answer just left the room. And then she said, “No one is talking about this. I was imprisoned, my son as well. It happened to so many of us. Why can no one talk about it?”

I really felt that that was a sort of enactment of the fact that the regime is over but everyone is still there. The perpetrators are still there. The people they spied on are still there. They're queuing up in the supermarket together. And you might turn around and find your former interrogator behind you. I’ve been writing about this for the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago.

Archival tape — unidentified reporter:

“Thousands and thousands of West Germans come to make the point that the Wall has suddenly become irrelevant.”

Archival tape — unidentified reporter:

“Such an astonishing moment in history…”

ANNA:

It was interesting to think about because that massive joy that everybody felt in Germany and around the world, then, was very, very real.

Archival tape — unidentified reporter:

“What it’s like to be standing on top of the wall?”

Archival tape — unidentified male:

“It’s incredible for me, it’s ahh, I can’t describe my feelings.”

ANNA:

But what followed it was very complicated.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So Anna I want to turn now to the reality of life in a reunified Germany for the people who had resisted parts of the East German regime. What happened to some of the people that you profiled in the book as they continued on their lives in a, in a new Germany?

ANNA:

The people in my book. So, for instance, one of the stories is about a woman I called Miriam Weber. She kind of anchors the book. She's the sort of start and the heart of it. She had been imprisoned for trying to escape over the Berlin Wall as a 16 year old in 1968. And then her husband later in very, very odd circumstances, was a young man who was arrested off the street in advance of a visit by a West German politician. So in a dictatorship, you can just kind of round up everybody on no grounds that you think might possibly demonstrate in front of a West German camera or something. And young Charlie Weber died in Stasi custody. So Miriam has spent the rest of her life, really, trying to find justice in some way, at least by finding out what happened to him.

After the fall of the Wall, Miriam worked at the state radio station, a bit like Radio National, as a news producer for many, many years. And she knows that one of her bosses is a former informer for the Stasi. And someone even more high up worked at the ministry for the interior, so was responsible for making all kinds of decisions about dissidents, for instance. So those two people, who have power over her, knew that she had been a resistor against the regime and been in prison. And of course, they hate her for that. She is a living reminder of the fact that it was possible to take a moral stance. So that's a very uneasy working relationship.

And it was made very clear to me just how uneasy that was, when I was on that book tour, the sort of David Letterman equivalent of a late night talk show host asked me to come on and talk about the book with Miriam. And this woman, one of the bravest people I've ever met, thought about it and then she said no. And she said no, because she just said, I need this job now in capitalist, unified Germany, my life is really hard enough with his ex-informer and this ex-ministry of the interior woman at the radio station, and I just don't think that I can out myself so publicly like that — my life will be hell. So that was an instance of why it's hard for those people sometimes to speak out. And certainly for them to be honored in the new Germany.

ELIZABETH:

And what about ex Stasi members. How did some of those people fare in a unified Germany?

ANNA:

The Stasi men in general have done much better than the people that they oppressed. One of the main ways of oppressing someone was to deny them an education. The people that they oppressed don't have the work histories and references, if you like, that the Stasi themselves have, they have the degrees and so on. And the ex-Stasi also brought a case in unified Germany to argue for the fact that they should get the higher pensions equivalent to the high pensions that they would have awarded themselves in their regime. And they brought that case and they won. So they also significantly richer on a day to day basis, then the people who spoke out against them.

There are no payments that honour resistance. So people who suffered, or had their lives ruined, they're thrown onto the welfare system like other people who are unable to work for some reason. So by and large, I would say that the people who were not oppressed and didn't have their sort of psyches and lives ruined, have done much better.

ELIZABETH:

So in many ways ex-Stasi and ex-party members have done better in a unified Germany. But they’re also working to limit criticisms of the regime and their part in it. How are they doing that, how is that happening?

ANNA:

It seems to me that there really is a battle for who gets to control the narrative, the versions of it, and right now there are voices coming out, journalists, for instance, who are holding public forums with historians and commentators in Berlin saying, look, it's all very well to talk about the Stasi and everybody else, but the GDR was so much more than the Stasi and everyone else.

Archival tape — unidentified male:

Let me ask you here Walter, do you think you have anything to apologise for as a result of your involvement with the Stasi?

Archival tape — unidentified male:

Nein.

ANNA:

And yes, there was a small price to pay perhaps in civil liberties. But it wasn't as exploitative as capitalism is now and so on and so forth.

Archival tape — unidentified male:

You were taking your order from the Soviet Union. You had a leader in the Soviet Union like Stalin who killed millions of his own people. How did you feel about being in bed with a country like that?

Archival tape — unidentified male:

Ask about Bush, how many people did he kill until now?

ANNA:

In Hohenschönhausen Prison, which is the main prison in Berlin for political prisoners, it was secret that throughout the Stasi regime, now it's a very big museum with millions of visitors a year. Many of the tour guides are people who were former political prisoners there.

But at the same time now, these voices I referred to earlier are saying, don't you think it's a bit, the German word is monoperspectiveish? Like, it's only, it’s such a singular perspective to have a political prisoner taking you around the cells of the political prison. And I think, well, what other perspective would you like? Would you like to have, you know, a stasi officer perspective and put them on the same level?

Archival tape — unidentified male:

But we’re talking about East Germany and the Soviet Union. And both of you are saying that really you have nothing to apologise for. Would you do it again?

Archival tape — unidentified male:

Yeah, auf jeden Fall.

ANNA:

So I think it's dangerous and it's it's a very real battle that's going on now. And because there was no Nuremberg trial, no massive international outcry on behalf of the victims of this regime, the history really does risk being occluded.

ELIZABETH:

And Anna, what do you think this study of the Stasi 30 years on can tell us about where we are now in an age of surveillance? The one in which we live at this moment.

ANNA:

There is this enormous power in invading people's privacy. And we all feel today, to a certain extent, as we put sticky notes on the cameras on our computers, if we have something to say that we don't want the world to know, ever, we'd never write it in an email. We are beginning to censor ourselves and run our lives as if we're being watched. So Stasiland seems to me like a parable of what is happening to us now. And I feel like we're not really awake to it. It's very hard to be fully conscious of that level of invasion of our privacy and what could happen and then also live normal, happy, free lives. I feel that there's a sort of psychological disjunction that we're starting to experience.

ELIZABETH:

Anna, thank you.

ANNA:

Thank you very much.

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former members of the Stasi are still working to control the conversation about the regime they once served. Anna Funder on how understanding what happened in East Germany can help us comprehend the age of surveillance in which we now live.

Guest: Author Anna Funder.

Background reading:

Stasiland now in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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143: Return to Stasiland