Berlino è un sogno ed un incubo assieme: quanta storia e quanto sangue a Berlino. E quel muro. Adoro questa città.
The Australian Anna Funder was working in television in Berlin in the mid-1990s when she became interested in the Stasi - the former East German ministry of state security. She wanted to know if East Germans had been capable of individual acts of resistance but the notion was brusquely dismissed by her West German colleagues: "Ossis" were not brave, but craven - and stupid to put up with the regime.
Funder decided to find out for herself. By placing an advertisement in a newspaper she arranged meetings with a number of old Stasi-men, including the noble renegade Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who once hosted a notorious television programmerunning down the west. She found them living in the same drab houses in compounds on the outskirts of Potsdam; the same stained Plattenbauten - or high rise blocks - in East Berlin; and frequenting the same pubs they did in their glory days. The only difference was they now had plenty of time on their hands.
There is much humour and even affection in her portraits of the handful of Stasi-men she meets. Hagen Koch, for example, whose council flat is now a museum to the old regime, has covered the walls with mementoes, such as a dress uniform of an officer in the elite Felix Dzerzhinski regiment - East Germany's equivalent of the Prussian First Foot Guards. Koch was a model citizen who mapped out the Berlin Wall, but something went badly wrong when his superiors began to meddle with his marriage. Funder shows that the Stasi-men like Koch were also victims in their way.
The GDR was a furtive and insidious tyranny. Through the Stasi it pried into every aspect of your life. It possessed armies of spies, paid and unpaid. Some estimates run as high as one for every six and a half members of the population. Any attempt to achieve success in East Germany involved a pact with the devil - you paid with your soul if you wanted to attend a university, enter a sports-club, become a lawyer or a clergyman or marry a foreigner - like Funder's friend Julia. You could only avoid contact with the regime if you opted out, and went into "inner emigration" - not an option for the ambitious.
This was a regime ruled by dour old men - Marxisten-Senilisten. For the most part the party leaders were Saxons - a revenge on Prussia for its earlier domination of Germany. An exception was Erich Mielke, the head of state security. He was a Berliner, wanted since 1931 for shooting a policeman. After 1989 he was put on trial and served a few years of a token sentence.
It must have been a pen-pusher's heaven. The Stasi had files on everybody; most of them would have made dull reading. Any foreigner who exchanged his or her 25 Deutschemarks for the same number of useless Ostmarks and entered the Russian sector might have ended up with a dossier in Berlin-Lichtenberg.
I was befriended by "Detlef" in the Bärenschenke pub in Berlin's Friedrichstrasse. He showed me round the hospital where he worked as a porter. He didn't want me to have an unbalanced view of Prussian history and to that end proposed sending me articles from the "impartial" East German press. After November 9 1989, the packets stopped coming.
Detlef was possibly no more than an "unofficial collaborator" - and unpaid stool-pigeon. The Stasi possessed much larger forces than the Gestapo, but they were not its equals in terror. It is true that some 43,000 people died in concentration camps in the Russian zone before Stalin's death put an end to the more murderous years of the GDR, but even that monstrous tally is small compared with the Nazis'. After July 20 1944 about 5,000 were killed, of whom perhaps only 200 were connected with the plot to kill Hitler. Funder finds evidence of about 20 to 30 secret burials in Leipzig - but over how long a period? The 1,000-year Reich lasted 12 years, the GDR 40. Since 1989 the border guards who opened fire on those who sought freedom in the west have been brought before the courts, but not I think, many junior Stasi-men.
Like the Third Reich, the GDR posed as a Rechtsstaat - one governed by the rule of law. In theory at least, torture was as illegal under Hitler as it was under Honecker. It was however, a brave man or woman who drew attention to the brutality of East German prisons.
All this and much else comes wonderfully to life in Funder's racy account. The real heroes of the book and of the resistance are Miriam and her murdered husband Charlie. Miriam, a reluctant citizen of the GDR, whose story runs as a central strand throughout this gripping book, has reason to be bitter. East Germany cannot die for her while its bogeymen are still living in the same flats and drinking in the same pubs.
Close Review: Stasiland by Anna Funder
This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday June 07 2003 on p12 of the Features & reviews section. It was last updated at 14.14 on August 29 2003.
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