Anna Funder walks through Berlin’s Alexanderplatz station. She is trying to catch the train to Leipzig, a neighboring city. At the station, she walks to the nearest toilet. It’s cold, and there’s an old woman standing by the stairs. The woman asks Funder about the weather and then mutters, “This is nothing.” She explains that she’s lived in Berlin for twenty-one years, since 1975, and has seen much worse. She claims that she “had a prince once.” However, she was unable to visit him, since he lived on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Skeptical, Funder asks if the woman has traveled to the other side since 1989. The woman says, “Not yet. But I’d like to.”
In the first paragraphs, Funder immediately establishes herself as an outsider in East Berlin. She also alludes to the main political themes of the book—the separation of East and West Germany, which left many people unable to see or communicate with their loved ones (or “princes”) for decades, and the continued legacy of the East German regime on 1990s Germany. The passage suggests that some people, such as this old woman, are still so accustomed to living in authoritarian East Germany that they don’t take advantage of the new freedom of travel following its collapse.
On the train, Funder contemplates the previous night, during which she visited a pub with her friend Klaus. Funder then thinks back to learning German years ago in an Australian school. In the 1980s, she went to live in West Berlin. The German Democratic Republic (i.e., East Berlin) no longer exists, but she’s now traveling through its remains.
Funder is a good example of a time-honored literary archetype: the flâneur, or “stroller.” Funder wanders through Berlin and studies the remains of East Germany, in the process painting a picture of how the old regime continues to influence the present.
Funder visited Leipzig in 1994, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The city was at the heart of a “turning point” in German history—a peaceful revolution against Communism. Now, in 1996, she’s returning to Leipzig. She visits the former headquarters of the Stasi, the East German police force. The Stasi were tasked with knowing everything about its citizens, and yet they failed to predict the fall of Communism itself. Now their headquarters are a museum.
In just a few years, East Germany has gone from an authoritarian state to a democratic, capitalist society. But the transition isn’t as clean and easy as some have claimed. Germany is still full of remnants of its darker past, such as the Stasi HQ. By converting the building into a museum, the new German government seems to assert its own authority over its predecessor, turning a symbol of tyranny into a symbol of education (and victory).
The Stasi kept such detailed records of East German citizens that, if laid end to end, they’d stretch almost 200 kilometers. In 1989, when demonstrators marched through Stasi headquarters, guards demanded to see their ID cards—reflexively, the demonstrators pulled out their cards, and then “seized the building.” The Stasi had complex methods for monitoring German citizens. One of the more ludicrous methods was to keep samples of suspects’ “smells” in a jar, so that dogs could be trained to respond to them.
The East German state was so effective in its propaganda and surveillance that an entire generation of people—even those who went on to rebel against it—were practically conditioned to obey the Stasi at all costs. In retrospect, many Stasi practices seem needlessly complicated and even comical, but at the time they were the most feared and hated people in the country.
The curator of the Stasi Museum, Frau Hollitzer, tells Funder about a woman named Miriam, whose husband was arrested by the Stasi. Fascinated and horrified, Funder decides to research “the stories from this land gone wrong.”
Here, Funder establishes the scope of her project: she will travel around East Germany (mostly Berlin and Leipzig), studying the legacy of the East German state by interviewing individual people.