Most of Stasiland takes place in Berlin in 1996, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse, soon after, of the East German state. Following the end of World War Two, Eastern Europe fell under the control of the Communist Soviet Union. Countries such as Hungary, Yugoslavia, and half of Germany functioned as satellite states: the Soviet Union provided the states with funding and military support, and in many cases hand-picked the states’ leaders to ensure Communist policies were enacted. In East Germany, as in the Soviet Union itself, the government ruled its people via authoritarian and even tyrannical policies. While the extent of the East German state’s authoritarianism is still disputed, Stasiland posits that in general East Germany left a black mark on German history, from which the country is still recovering.
For decades, the East German state was effectively run by two people, Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security, and Erich Honecker, the Secretary-General. Together, Mielke and Honecker used a combination of authoritarian techniques to control their citizens and maintain their power. First, and most fundamentally, the East German state maintained power through its use of force. Mielke and Honecker were both Soviet-trained soldiers, and during their time in office they commanded a vast, powerful military force: the East German army itself, but also the Stasi, the secret police and surveillance agency. Through the Stasi, anyone who openly opposed the East German state’s leaders or policies could be arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. The German military also built the Berlin Wall in order to prevent citizens from sneaking into West Germany, and the Stasi kept extensive surveillance files on German citizens (see “Surveillance and Privacy”).
But the German state didn’t maintain power simply through military might. Like many Communist states, it devoted a huge portion of its budget to producing propaganda, some of it intended for other countries and some of it intended for its own citizens. East German propaganda ridiculed Western, capitalist values—there was even a channel, “the Black Channel,” whose sole purpose was to make fun of TV programs in West Berlin. In the later years of the East German state, propaganda largely failed as a means of persuading the people to obey their leaders. East Germans cooperated with the Stasi because they feared for their lives, not because they genuinely believed the Stasi were virtuous and West Berlin was evil. Nevertheless, propaganda and “soft power” were instrumental in maintaining a sense of unity, optimism, and obedience in East Germany for many years.
Anna Funder portrays the East German state as a tyrannical, authoritarian organization, and in fact, the entire book is centered around this theme. Some of the state officials she interviews genuinely believe in the virtues of Communism, or argue that the capitalist West has “smeared” East Germany to benefit their own image. However, Funder makes it very clear that East Germany was exactly what it appears to have been: a corrupt, tyrannical regime. Historians have argued that West Germany (and the United States) criticized East Berlin for many practices that it engaged in itself, such as surveillance and military aggression. However, Funder doesn’t seem interested in moral relativism: while she acknowledges that West Germany wasn’t perfect, her subject is East Germany and its evils. In short, Funder begins from the premise that the East German state was responsible for untold amounts of misery, frustration, and guilt. Over the course of Stasiland, she explores the ways that various East Germans have dealt with their government’s authoritarian behavior.
Authoritarianism and the East German State ThemeTracker
Authoritarianism and the East German State Quotes in Stasiland
‘Have you travelled yourself since the Wall came down?’ I ask. She throws her head back. I see she is wearing purple eyeliner which, at that angle, phosphoresces.
‘Not yet. But I'd like to. Bali, something like that. Or China. Yes, China.’
The Stasi guards had asked to see the demonstrators’ identity cards, in a strange parody of the control they were, at that very moment, losing. The demonstrators, in shock, obediently pulled their cards from their wallets. Then they seized the building.
‘Look.’ Uwe touched my forearm gently, turning me towards him like a dance partner. His eyes were green and slanted up, his teeth short and neat, little pearls. ‘You're probably right. No-one here is interested—they were backward and they were broke, and the whole Stasi thing...’ He trailed off. His breath was minty. ‘It’s sort of...embarrassing.’
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.
Even in that terrible light, I could still see his head injuries. And I could see his neck—they'd forgotten to cover it up. There were no strangulation marks, nothing.
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.
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.
Either Herr Winz doesn't know much, or he's not telling. He won't respond to my questions about the Insiderkomitee or talk about himself either. Each time I ask him about the reality of life in the GDR he returns to the beauties of socialist theory. I think he hopes, through me, to sow the seeds of socialism in an untainted corner of the world.
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.
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.
And when we started to get tied up in this ridiculous GDR success propaganda—exaggerated harvest results and production levels and so on—I withdrew from that altogether and confined myself to my specialist area: the work against imperialism.
She is convinced that, in the amnesties of 1990, mistakes were made and the serial rapist was released. ‘It was terrible that this happened to me right at that time,’ she says. ‘It meant that before the good things about the west got to us, this negative thing—the letting loose of the criminals—affected me.’
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’.
Klaus worked for years in the west as a sound-man in the theatre. After the Wall came down, he found out that ‘we'd become a cult band in the GDR—our records were more expensive than a Pink Floyd album’.
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.