Blasts from the Past: Stasiland by Anna Funder (2004)

Cover image for Stasiland by Anna FunderThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Those of us who witnessed the scenes of the Berlin Wall being torn down in 1989, albeit on TV for me, are hardly likely to forget the jubilation of the crowds on both sides. It was a time of tremendous hope, and some unhelpful Western triumphalism I can’t help feeling, which gave way to a harsh reality for some but longed-for freedom for many.

Funder’s interest in what went on behind the Berlin Wall was first kindled when she was a student in West Berlin. Several day trips to the East heightened her curiosity and after the Wall fell she began to collect the stories which would eventually become Stasiland, a very personal, carefully researched account which captures the quiet agony of the industrious Stasi’s many victims through the stories of ordinary people. Her interviewees are strikingly, sometimes painfully candid, speaking with an honesty made possible partly by Funder’s sensitivity but also by her status as an outsider. She seeks out members of the GDR’s old terror machine, trying to understand how they have dealt with their nefarious past. Written with a clear-sighted empathy that makes these stories all the more moving, her book offers an eloquent and important testament to the dreadful consequences of totalitarianism.

I read Stasiland before I’d visited Berlin, let alone begun to explore some of the countries behind the ‘iron curtain’ as it was dubbed. Walking around the now gentrified, hipster-inhabited streets of the old East Berlin in which we stayed on our second visit, overlooked but the iconic TV tower, I couldn’t help thinking of all those people inveigled in one way or another into spying on each other and all the hurt that resulted.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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27 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Stasiland by Anna Funder (2004)”

  1. I loved (and still love) Stasiland. I have deliberately stopped reading books about the Holocaust unless written by a survivor, and instead moved my reading to accounts of life behind the Iron Curtain – this remains my no.1 pick, although I recently read Red Love by Maxim Leo which was really interesting.

    Somewhat related -have you seen the 2018 film, Balloon, about escape from East Berlin? If not, hunt it down, it’s amazing.

    1. It’s a fascinating period of history. Exploring that part of Europe has been a revelation. Thanks for the Balloon tip. I’ll see if I can track it down for weekend viewing.

  2. I’ve just read Wifedom (which I found problematic in places) but Stasiland has been in my TBR for at least a decade. For a similar theme, I recommend Peter Schneider’s classic German novel, The Wall Jumper, which provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin life before the wall came down.

  3. I think I should re-read this too. I hadn’t visited Berlin when I first read it, and though that visit was a short one, I think I learnt a lot which might inform my re-reading.

  4. This was one I read a few years ago and was thoroughly impressed by. If you ever think that people would never inform on each other, just read this and Wild Swans (about China). Not to mention the way people condemn each other readily on social media. I’ve got Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 to read, too, amongst others.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add the Hoyer to my list. I remember Wild Swans very well from when I was a bookseller years ago – a huge bestseller at the time. One of the saddest thing about Stasiliand for me was the way in which people were blackmailed into informing and spying on those they lived amongst and cared for.

  5. I’m hoping to go to Berlin this spring, for a first visit; this could be good reading! It’s a lovely idea to look back at books that meant so much to you at a particular time, you’ve got me thinking. . .

    1. I spend so much time ogling shiny, new titles that it seemed a good idea to remind myself of the many brilliant books I’ve already read!

      I love Berlin. So much to see, and I’m sure it would be lovely in the spring. Lots of green space. Hope you have a fabulous time!

  6. I listened to the abridged audio of Wifedom when R4’s Book of the Week serialised it last year, and it’s well worth considering. (I know it’s had some mixed reviews, but the sections about Eileen O’ Shaunessy are heartbreaking and illuminating.)

    Stasiland sounds excellent, too. Once again, it might be the kind of book I would listen to while cooking etc, just to fit it in!

    1. I have a copy of Wifedom so I’m sure I’ll get around to it. Stasiland is well worth reading, still relevant today in understanding the psychology of those who lived under such surveillance and those who perpetrated it.

  7. This is the second reference to this book in my recent experience….maybe the bookish universe is trying to tell me something.

    Given the recent protests in Berlin (last weekend, or the one before? and the growing influence of extreme-far-right parties in Germany, I wonder how differently this might read now.

    1. Interesting that you saw it mentioned elsewhere. I’m both dreading and eager for elections this year. It looks like my own appalling government will finally change (everything crossed for that) but mainland Europe looks worrying and I can’t even bear to think about the US.

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