Stasliand

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Themes and Colors
Authoritarianism and the East German State Theme Icon
Surveillance and Privacy Theme Icon
Grief and Memory Theme Icon
Bravery and Heroism Theme Icon
Museums and Artifacts Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Stasliand, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Surveillance and Privacy Theme Icon

Perhaps the most important aspect of the East German tyranny that Anna Funder explores in Stasiland is surveillance. Under the leadership of Erich Mielke, the Stasi monitored a staggering number of East German citizens, many of whom had done nothing illegal, violating these citizens’ right to privacy. Some estimates suggest that there used to be almost 100,000 Stasi employees running surveillance on the country, plus an additional 173,000 informers. The Stasi accumulated millions of pages of files on ordinary German people—if these files were stacked end-to-end, they’d stretch nearly two hundred kilometers. One of the key topics that Funder studies in her book is what it was like for millions of Germans to live under the constant threat of surveillance.

The East Germans reacted to the knowledge that their rights to privacy were being violated in numerous ways. Some tried to convince themselves that, as per the totalitarian cliché, if they had nothing to hide then they had nothing to fear. But over time, it became clear that this wasn’t true. The Stasi ran surveillance on millions of people who’d committed no crimes and done nothing wrong, and sometimes illegally detained and tortured suspects without any proof of wrongdoing. Over time, then, many East Germans came to accept the fact that they’d be monitored, no matter what they’d done. Many of these people went even further and informed on their friends and family in the hopes of protecting themselves from danger. (Funder doesn’t speak to many people who ratted out their loved ones to the Stasi, and it isn’t hard to understand why—most of those informers would be far too ashamed to discuss their betrayals with an Australian journalist.) As a result of the constant threat of surveillance and betrayal, both from the Stasi and from other civilians, some East Germans tried to escape from the country. Naturally, some succeeded while others failed, and were imprisoned or executed. But many more Germans had to live in a constant state of fear, uncertainty, and paranoia, knowing that they could be betrayed, arrested, and imprisoned at any time.

Stasi surveillance and the right to privacy are still topics of vigorous debate in Germany after the collapse of the East German state. Even though the Stasi themselves are no more, the millions of pages of surveillance files—some shredded, some not—are still around, creating a question of whether they should be destroyed permanently or reassembled and read. While it’s generally agreed that the Stasi had no right to run surveillance on German citizens, it’s also agreed that, now that the surveillance records exist, people have a right to read through their own personal files in private. Funder further objects to the slow pace at which the government is reassembling the files: at the current rate, most East Germans will be dead by the time they receive their files. The fact that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are still arguing, fighting, and weeping over Stasi surveillance shows that the Stasi’s immoral violations of the right to privacy will continue to hurt people for years to come. But perhaps by gaining access to their personal files, Funder cautiously suggests, people could fully grasp the evils of the East German government, and fight to prevent such a government from coming into existence ever again.

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Surveillance and Privacy Quotes in Stasliand

Below you will find the important quotes in Stasliand related to the theme of Surveillance and Privacy.
Chapter 1 Quotes

On the eleventh night, Miriam gave them what they wanted. ‘I thought, “You people want an underground escape organization? Well, I'll give you one then.”’
Fleischer had won.

Related Characters: Miriam Weber, Major Fleischer
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Funder interviews a woman named Miriam who grew up under East German rule. As a teenager, she circulated leaflets denouncing the German government, and she was severely punished. Wanting to avoid further jail time, Miriam tried to sneak into West Berlin, climbing past the newly erected Berlin Wall. Miriam was captured, and her interrogator, a Stasi officer named Major Fleischer, demanded that she give up the names of the people who’d helped her escape. In reality, Miriam had had no help whatsoever—but after ten days of sleep deprivation torture, she decided to save herself further agony, and made up a story about getting help from an underground organization.

The passage is effective in conveying Miriam’s own disorientation at the time of her interrogation: she couldn’t tell if Major Fleischer actually believed that she had received help, or if he was only trying to exploit his power over her. (Miriam claims that it was utterly obvious that she’d been acting alone.) Fleischer “wins” by pressuring Miriam into giving up names, but of course, the names she gives him are fabrications. The Stasi had the resources to torture and bully thousands of people like Miriam, whose only crime was trying to visit another country (something that wouldn’t be considered a crime at all in many other countries).

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The German media called East Germany ‘the most perfected surveillance state of all time’. At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees—more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people.

Related Characters: Anna Funder (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

As Funder goes on, she begins to explore the extent of the Stasi surveillance apparatus. For forty years, the Stasi monitored a staggering number of German citizens. The Stasi had almost 100,000 employees, plus a tremendous number of casual informants. This meant that, in effect, there were different “circles” within the Stasi, some more secretive than others. Furthermore, some informers for the Stasi were themselves under investigation. As the passage would suggest, the East German government was able to maintain power over its citizens for so many years largely because it kept such a close eye on them: whenever anybody showed even the slightest sign of rebellion, the Stasi would be able to arrest them. For decades, German citizens had to live in the constant fear of being watched and potentially arrested and imprisoned for expressing even the slightest disapproval for their government.

It was a close call, but Germany was the only Eastern Bloc country in the end that so bravely, so conscientiously, opened its files on its people to its people.

Related Symbols: Shredded Documents
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

After the reunification of Germany, there were still many ethical problems to address. In particular, there was a lively debate over what should be done with the millions of shredded pages of surveillance files on German citizens. Some believed that these shredded files should be destroyed permanently, since they should never have been created in the first place. Others argued, successfully, that individual German citizens should be permitted to read their own private files, now that these files did exist.

While the German government’s actions are commendable, Funder questions whether any ethical purpose can be served by showing people the surveillance files that the Stasi. Individual have the right to read the files the government has kept on them, but this by no means guarantees that they’ll gain any wisdom, security, or closure after reading these files. Furthermore, as Funder later shows, the reassembling of shredded files is largely a symbolic measure, since it will take an extremely long time for all the files to be returned to their “owners.”

Whenever he stayed with her, the surveillance was intense and overt.
The couple could hardly leave the house without being stopped by the police and asked to account for themselves.

Related Characters: Anna Funder (speaker), Julia Behrend
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Funder learns more about her sub-letter, Julia Behrend. Julia grew up in East Germany at a time when the Stasi were in full power. Julia excelled at languages, and her future looked bright; however, she began dating an Italian man, and the Stasi then started to monitor her and intimidate her. They prevented her from getting a job, and, as Julia later learned, they tapped her phones.

In retrospect, it seems more than a little ridiculous that the Stasi would have allocated so many resources to run surveillance on a teenaged girl with a boyfriend. But of course, as Funder has already shown, the Stasi had the resources to provide this surveillance for almost all German citizens—therefore, they didn’t have to be too discerning in choosing which people to monitor. Even the slightest irregularities (dating an Italian, for example) were enough to provoke them.

Julia doesn't know why the Stasi was afraid of them complaining to Honecker. Possibly because both her parents were teachers, and outwardly conformist, or because the Stasi had no ‘legal’ basis for what it had done to her. Who knows? It is one of the very rare occasions when the bluff was called and someone ‘won’ against the Firm.
‘The amazing thing was,’ Julia says, ‘the next week I was rung up about a job.’ She was taken on as a receptionist in a hotel. It looked like she would work there for her lifetime.

Related Characters: Julia Behrend (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Julia goes on to explain to Funder how she reacted to Major N.’s request that she cooperate with the Stasi and betray her ex-boyfriend. After speaking to her parents and seeking their advice, Julia refused and threatened to write a letter directly to Erich Honecker, complaining about Major N.’s harassment. To Julia’s amazement, Major N. agreed to back off; he even set Julia up with a job, where previously he and his colleagues had worked hard to prevent Julia from getting work of any kind.

To this day, Julia isn’t sure why Major N. backed off so easily. Perhaps he was genuinely frightened that Julia would embarrass him to Erich Honecker. Or perhaps he just realized that running surveillance on Julia’s ex-boyfriend wasn’t worth all the trouble. It’s a mark of the Stasi’s bureaucracy and secretiveness that Julia still can’t explain why her life changed so dramatically. But it also shows that, under the right circumstances, and if pushed to their limits, ordinary East Germans could stand up to the Stasi and win.

The Stasi subjected him to disciplinary proceedings on account of ‘inconstancy’, and in their files attributed the remarriage to ‘the repeated negative influence of Frau Koch’.

Related Characters: Anna Funder (speaker), Hagen Koch
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Hagen Koch continues to tell Anna Funder about his experiences working with the Stasi. As a Stasi operative, every part of his life was closely scrutinized. Thus, after Koch announced that he was going to marry the woman he loved, his Stasi colleagues were displeased—they didn’t think that the woman was an acceptable bride for a Stasi officer. They imprisoned Koch and pressured his wife into getting a divorce. Then, when Koch was released from prison, he became furious with his wife for agreeing to the divorce, and actually divorced her. Then he relented, and they got married again. In a bitter irony, the Stasi further punished Koch for his inconstancy—when, in fact, it was the Stasi itself who caused his “inconstant” behavior.

The passage is a tragic example of how the Stasi drove families apart through manipulation and coercion. Because they pressured Koch’s wife into signing divorce papers, Koch came to distrust her and actually did agree to divorce her. Not even Stasi officers were immune from their own organization’s surveillance.

He is telling me, in his quiet way, that the resources united Germany is throwing at this part of reconstructing the lives of its former East German citizens are pitiful, some kind of Sisyphean joke. What he is running here is an almost totally symbolic act.

Related Characters: Anna Funder (speaker), Herr Raillard
Related Symbols: Shredded Documents
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 27, Funder visits the official Stasi record center, in which a small team of workers painstakingly tries to reassemble the untold millions of pages of shredded documents that the Stasi left behind in 1989. The German government has mandated that the files be reassembled and returned to the people they concern; however, the files are being reassembled so slowly that many people will die before they ever get a chance to read their own files. Clearly, the government could allocate more money to speed the process up, but they don’t—the reassembling of files is almost strictly a symbolic gesture.

Why doesn’t the government want the files to be reassembled too quickly? Funder doesn’t offer a reason, but it’s possible that the new German government is afraid that the German people won’t trust them. Or perhaps the new government is worried that too many people will try to sue the Stasi, creating more bureaucracy and more chaos. Whatever the reason, the passage shows that the struggle to learn about East German history is far from over, and that the current German government has failed to allocate the resources necessary for this important project.

Chapter 2 Quotes

I have been sown
Only my head sticks
Defiant, out of the earth
But one day it too will be mown
Making me, finally
Of this land.

Related Characters: Karl-Heinz Weber / “Charlie” (speaker)
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final pages of the book, Anna reads a poem by Charlie, the deceased husband of Miriam Weber, who supposedly hanged himself in his jail cell. For years, Miriam has been trying to learn the truth about Charlie’s death—she continues to suspect that Stasi agents murdered him. Charlie’s poem, which Miriam gives to Funder, is about the relationship between Charlie and his “land,” by which Charlie, one can argue, means the East German state. Charlie writes about defying his land, despite being imprisoned and pushed into the ground. This could be a heavily metaphorical way of talking about how Charlie continued to denounce East German tyranny, even after he’d been censored and arrested. Chillingly, Charlie seems to prophesize his own death—one day his head will be “mown.” However, the poem strikes a defiant, triumphant tone, as Charlie vows to continue crying out for as long as he has a head.

The poem is the perfect way to conclude Stasiland, because it captures the mixture of danger, defiance, and longing that characterized life in East Germany for so many years. People like Charlie spoke out against their society, and they were punished by being imprisoned, tortured, and buried in the ground—yet at the same time they felt intimately tied to this “land” and the very country that oppressed them.