While Stasiland is a depressing book in parts, there are many moments in which Funder depicts ordinary East German people behaving with remarkable bravery. There are probably more specific examples of characters standing up to the Stasi and the East German government, in fact, than there are specific instances of characters betraying their friends, cooperating with the Stasi, or compromising their beliefs. In part, this is because of selection bias: the people who behaved bravely and morally under East German rule are the same people who’d be most likely to talk to Funder about their experiences. Nevertheless, Funder doesn’t simply glorify her characters. While she respects their bravery, she’s also skeptical of the concept of heroism itself, and shows how what most people call heroism is often a combination of recklessness, desperation, and pure foolishness.
At various points in Stasiland, Funder shows how her characters’ courage was really a matter of necessity—they were so desperate to protect themselves that they were willing to risk their own safety. For example, Julia Behrend, the owner of the apartment in which Funder stays, stands up to her Stasi interrogator, Major N., when he tries to pressure her into informing on her Italian ex-boyfriend. Julia, a teenager at the time, refuses to comply with Major N.’s request, not exactly because she’s a brave person, but because she has very little left to lose. The Stasi, skeptical of her relationship, have effectively barred her from getting a job of any kind. Similarly, Miriam Weber risks her life trying to sneak past the Berlin Wall—not because she’s particularly courageous or heroic but because she knows she’ll be imprisoned and treated cruelly if she stays in East Berlin. More generally, one could argue that the East German state collapsed because it practically forced its people to rise up against it. The German revolutionaries were brave, but they also had very little left to lose—marching against Mielke and Honecker was the courageous thing and the right thing, but also the rational thing. Funder has a tremendous amount of admiration for her subjects’ courage in the face of tyranny, but she tempers this admiration with some skepticism for the concept of heroism itself. One doesn’t have to be a larger-than-life hero, she suggests, in order to be brave.
Funder further questions the concept of bravery by showing how sometimes this “virtue” is the product of not thinking things through. Miriam is just a teenager when she risks her life trying to sneak into West Berlin—she’s so young and reckless that she doesn't stop to consider what will happen if she fails. Similarly, Frau Paul, who multiple characters recommend to Funder as the quintessential example of a tough, brave East German, refuses to cooperate with Stasi agents, even after they offer to reunite her with her sickly child, Torsten. Paul makes a brave decision, but, as Funder notes, she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences of her actions—either for Torsten or for herself. As a result, years go by before she’s able to see her child, and she continues to live with her guilt at having refused a chance to take care of her baby.
Most books about bravery and heroism focus on the heroic act itself. Funder takes a wiser, more expansive view of the subject, however, studying how “brave” people live with themselves and their choices, often in a great deal of emotional pain. It’s crucial to keep in mind that Funder isn’t criticizing or denigrating her characters in any way—just because she questions the categories of bravery and heroism doesn’t mean she doesn’t admire Miriam, Frau Paul, Julia, and the millions of other East Germans who risked their safety and happiness. Rather, Funder opts for a more nuanced, realistic portrayal of these people, resisting the kind of easy, one-dimensional hero-worship that’s more characteristic of East German propaganda than of good nonfiction.
Bravery and Heroism ThemeTracker
Bravery and Heroism Quotes in Stasiland
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.
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.
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’.
It seems to me that Frau Paul, as one does, may have overestimated her own strength, her resistance to damage, and that she is now, for her principles, a lonely, teary guilt-wracked wreck.