Stasiland is about the ways that individual characters deal with the legacy of history, but it’s also about how Germany itself deals with its history—not just the atrocities of the East German regime, but of World War Two, the Holocaust, and events even further removed in time from the present day. In particular, Funder discusses the dozens of museums that opened throughout Germany in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall: there are multiple Wall Museums, a Stasi Museum, a history museum in Leipzig, and more. Funder suggests that these museums are indicative of a trend that might be termed “museumization”—not just the literal building of museums, but the more general practice of converting objects from the past into artifacts, meant to be displayed, viewed, and learned from. Throughout the nineties, German society began to categorize and display the artifacts of East German history, in the hopes that these artifacts would remind Germany of its past but also guide the country into the future.
Funder’s central point is that museums (and museumization) don’t just collect or categorize objects from the past: they offer a particular interpretation of the past as well. Often, gathering artifacts together in a museum is an act of victory. For example, Funder notes that the former Stasi headquarters—once the most feared building in all of East Berlin—has been converted into a Stasi museum, and the former Stasi officers’ headquarters have become viewing galleries for thousands of eager tourists. By converting the Stasi headquarters in this way, the new German state sends a clear, triumphant, and arguably self-congratulatory message: namely, that the benevolent, open-minded German government has converted what was once a secretive, totalitarian institution into an open, public space.
At the same time, museumization communicates the message that the past is, in a word, past. By displaying artifacts of East German history behind glass, museums subtly imply that East Germany is just history—that the East German state has ceased to hold any real influence over Germans’ lives. Funder strongly disagrees with this message: her entire book is about how East Germany does, in fact, continue to influence people’s lives long after its collapse. This would explain why Funder finds the various museums she visits in Berlin to be odd and vaguely annoying: they present the legacy of East Germany as a historical curio, arguably disrespecting the lives of the many Germans for whom East Germany is still an intense, psychological reality.
It’s important that readers recognize that Funder isn’t criticizing museums or the principle of museumization itself. As she says more than once, museums are an important way to teach people, especially young people, about the past. (And furthermore, the new German government’s decision to build museums seems much more enlightened than what the East German state did with regard to the Holocaust, i.e., deny that it was ever involved.) Nevertheless, Funder suggests that German authorities are a little too eager to build museums and, by the same token, too eager to convert the legacy of the East German state into a part of the distant past. In writing Stasiland, by contrast, Funder opts for a gentler, more sensitive approach to East German history, inviting her subjects to talk about how the legacy of the Stasi continues to impact their day-to-day lives.
Museums and Artifacts ThemeTracker
Museums and Artifacts Quotes in Stasiland
‘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.’
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.
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.
Things have been put behind glass, but it is not yet over.