Anna In Stasiland

When journalists accuse the Garda Siochána of 'Stasi-like' monitoring involving the tapping of phone calls and threatening reporters with arrest in a bid to coerce them into revealing sources it would be remiss not to sit up and take notice. It would do no harm either to read Anna Funder’s bleak Stasiland, a book almost a decade old. Because of its 2005 Garda Siochána Act, anti-censorship campaigner Padraig Reidy accused the Dublin government of engaging in behaviour that was the antithesis ‘of a European democracy ... the kind of behaviour one would expect in an unreconstructed dictatorship.’

The German Democratic Republic was most definitely European, but hardly democratic in a sense that would have registered recognition amongst the bulk of the West’s proletariat, those supposed to be the beneficiaries of the Marxist paradise that purportedly had been constructed behind an ‘iron curtain.’ Despite its pretentious and progressive sounding name, post World War 2 East Germany was the archetypal dictatorship. A place where democratic sentiment was considered something for a surgeon or psychiatrist to treat. The scalpels of the security police cut and scraped 24/7, excising some foreign thought body, except of course the largest foreign body of all: East Berlin first liberated, then occupied, by Soviet troops in 1945 never escaped the long dark shadow cast by Moscow until the wall dividing the city was dismantled considerably quicker than it had initially been put up. 

Funder provides a two way window into her subject matter, the East German past which reveals dangers for the future. In her quest to develop public understanding the Australian writer spoke to both victims and victimisers. From her endeavours she launched her bid to put in place this edifice of comprehension. Stasi Files were numerous. One historian estimated that paperwork on East German citizens equalled all the files produced in Germany since the Middle Ages. While there was no shortage of records with which to work, Stasiland brings out the value of oral history in adding colour to the flat, grey blandness of a one dimensional world created from official files. 

The major "achievement" of the Stasi was to clog the pores of society with secret police and their informers. It was almost impossible to intellectually breathe in a stifled environment where ‘mistrust ... was the foundation of social existence.’ About a society in which the rule of thumb seemed one informer for every 6.5 people that comment is understandable.

Julia is out of work and so goes to the social security office where she claims she is unemployed. But the dedicated bureaucrat at the desk tells her there is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic; the office is the Employment Office not the Unemployment Office. Uncomfortable facts reshaped to fit the ideology. Revolutionaries who have abandoned their goals but want to conceal that they have done so are persistent offenders when it comes to this. And they need a particular type of force to keep in place the facade that masks their failings and to root out the deviationists.  In East Germany the Stasi served them well.

Such ideological derangement extends to other places where a closed mind is valued above any other. In prison where there was a tendency to find Marxist states that could be put forward as models to emulate, all the more useful when information about them was not easily attainable – no internet then – the East German regime would find favour. The health and education system was robustly defended, the Stasi – never mentioned. The Berlin Wall, less than eager listeners were on occasion told, had been set up not to prevent East Berliners leaving but to stop West Berliners breaking in.

One reviewer observed that East Germany was a regime ‘ruled by dour old men.’ Much like the Catholic Church where the same need to micro manage the lives of others has long been evident. Invariably men, unremittingly dour. 65 % of church leaders were said by Funder to be informers:

It was a universe in a vacuum, complete with its own self created hells and heavens. Its punishments and redemptions meted out right here on earth. Many of the punishments were simply for lack of belief or even suspected lack of belief.

Bureaucracy saturated, it was a country where a committee even invented a dance. The robot dance comes to mind, one that dour old men, despite their cerebral limitations, could easily think up. I am minded of James Boren’s comment that nothing is impossible until given to a committee.

Miriam became an official enemy of the state at the age of 16. Later her husband would be murdered by the same crowd of state gangsters. For trying to escape she was told by a judge that her actions could have started World War 3. Funder wryly observed ‘they were all crazy and they were locking her up.’ Often the way the world works, particularly if the reins of power fall into the hands of dour old men.

And dour old men didn’t merely target inexperienced teenagers. Even the best of East German writers, while expressing their horror ‘at how a system of delusion can seduce people into hatred for mankind’ too could be subject to the panoptical eye of surveillance and recruited as an informer by the Stasi. The writer Krista Wolf who warned of a society where 'conformity is the means of survival' became one albeit for a short period in which she seemed to provide little of use to her handlers.

Anna Funder by pulling together a range of voices, even those that came with self serving tones, has given readers a glimpse of human existence toiling under more than the glimpse of the Stasi. The spies and the spied upon both spoke with her. The Stasi operatives to justify their role in the knowledge that post unification they were viewed with loathing not underpinned by fear. The spied upon to ensure a proper narrative existed of their experience.

While some one time members were prepared to talk to Funder, the Stasi in general did not want their files opened up. Former members tended not to be an open book about their past, sticking to a code of omerta while doggedly meeting together in huddled cliques at funerals to give out about the new enemy, the media that now probed them. Something they never had to contend with in the good old days where a journalist would write to order, state order, or be bullied and turned into a spy.

Anna Funder, 2003: Stasiland. London: Granta. ISBN 1-86207-580-8


  1. Anthony this feels and sounds familiar...

  2. Marian Price is seriously ill in hospital with pneumonia.

    Read more:

  3. I do not feel the definitive book about the GDR has yet been written(If there is such a thing) even I who hates conformity like the plague can see many good things within the GDR.

    An old communist once said to me before the fall of the wall. 'the trouble with you, if you lived in a communist country, you would be a dissident.' He thought he was insulting me but I took it as a complement, for in politics there are horses for courses.

    What the German Stalinists tried to create after WW2 was a decent place to live for the majority of people. They faced two major hurdles which they could not overcome, their putrid stalinist ideology which had little confidence in the masses. And geographically they were slap bang centre of the cold war, which alone was enough to make anyone one paranoid, let alone those who had spent years in Stalin's Russia before returning home.

    After reunification there was much talk of them committing high crimes whilst in office, but when it came to prosecuting them little actually emerged. If my memory serves me correctly the head of the stasi was charged with murdering a nazi policeman in the early 1930s.

    There is a book by Markus Wolf, the head of the stasis foreign desk, who John le Carie based one of his main character on in his spy nevels on. Worth a read as it gives you an idea what motivated these men and women.

    Trotsky once said Stalin's greatest crime was he perverted the minds of young communists who came into the struggle to build a better world (or some such) Most of the leading members of the GDR fall into this category.

    By the way I have seen the wall when active, check point charley and the machine gun nests at the end of the platforms of the GDR underground stations. A totally perversion of socialism is the only way I can describe them.

  4. Good post as always Mick.I think there is lots to be learnt from that period and place,

  5. ‘Mick/Organized Rage,

    ‘What the German Stalinists tried to create after WW2 was a decent place to live for the majority of people.’

    I tend not to see it this way. I go with the Orwell view that nine times out of ten revolutionaries are social climbers with bombs. Power is the capital which these people seek to accrue, bank and profit from. I think they absorbed Stalinism. Rather than it being an obstacle it was a prop for their careers. I don’t think the Cold War explains it either. Stalinism (outside the GDR) predated the Cold War and communists proved very susceptible to it.

    ‘If my memory serves me correctly the head of the stasi was charged with murdering a nazi policeman in the early 1930s.’

    He should have been given a medal. But these societies are invariably steeped in repression.

    I have read Le Carre before but would pick up the one you refer to. What is it called?

  6. I Irish State has secretly copied the Stasi model to the letter, and they are not just empty words I do mean to the letter.And get this Garda is using technology that can SEE what you are picturing and can HEAR what you are saying in your MIND ,and they can do this from miles away.This technology is being used on the MASSES. That is first hand Whistleblower Information. We live in a free society ? we don't even have freedom of thought any more. This is why we have gagging order.