Anna Funder, the author and narrator, travels to Berlin from Australia in 1996. She’s there to work for a German TV station and research the state of the country following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the ensuing collapse of the Communist East German state. Funder’s research centers around the “Stasi,” the East German secret police and surveillance force. For decades, the Stasi, headed by Erich Mielke, conducted surveillance on a staggering number of East German citizens, and sponsored a vast network of informants.
Funder speaks with a woman named Miriam Weber, who tried and failed to sneak out of East Germany when she was still a teenager. Like so many East Germans who tried to escape, Miriam was sentenced to jail time. Afterwards, Miriam married a young man named Charlie, who, like her, had been declared an “Enemy of the State” for his subversive acts. Charlie was later jailed, and in jail he supposedly hanged himself. Miriam became suspicious and wondered if he had been murdered. She demanded to see the body, and finally, after months of bureaucracy, she was allowed to do so—and discovered marks on Charlie’s body suggesting that he hadn’t died of hanging at all. For decades, Miriam has been waging a campaign to learn the truth about her husband’s death. However, the Stasi kept secret files on tens of thousands of citizens, and shredded many of those files in the final days of the East German state. As a result, she’s been unable to learn the truth about her husband.
Funder posts an ad in the local paper for former Stasi officials. Right away, people respond to the ad, many of them genuine ex-Stasi. Stasi guards are having a hard time under the new German government—they’re widely reviled, and find it nearly impossible to find work. She speaks to Herr Winz, an ex-Stasi agent who monitored thousands of people over the years, and still fervidly believes that Communism is the only just form for society.
Funder also speaks to her sub-letter, a young woman named Julia Behrend who grew up in East Germany. Julia excelled at languages as a young woman, and her future looked very bright. However, she was unable to find work—almost certainly because the Stasi discovered that she was dating someone from Italy, and therefore posed a threat to the insular, closed-off nature of East German society. Stasi agents tried to convince Julia’s parents to pressure Julia to break off the relationship. When, eventually, Julia did break up with her boyfriend, however, she was still unable to find work. A Stasi agent named Major N. tried to pressure her into informing on her Italian ex-boyfriend, but she refused. Julia scored a major victory by threatening to write a letter to Erich Honecker, the Secretary-General of East Germany—and Major N., no doubt trying to avoid embarrassment, arranged for Julia to get work.
Funder next speaks with Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the man who for years narrated “The Black Channel,” where he provided derisive commentary on TV programs from West Berlin. Von Schnitzler, now a bitter, elderly man, says that the cruelty of the East German state has been greatly exaggerated, as have the size and power of the Stasi.
Julia admits to Funder that, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, she was raped in the elevator by a mysterious man. Though the man was eventually brought to justice, he may have been released from jail in the confusion surrounding the early days of the new German state.
Funder’s next interview is with Hagen Koch, a former Stasi employee who was involved in building the Berlin Wall, and continues to keep thousands of maps and secret documents about the Wall. His father, Heinz Koch, was a soldier in World War Two who later tried to run for mayor in the early days of the Communist East German government. Koch won the election, but was sent to jail by his Communist opponent. Koch later worked for the Stasi, but eventually resigned after realizing the extent of his father’s hatred for the organization. On his way out, he stole a small plastic plate commemorating his department’s work—and for the last twenty years, the government has been trying and failing to recover the plate.
Funder befriends a former rock star named Klaus Jenztsch who was banned from performing in East Germany in the 1970s. Klaus moved to West Berlin and, after 1989, discovered that he’d become a cult figure in his former country. Funder next speaks to Herr Bock, who taught Stasi agents the art of pressuring an informant. Stasi agents were masters of gauging an informant’s reliability and trustworthiness. Afterwards, Funder interviews Frau Paul, a remarkably brave woman who was separated from her sickly child, Torsten, shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Paul spent more than two years trying and failing to sneak into West Berlin. Eventually, Stasi guards caught her and tried to convince her to inform on her allies, promising that she’d be reunited with her child if she did so. Paul refused, and was unable to see her child for many years. Funder also talks to Herr Bohnsack, an agent in Division X, the top-secret Stasi sector tasked with “information warfare.”
Funder travels back to Australia to be with her dying mother. She then returns to Berlin in 2000, and finds that the city has become very different. There are shiny new museums commemorating the history of East Germany, and of the Berlin Wall. And yet for many of the people Funder talks to, East Germany isn’t history at all—it’s still very much a part of people’s lives. Funder learns that Frau Paul has become active in organizing the victims of Stasi cruelty, and has endured a lot of harassment as a result. Koch leads tours of the Berlin Wall.
Funder visits the Stasi File Authority office outside Nuremberg, where a team of thirty-one people painstakingly reassemble shredded documents from the Stasi files. Funder is shocked to learn that it will take almost four centuries, at the current rate, to reassemble all of the documents.
Funder reunites with Miriam, who’s still trying in vain to learn the truth about Charlie’s death. She shows Funder old photographs of Charlie and of herself. Funder wonders what, exactly, Miriam is trying to accomplish by learning the truth about Charlie’s death—and she wonders if Miriam even has an answer to this question. At the end of the book, Miriam gives Funder a copy of a poem that Charlie wrote shortly before his death, which ends: “In this land / 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.”