A Nostalgic Review: Stasiland by Anna Funder

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I miss Germany. I miss Berlin and my family, the cobbled streets, the miserable looking people with funny accents, the cold and the damp. I miss the culture, the tainted history and the anxiety of adventure.

I first picked up a copy of Stasiland by Anna Funder when I’d just settled back into normal life at home after three months of back packing around Europe. The book was unbelievable, and I connected with it on so many levels: my admiration of Anna Funder living in East Berlin, speaking the language and tracing people’s lives; the streets and train stations I had only just been wandering through weeks before; and the shock of a history that is so close to my heart, and yet still so alien.

As a piece of creative non-fiction, the writer Anna Funder does a fantastic job of mixing the elements of story telling with a heavy-handed topic of German history, while using a deeply personal tone throughout. Every time I picked up the book, I would be transported back to the streets of Berlin, while learning the sad history that is almost never spoken about and completely unacknowledged. My family were lucky enough to be living in West Berlin when the wall came up, but they would always tell me stories of people doing all that they could, risking their lives, to go over the wall from East Berlin, over into the West. Stasiland is a grave, honest depiction of what life was like living in East Berlin before the wall came down: how there was no privacy, your lives would be tracked down to the finest tee. How even in a European culture, hundreds would be slaughtered or tortured for saying what was on their minds by the sheer dogmatism of the Stasi police, those involved who truly believed in the cause.

What makes this book so special, is how Funder manages to intersperse the lives of others and their stories, with her own personal journey of writing the book and researching into an abandoned past. On page 54, for example:

“The next day the phone calls start very early in the morning. I hadn’t thought it through – I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to have a series of military types, who had lost their power and lost their country call you up at home.” (Funder 2002. 54)

She makes the other people’s stories incredibly personal so that the reader is able to relate to the person and feel incredibly empathetic towards them. I found myself getting so caught up in the book, while also learning about a group of people, and a part of history I was ill informed about. That is a very powerful tool of creative non-fiction: to be able to tell a deeply enriching story while teaching the reader something new and important.

What I loved about the book was how much detail and honesty she allocated to each person’s story. She interviewed a range of people who lived in the Stasi state, from those who were captured for trying to escape, to those who perpetuated the ideologies of the government. I found it very brave of Funder to write about issues such as these, especially coming from a non-German perspective, as this kind of very recent history has somewhat been swept under the rug. My uncle Wolfgang once told me that Germany was in “very dark times” back then, and it still amazes me that Berlin and Germany was ever like that.

The entire time I was reading the book, I kept feeling so grateful to be living in a country where I am free to do as I please. Stasiland puts you in the heart of the Stasi state, and allows you to walk in the shoes of those under that kind of oppression. It made me speculate on how this kind of thing could happen, how easily a government will take military control over a nation of people under their misguided or warped ideals. Sarah Coleman, the associate editor of The Worldpress Review, conducted an interview with Funder in 2003. In response to a question about what moved her so much about the first story Funder uncovered – Miriam Webster, a teenage girl who was put in prison after she tried to escape, and later lost her husband to likely torture by the Stasi – Funder responded:

“I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but I think I can say now that I was looking for stories of courage. In a world that’s divided into Us and Them, it takes extreme courage to resist oppression—when you come across that kind of courage in a young woman like Miriam, it’s inspiring. I think I’m interested in it because I’m yellow-bellied myself—you’re always interested in what you don’t have.” (Funder, 2003)

I can confidently say that this book changed my world thinking as a writer. I was always so sure that I wanted to write about stories or issues in such a way that makes is appealing to the masses, something that people will want to read. This book made me lean more comfortably towards the path of creative non-fiction, whether I write a book of my own or continue with my blog posts and articles, I want to write something powerful and evoking. This book has made me want to write about topics that people either don’t know about, or have been forgotten, for example, those who are still struggling to savage a normal life after the horrors of the 1991 Bosnian war. As a writer, I want to give a voice to those women in Bosnia who were repeatedly raped during the war, or the children of those rape victims. I’ve recently gone through a stark shift in how I see the world, and Stasiland certainly sparked that shift. More than anything, it angers me that we don’t talk about these kinds of issues, and that’s something that I want changed in our thinking.

The atrocities of mankind can only plunder ever forward into yet more horrific realms, if we stand back and idly forget our past and do nothing. Anna Funder gave a voice to the voiceless, and has made me determined to do the same thing.

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