In Stasiland, Anna Funder isn’t simply writing a history of East Germany under a Communist regime. By interviewing dozens of Germans about their experiences under this regime, she shows how people live with history—or, put another way, how an entire country of people go on living, having survived some almost unspeakably painful events.
When burdened with painful memories, Funder shows, East Germans cope in various ways. Some people try to deny or repress these painful memories. In particular, former officials of the East German government or members of the Stasi refuse to acknowledge what they and their peers did, even when Funder confronts them with the evidence. In denying the facts, they try to preserve their own dignity, rather than admitting that they incarcerated innocent people, violated the right to privacy, etc. But East Germans don’t repress the past simply out of guilt. Many of the people Funder interviews admit that they haven’t thought about their painful experiences with the Stasi in a long time. It’s easier for them to ignore painful memories than to think about them every day.
Other characters in Stasiland are shown to pursue the opposite strategy: instead of trying to make themselves forget the past, they seek to re-experience it or learn more about it. Miriam Weber, whose husband Charlie may have been murdered by the Stasi, has spent decades trying to learn the truth about her husband. She tries to contact government officials and read surveillance files on her husband, hoping that she’ll find out what really happened. While Funder is sympathetic to Miriam’s behavior, she also expresses skepticism that learning the truth will help her cope with her sadness at her husband’s death. Miriam seems to be motivated by a compulsion, rather than a conscious, rational choice. She wants to use the truth to reach some kind of closure with her grief, but there’s no guarantee that she’ll ever achieve this closure—and the same could be said for any of the grieving, traumatized Germans to whom Funder speaks.
As Miriam’s behavior would indicate, there is no reliable cure for grief: East Germans’ painful memories may well continue to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Nevertheless, Funder seems to believe that confronting the past, and facing the truth, is the only way to move forward with life (even if there’s no guarantee of success). The alternative—repressing the truth, or denying that it happened at all—only leads to more pain, more guilt, and more self-hatred.
Grief and Memory ThemeTracker
Grief and Memory 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.’
‘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.’
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.
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.
Her voice is slow. ‘I think I'd totally repressed that entire episode,’ she says. ‘Maybe what came later, the whole 1989 story, was so severe that other things just fell away. Otherwise, I can't explain it.’
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.’
Was this the point? Was Koch using the available evidence—in this case a bicycle permit—to construct or confirm a story of his father's innocence during the war? There's clearly a portion of the past here that cannot be pinned down with facts, or documents. All that exists is permission to ride a bike.
I am working in a feminist bookshop near Berkeley, and have made some friends. We went on a ‘Reclaim the Night’ march recently, something that made me feel real positive, and far away from Thüringen and everything that happened here.
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.