December 2019 – January 2020


Stasiland now

By Anna Funder
Photo of Stasi agent

A Stasi agent’s surveillance selfie, early 1980s. © Simon Menner and BStU, 2019

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author of ‘Stasiland’ reveals the ongoing power of the former East German regime, not just in politics and business but also in shaping perceptions of victimhood in unified Germany

Sometimes a mistake can be so big that it is invisible to you. This is the kind of mistake that might underpin a project, like Stasiland. Or it might be the kind that underpins a life, like those of the Stasi men.

Stasiland was published in 2002 in Australia, and later around the world – ultimately in 25 countries. But in Germany it was rejected by 23 publishers. Weirdly, I didn’t think anything of it. I believe I felt, with perverse beginner’s luxury, that I hadn’t had my share of rejection and probably had it coming. Now I see that I was so in awe of the main characters that nothing could get through to me. And I see something else. The beginnings of the book were personal, and lay way back in my past. As with most things of this nature, I was blind to them until they manifested in the work.

At 20, I had been an exchange student at the Free University in West Berlin, where I’d fallen in with artists and writers a generation older than me, who had been kicked out of East Germany. (The German Democratic Republic was the only Eastern Bloc country that had the option, in addition to “liquidation” and imprisonment, of ridding itself of dissenters by exiling them to a Western neighbour.) In the winter of 1987 I sat with my friends in cafes in Kreuzberg, aware that the past they spoke of, a past containing ex-lovers, parents and even children, still existed, just over the monstrous, outlandish Berlin Wall at the end of the street. Time, here, was also a matter of place. Their past was Over There, and there was no going back.

What kind of country exiles its best and brightest? And what was it in my friends – some urge to engage truthfully with the world – that had been worth more to them than all the people they’d left? My friends seemed to have something at their core, something hard and bright and formed under pressure like a diamond. It was beautiful and brave, and I wanted to know where it came from. I remember a conversation at the beginning of 1988 in which someone – perhaps the painter A.R. Penck – mused about whether the Wall might some day come down. Everyone laughed, as if he’d let slip a fantasy of lions lying down with lambs, or the Cold War powers abandoning their nukes. And then, the next year, it fell.

After the Wall was gone my questions remained: about the regime, and about the nature of human beings to resist it. These are questions of power and its seductions, and conscience and its price. I went back to explore them, and spent the 1990s and early 2000s in and out of Berlin.

My interest turned out not to be in the famous artists and writers, nor in the renowned political activists. I was looking for that core, that hard and bright thing formed under pressure, in ordinary people.

And I found it. Stasiland is about four “ordinary” but deeply extraordinary people who refused, under enormous pressure, to collaborate with the Stasi regime. At 16, Miriam Weber nearly succeeded in scaling the Berlin Wall. Under torture she refused to betray those who had helped her – she couldn’t, because no one had. Later, her young husband, Charlie, died in Stasi custody. From behind the scenes, the Stasi orchestrated the entire funeral, down to the choice of coffin. Miriam has spent the rest of her life trying to find out what happened to Charlie, as if there could be justice in an answer. Sigrid Paul was separated from her gravely ill baby, Torsten, the night the barricades for the Wall went up – they stretched between her house and the hospital. Her desperation transformed her into someone who would risk her life to tunnel under it. When the Stasi caught her they offered her a devil’s bargain: to betray the Western student who had helped, or abandon her son. Both options would condemn her. She made her choice, and lived the rest of her life as one of the damned. Julia, a brilliant, loyal student, had her private life pored over by the monolithic Männerklub (Men’s Club) that was the Stasi. They wanted her to betray everyone around her to them; she wouldn’t, and was then sidelined from life. And the gorgeous, decrepit rock star Klaus Renft, who was declared, to his face, to “no longer exist” and then, in an example of the word made manifest, was “disappeared” from East Germany: wiped from its music catalogue, and then from its face.

In 1996 I was told none of the ex-Stasi would speak to me; that they had all gone to ground. And it was true that they were hiding, lying low fearing public shaming, or Romanian-style lynchings. When I found them they insisted on anonymity and met me in clandestine places. One even disguised himself as a Westerner, in leather elbow-patched tweed. Another gave me a copy of The Communist Manifesto with a signed dedication, telling me he hoped I might take it back to Australia to sow the seeds of socialism in a corner of the world as yet untainted by prejudice against them.

Previously, these men had accepted the politics of the GDR as a reality that could not, or should not, be changed. They worked within it: wanting careers, education for their children, a nice life. So they paid a price that did not look like a mistake at the time; it looked like a career move. If sometimes the justification of doing something “for the cause” only just papered over their misgivings, they quickly got rid of those. I met men who spied on their families and friends; opened boots of cars in transit to West Berlin and sent would-be escapees off to prison; recruited informers in churches, schools, pubs and factories; bribed West German journalists and spread “disinformation” in West Germany in order to bring down politicians there. One man I visited, “Herr Bock”, was a teacher of Spezialdisziplin or, as he explained to me, “the art of the handler”. I sat in his gloomy house as he gave me a lecture on how to recruit informers. He told me that the regime had needed more and more informers and more and more Stasi men because more and more enemies kept emerging. When I asked him who these enemies were he told me, painstakingly and as if I were dim, that by definition, anyone put under surveillance was an enemy. There were professors of law, he said, who spent their careers, in fact whose promotions depended on, expanding the paragraphs of the law so as to be able to include more “enemies” in them. But, he added, in his view this was actually taken too far. When I asked what he meant by “too far”, he said, “too far to be able to be implemented with the available resources. We didn’t have enough agents and informers to keep up with the ever increasing numbers of enemies.” This expressed perfectly the closed system of enmity and “full employment” that was the GDR: you can create a lot of full-time jobs in an apparatus of fear if everyone is your enemy.

Current estimates have the number of Stasi agents and informers as 1 for every 6.5 people in the country. Under Hitler, it is estimated there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin’s USSR one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the 1990s the West German media called the GDR “the most perfected surveillance state of all time”. Now this must be qualified, because of what has come after: the GDR was possibly the most thoroughly surveilled state of the pre-­internet age.

When the Berlin Wall came down it looked like the demonstrators for democracy and the resisters must have won that struggle. The Cold War was over and they were victorious. But they haven’t won the peace. The Stasi men, after the initial shock, have done much better in the new Germany than the people they oppressed. Many were snapped up by security firms and private detective agencies eager for their considerable expertise. Or they went into selling real estate and insurance, industries unknown in the communist bloc but in which they had, as it turns out, a distinct advantage, having been schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their own better judgement. Others rose high in politics and business; their solid work histories and training as “team players” in “The Firm” standing them in good stead, especially in comparison to their victims, whom they had denied educations and work, and tried to destroy.

It is a truism that history is written by the winners. But it would be truer in this case to say that the winner is who gets to write it. Having won the peace (kept their money and had their careers) the ex-SED (Socialist Unity Party) cadres and their heirs would now like to rewrite the story. They do not want to go down in history as the next lot of evil perpetrators in the second dictatorship of the 20th century on German soil.

The 30 years since the Wall fell have seen a battle over who gets to speak and who is listened to, who in this tale gets their comeuppance, and who their moral victory. This is also a battle over victimhood and the putative innocence it confers: the ex-SED and Stasi portray themselves as the victims of unification and the West. It’s a manoeuvre designed to create a post-Wall propaganda haze in which their victims cannot be victims, or in which they are all victims, somehow, together. And today this amorphous sense of victimhood among former Easterners is being harnessed by the racist, xenophobic, nationalistic Alternative for Germany party (the AfD), which is winning a significant proportion of the vote in the former eastern states. The AfD articulates an inchoate, dangerous and misdirected malaise similar to that of Brexit or Trump supporters: the white patriarchal dispossessed, with their own narratives of victimhood. In this part of the world, history might look to a local like a spinning roulette wheel of black (Nazis) and red (communists), which is now veering back to black. Ordinary people place their chips, suspecting, despite their apparent choice, that the house always wins.

The ex–East German cadres and the people they ruled come from a world in which history was rewritten with spectacular violence to the truth. I remember seeing a plaque on a bridge in Dresden celebrating the people’s “liberation” from the fascists by their brothers the Russians, and wondering how long after the end of the war it took for them to switch from black to red, from trying to kill them to being comrades. Probably not long, as switching was compulsory. The founding narrative of the country was the fiction that the (newly minted) East Germans were communists, and so they could not be, nor ever have been, Nazis here. West Germany was “fascist, imperialist, capitalist” and as such the successor state to the Nazi regime. The GDR pretended it had rid itself of all ex-Nazis into the West. This meant that when the Wall came down it revealed, among other things, 17 million Germans with no consciousness of national responsibility for the Holocaust. This is the most extraordinary historical sleight of hand. Indeed, not only history but human nature – or at least what was allowed to be said about it – was to be changed by edict and fiction, propaganda and PR. I remember sitting opposite one fellow in his high-rise apartment as he said that East Germans were more advanced than other Germans because they were not fascists like the Nazis and they were not imperialists and capitalists like the West Germans now, or the people of the Weimar Republic before them. East Germans had landed righteously on red, in a sea of black both back then, and over there.

I didn’t think much about the reception of Stasiland while I was writing it. My expectations, if I had any, have been far surpassed around the world. Except in Germany, where it mattered most to the people I wrote about, and so, to me.

My great mistake was to imagine that the stories I was finding would be well received by Germans. When I encountered Miriam, Sigrid, Julia and Klaus, what they told me was deeply thrilling. Not only in the sense of the bravery of climbing the Berlin Wall or digging an underground tunnel or secretly recording the governmental declaration that you “no longer exist”. The thrill was more fundamental. I was witnessing, alive and breathing and drinking coffee opposite me, heroic human decency. During the GDR regime these people had each said, in essence, “I don’t care what you do to me, I will not betray those around me. Because if I do, I betray myself.” They did this while living in one of the most savage surveillance regimes ever known, a regime structured as a pyramid of fear, to be climbed by serial betrayal.

Conscience is invisible, but I saw it. I saw it in a nail-bitten girl, an alcoholic rocker, a housewife wringing her sodden handkerchief, and in beautiful, chain­smoking Miriam. In them I saw what is, perhaps, the most extraordinary quality of human beings: the instinct to speak out against tyranny, knowing you will suffer or die for it at the hands of its leaders. This conscience and the courage to act on it is miraculous, but it is also the essence of our humanity. It seems anti­Darwinian – certainly not “survival of the fittest”. But when looked at more closely, people who speak out against tyranny do so to save the rest of us; we are linked in a chain of responsibility so powerful it feels biological. It is this quality that will alert us to the next tyranny, whatever form that takes; it might just be what keeps us free. Twenty years later I can see that these encounters have been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

The instinct to resist injustice applies whether the tyranny is under a black flag or a red one. I knew how some brave resisters to Hitler’s regime had been honoured. I thought of the famous brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, executed by guillotine for distributing anti-Hitler leaflets in 1943. They are remembered with plaques and prizes, street and school names throughout Germany. I thought German people might be proud of the heroes among so-called “ordinary” people I had found, who so bravely resisted this next dictatorship on German soil.

Instead, I found a reaction as divided as the country itself: between West and East Germans and, within the former GDR, between those who had supported the regime, those who had resisted and, in between, a large, inscrutable group of quiet folk or fellow-travellers.

Only one note came back with the rejections. The 23rd publisher was kind enough to give a reason. They wrote that “in the current political climate” they could not see their way to publishing the book. That was in 2002. I have no idea what that meant. Was it that the ex-Stasi were generally ascendant in politics and public life? Were they, or their former informers, running the publishing house? Or was it more general – perhaps stories about inhumanity and resistance to it were unwelcome in a society trying to knit itself back together. The regime was gone, but everyone in it was still right there – the Stasi and their victims, running into each other in the streets and supermarkets. In 1990s Germany people were being urged to “get along” and perhaps this could only happen if the crimes of the SED and the Stasi went largely unpunished, their victims scantily recompensed and their heroes not honoured. I had no way of knowing. When the book was finally bought by a small West German publisher I was pleased.

You might think something would have dawned on me when the publicist for my 10-city book tour of Germany emailed saying “wear a flak jacket”. I didn’t know the German word for flak jacket (was it some kind of recycled eco-fleece?) and had to look it up. It made no difference. I was in the hormonally relaxed first trimester of my second pregnancy and it seemed that not only my body but also my mind would admit no toxins.I remained awed by the courage of those in the book and thought everyone else would be too.

Stasiland was launched at the Leipzig Book Fair in the ballroom of the former Stasi offices in Leipzig, the Runde Ecke. My publisher, a West German woman in a fancy fur coat, got up on stage to make her speech. I waited in the wings. By this time I did have a few butterflies. As an outsider I felt that I could hardly be telling new stories to the people here, who had lived them. But when I looked at her as she gripped the podium I saw that her knees, visible in the gap between the fur coat and the top of her boots, were shaking. I glanced down to see what she was looking at. The first two rows of seats were filled with ex-Stasi or ex-SED men. I know this because they were in the ex-Stasi (or ex-SED) uniform, which consisted of polyester trousers with a nice firm crease, an elastic-waisted jacket and a serious amount of Brylcreem. They were sitting in their former ballroom, legs open, arms crossed, staring daggers at us.

When the publisher came to the end of her speech, she was clearly relieved. “And after all,” she said, hurriedly closing her notes, “what unites us here today, Easterners and Westerners, is what we, as Germans, have in common. And what we have in common is betrayal.”

Finally, the penny dropped: this was not going to be a celebration of heroism. What it was going to be instead I had no idea. I walked to the lectern. When I looked down the men in the front row were whispering to one another but their eyes were fixed on me, squinted with scorn. As I opened my book to read they uncrossed their arms, reached into their jackets and took out… notebooks. And then, as I spoke, they started scratching notes. At which point my butterflies disappeared, replaced with something steelier.

What file could they possibly keep on me now, in 2004, and what could they do with it? I saw in their faces that frightening people had its pleasures, and I did not want to give them any more of those. Also, I had my own notes on them, between the covers of Stasiland.

After the reading, the floor was opened for questions. No one spoke. Then the men in the front row scraped their chairs back and filed out down the middle aisle, their steps audible on the faux parquetry. Only then – and this happened in every former East German city on my tour – only once these sorts of men were gone, would an ordinary person stand up and speak. In Leipzig that evening it was a woman. “I was a political prisoner,” she said. “My son also. It happened to so many. Why did it take an outsider to write this book? Why does no one here tell these stories?” I glanced at the door. Her answer had just fled the premises.

A regime might be history, but its foot soldiers, generals and acolytes are all still here, with axes to grind, pasts to conceal, CVs to doctor, careers to forge – and so, others to silence. I don’t know what those men did with their notes. But I do know what they – or others like them – did to my book. Back in Sydney one afternoon, I was working in my attic study when I received an email. It concerned a group of ex-Stasi, formerly called Das Insiderkomitee, now merged into another group of ex-Stasi, communist party functionaries, lawyers and others called, with zero irony, The Society for Civil Liberties and the Protection of Man – or GBM, its German acronym. The email said GBM was suing my German publisher. It objected to a certain paragraph in the book in which I outlined allegations about what ex-Stasi had done to torment former dissidents after the fall of the Wall, into the 1990s – such as cutting their cars’ brake leads to cause accidents, detaining their children after school, sending their wives unwanted pornography and threatening an acid attack on a former border guard who had spoken out on television. So now, they were coming for me. I decided I needed a cup of tea.

I went downstairs and turned the tap. No water came out. And in that millisecond I had a flash of paranoia no less real for being hideously self-aggrandising: They have extended their dark net of chicanery across the globe, and they will thirst me out.

Of course it was nothing so melodramatic: the water was off because of street repairs and I’d missed the council notice. The drama was all in Berlin. By way of a preliminary injunction issued by Berlin’s district court in 2004, my publisher was ordered to delete the paragraph in future German editions. I felt I’d been a victim, in a very small way, of some of the tactics ex-Stasi and others use to manufacture an airbrushed reputation they do not deserve to have, using the extremely broad German privacy laws.

Powerful men brought with them from the GDR into unified Germany the habit of power. They seemed to have mastered overnight the use of power’s tool – the law – in the democratic country they found themselves in. The result is that men who were responsible for what may be the world’s most insidious privacy-invading regime, men who used stolen biographies for nationwide blackmail and the destruction of lives, can now use the law to keep allegations about their current insidious activities from public scrutiny. In this way, ex-Stasi and ex-SED party members can continue their careers in business, media, the law (including as judges – Miriam saw the judge from her husband’s 1980 case still on the bench in the 1990s) and in politics. I changed publisher. In a recent German edition I asked for the paragraph to be reinstated but blacked out, with a footnote attributing the redaction to the litigious ex-Stasi group. I want German readers to see the dark reach of the regime well beyond its apparent demise.

If this is how they go after me, safe on the other side of the globe, how must it feel to speak out as a former political prisoner or Stasi opponent in Germany?

Later on that German book tour I was invited onto a national TV talk show, if Miriam Weber would come on too. At our first meeting, in 1997, Miriam had said she didn’t care if I used her real name or not. Her openness alarmed me even then; it felt like an insouciance to harm that might be the result of trauma, and could bring about more of the same. I gave her a pseudonym because I thought neither of us could gauge how comfortable or how safe it would be for her to have her story widely known when the book was published. By 2004 Miriam was working at one of the public broadcasters. Her immediate boss had been a Stasi informer; a more senior boss had been high up in the GDR’s ministry of the interior. That such people from the dictatorship were allowed to have jobs in public broadcasting in a state just learning to be democratic was a grave mistake. Her bosses knew Miriam had been a political prisoner and hated her for it. They hated, too, that she sometimes objected to the news directors relegating an item showing the GDR or the Stasi in a bad light to the end of the bulletin, or not broadcasting such pieces at all. Miriam objected to what she saw as strenuous efforts, within the public broadcaster, to show the GDR as a harmless, safe welfare state with high ideals; she objected to the rampant Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East), the Verharmlosung (trivialisation) and the Schönreden (sugar-coating) of the dictatorship. Miriam had spent almost her whole life battling the SED state and its Stasi, and there they were: the same people, still with power over her. She was tired, on a short-term contract and vulnerable. It would simply have made her working life too difficult to publicly “out” herself. She decided not to come on TV.

My book tour continued, with results both more and less predictable. Stasiland received a comically vicious review from a former East German journalist, which was to be expected, as “journalists” in a dictatorship are spokespeople for the regime. The reviews from more liberal papers or those closer to the citizens’ rights movement were laudatory. But the response of the mass in the middle was harder to read. I can only describe it as a loud silence. Finally, I saw that the broad former East German public did not share my awe at the heroes in the book.

But it wasn’t until I met Fred Breinersdorfer after a screening in Sydney of his film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days that I found a way to understand why. Standing in the foyer of the theatre, Breinersdorfer mentioned that immediately after the war Hans and Sophie Scholl’s bereaved parents had been ostracised by the others in their village as “traitors”. I remember the shock of this moment. The parents of these most famous anti-Nazi resisters were shunned by their contemporaries? My mind spun with the feeling I get just before it absorbs something that will permanently change it. Breinersdorfer explained that Hans and Sophie Scholls’ “rehabilitation” or fame – the plaques and prizes, street and school names – did not happen for more than 20 years. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the broader public began to honour those who had been part of the Nazi resistance. If the Scholl parents were “traitors” then it must mean that the villagers were still “loyal” to… what? To a genocidal regime in the face of all the evidence – the destruction of their world, the mountains of corpses – for decades. They did not want to be shown what they, like young Sophie and Hans, could have seen but didn’t.

After a regime’s fall, is there an immediate period of willed public amnesia? A decades-long black hole of continuing loyalty to the fallen regime on the one side, and unaddressed trauma and unacknowledged resistance on the other? Marianne Birthler, the former East German civil rights activist who became director of the BStU, the agency responsible for the safekeeping of, and access to, the Stasi files, says that 40 years of separation will need 40 years of healing, because true resolution is “not a matter of years, but of generations”. But where does that leave the living?

In the 30 years since the fall of the Wall it has been hard, verging on impossible, to honour East German resisters as heroes. In the public mind there are only some seasoned civil rights activists, derided sotto voce as stubborn, superannuated sock-and-Birkenstock-wearing obsessives, and a larger group of “victims” whose psychological damage is sheeted home to them individually (as “losers”) rather than as evidence of the criminality of the state that caused it. No one wants to hear from them. There is, as yet, no proliferation of plaques, books, street and school names celebrating them. There may never be, if the ex-SED Party members, the ex-Stasi and their apologists win the public relations war they have been waging in the newspapers, courts and at the ballot boxes, a war apparently supported by a general public that does not want to have to acknowledge the scale and perfidy of this second lot of 20th-century German evildoers.

Finally, standing in that cinema foyer I understood what the book publicist had been trying to tell me. The stories in Stasiland raise an uncomfortable question for many people: if these schoolgirls, this housewife, this alcoholic rock singer spoke up, why didn’t I? What I learnt, then, was this: we like our heroes attenuated in time so they don’t show us up. That was my great mistake, but I still hope time might unmake it.

Though it may not. Sigrid Paul, who was imprisoned for years for trying to reach her baby, Torsten, in the West Berlin hospital, had a lot of trouble meeting the standard of proof to the satisfaction of the authorities that her trauma was caused by the SED state. She only got small amounts of welfare and has now died, as has Torsten, who was also poor. Klaus Renft died. (But not before calling me to correct an error before the book went to print. “I don’t smoke cigarettes,” he said. I could hear his smile. “They’re the one thing I don’t.”) I’ve lost touch with Julia. Miriam, who finally left the radio station, receives a small reparations payment and lives in very straitened circumstances. It is a horrible, and possibly deliberate, irony of history that justice, meaning compensation and possibly honour, may only come, if at all, when the people to whom it is owed are old, or dead. In German this is known, rather chillingly, as a biologische Lösung: a biological solution to a social issue.

But if your interest, like mine, is in how ordinary people can recognise their circumstances in an unjust regime as outrageous and then defy them in order to behave decently, which may mean heroically, you might wish to see justice done in their lifetime. Otherwise, the message to the next generation is that to listen to one’s conscience and act on it is to court destruction in one regime, and ignominy in the next. In the GDR, resisters – and anyone who had any non-state-sanctioned ideas or ambition was made into a criminal, a Regime­Gegner (regime opponent) or a feindlich-negative Element (enemy-negative element) – were silenced by prison or Zersetzung (engineered psychological destruction), the stealing of their children, exclusion from education and jobs, or exile. In the capitalist West the tool of choice is, of course, money: voicelessness is achieved by impoverishment. It feels to Miriam like democratic Germany is finishing what communist Germany began.

“Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for,” as Virginia Woolf noted. The former SED functionaries and Stasi fought, successfully, to get the federal republic to give them the full pensions they would have awarded themselves for their work in their regime. They are the winners in democracy, as they were in their own dictatorship. Meanwhile, their victims are impoverished, and thus stripped of dignity. Of course they do not have the work histories that would lead to a pension: exclusion from education and work was one of the main ways their lives were ruined. There are no reparations or compensation payments made to them to honour their resistance, their fight for democratic principles when that fight was hard. Instead, they are thrown onto the welfare system, a system designed to deal with poverty and disadvantage, not honour and recognition. Under the law, there are one-off payments of relatively small sums calculated per month spent in prison, and then, if a person earns below €1048 per month, they can apply for an extra €300 paid each month. In fact, shockingly, this compensation law was set to expire altogether in December 2019. Under pressure from victims’ organisations the sunset clause was repealed by the federal parliament in October, and the level of compensation changed to €330 per month. Political party Die Linke (“The Left”) abstained from the vote.

How does the GBM, or other ex-SED and ex-Stasi organisations, fund their actions? When the Wall fell in 1989, the GDR was bankrupt. But the ruling Socialist Unity Party had billions – no one knows exactly how many, but billions, measured in Western currency – which it kept and stashed for its own uses as it transformed, by the miracle of acronyms, from the SED into the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) and ran in German elections. After the Wall fell the ex-SED used, according to historian Hubertus Knabe, “a high degree of criminal energy”, to hide cash, bullion and other valuables both at home and abroad – in Cuba, Austria, Switzerland. Inside the country it is alleged that capital was provided from these stolen state funds for the rapid establishment, by ex-Stasi and SED members and their associates, of pubs, taxi and driving companies, fishing clubs and transport companies. (This may account, among other things, for the 1990s joke about why ex-Stasi drivers had an advantage in the taxi business: “You just get in – they know where you live.”) According to the independent commission that spent 16 years investigating the vanished GDR state funds, “The SED/PDS pursued a deceitful strategy of asset concealment.” As its chair, Christian von Hammerstein, put it, the party managed in this way “to secure untold millions” from the German state. Additionally, the SED had presided over property and factories, and maintained filing cabinets of “dollars, bars of silver, coin, watches, clocks and a reserve of gold for the teeth of Politburo members”. Only a fraction of the funds have been traced and returned to Germany. These were not used for victims’ organisations or compensation, but for more apolitical purposes, such as the installation of barbecues in Berlin parks. I wonder whether some of the unrecovered funds might have been used to pay the ex-regime lawyer, Dr Wolff, in the case against Stasiland. It is possible that the SED successor party, the PDS, now amalgamated with other left-wing politicians in Die Linke, has benefitted from the stashed billions. Die Linke cannot recognise the victims of this predecessor because that would turn it into a perpetrator party. In any event, the fortunes of Die Linke are waning, as former East Germans turn from it to the AfD, back to black.

German discomfort about the Stasi regime is different in the former West. It is less ideological and more profound. On the West German part of my book tour, I was asked several times an agonised question about the Stasi regime: “What do you think it says about us Germans?” Sometimes the questioner made their assumptions explicit, asking whether “our German tendency to perfectionise things” was the root of it, or whether the habit of obedience to authority that such “perfectionised” systems require is somehow reflective of national character. I am uncomfortable with constructions of “national character”. Dictatorships, and even genocide, occur in varying cultures; my own country was founded on the attempted or assumed extinction of a race. But I could see that the question revealed both a tragic national unease and a brave habit of mind. The tragic unease comes from discussing the two German dictatorships together, so as to try to find causes. The almost unimaginable scale of the horror wrought by the Nazi regime makes this difficult because no one wants to diminish that, ever; but then later horrors, smaller in scale, should not be diminished by it, either. The brave habit of mind is to try to understand the past in such a way as to take it to heart, to leave oneself open to taking responsibility. In West Germany, this habit didn’t develop straight after World War Two, as is often thought, but from the late 1960s after a decades-long black hole.

Back home, I puzzled over what they meant exactly when they spoke of a tendency to “perfectionise things”. I came to think it means to institute an order in the name of an ideal – whether that’s a fascist ideal of a mythic, patriarchal and racially pure past, or a communist ideal of an equally mythic, male-run and politically pure future – which is then carried out to the nth degree, into an extremism that is the extension of its logic beyond sense, beyond decency and beyond respect for humanity. In practice, this perfectionism takes the form of administrative efficiency, of numbered rules and intricate, minutely observed procedures. It is as if people are saying that they were so absorbed in the implementation of the system that, in the thicket of daily procedures, they lost sight of its aim of a racially or a politically pure state.

And yet, conversely, sometimes the aims of the state are invoked to excuse the harms done in its implementation. To argue that a regime was “perfectionised” is also to imply that it took good ideals (whether under a black flag or a red one) too far. This leaves, chillingly, the possibility that those ideals were sound. I heard this from elderly people in Germany in the 1980s who felt that, apart from “that business with the Jews, which was taken too far”, the National Socialists had good ideas and policies. And I heard it a lot from ex-Stasi men and others loyal to the regime – like Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who told me that, yes, the surveillance might have gone too far, but the ideals of communism were so fine, so good, so fair.

These words are terrifying because they justify the terror of the regimes. And we are hearing similar rhetoric today in Germany. Arguments are being made for a “new narrative” for East Germany, in which it was “not just” the “Stasi and its victims”; that there was a daily life of subsidised rent and transport and full employment. No one would wish to take anyone’s happy memories away. But they are not the truth of the country that imprisoned its people behind a Wall in a world of compulsory lies. Not even the owners of the happy memories would actually like to go back there. The truth is that no aspect of daily life escaped surveillance. That is what the “total” in “totalitarian” means. Because the SED, and the Stasi as its “shield and sword”, could, and did, make an enemy of anyone on any ground they chose, the country was divided into the SED and the Stasi on one side and their victims or potential victims on the other. If they hadn’t made you a victim, you lived in the knowledge, or the fear, that they could at any time. Only if you didn’t move did you not feel the chains, as Birthler puts it. There was no way out of the country, and within it no escape from the reaches of the Stasi. To claim another reality, as some are now doing, in which the GDR was a place where people enjoyed modest material comfort in exchange for political obedience, is to dust off the communist propaganda of a “humane idea” from its inevitably inhumane real-world consequences. It is to make a new claim for totalitarianism.

In 1997 I thought I was writing about the past, a place where surveillance authoritarianism had existed, but was now extinct. Today, in an age of mass surveillance and rising, mad-haired authoritarianism of both the black and red kinds, it is small wonder the ex-Stasi consider themselves less and less as pariahs. Perhaps, even, they were ahead of their time? It’s worth examining the methods of repression that become available in an age of mass surveillance. Fake news is one of them. It can be fake news of a national narrative (such as “We were never Nazis here”) or targeted fake news to destroy a political opponent, or any other person.

There is no English word for the practice of Zersetzung. A German friend described it as “making a person melt on the inside”. The dictionary offers “breakdown, decomposition, degradation”. Decomposition, then, was what the SED state, via the Stasi, did to people it wanted to destroy in situ by creating mental breakdown, without the obviousness of throwing them in prison or into exile. It was state-controlled gaslighting on a massive scale. Methods included spreading rumours of infidelity to ruin a marriage, and breaking into your house to change your alarm clock, your brand of jam, move furniture around or steal clothing from your wardrobe. It could involve deliberately wrong medical treatment, including to induce psychiatric illness, doctored “evidence” being sent to friends to ruin relationships, crank calls. Targeted people felt they were losing their minds. Some suicided. This was the procedure for it, as elaborated in a directive from Erich Mielke, the chief of the Stasi, in 1976:

2.6.1 Objectives and Areas of Application for Measures of Decomposition

Measures of Decomposition are to be directed at enemy-negative forces by the eliciting as well as the exploitation and strengthening of such contradictions and differences through which they are splintered, paralysed, disorganised and isolated and their enemy-negative actions including the effects of same are preventatively averted, essentially restricted or completely arrested.


2.6.2 Forms, Measures and Methods of Decomposition

Best practice Forms of Decomposition are:

– systematic discrediting of public reputation, esteem and prestige on the basis of true, verifiable and compromising information combined, in addition to untrue, credible, non-refutable and therefore also compromising information

– systematic organisation of professional and social failure to undermine the self-confidence of individual people …

For the execution of decomposition measures reliable, proven informers suited to the solving of this mission are to be prioritised.

The directive goes on, in page after page of detail. It reads like a manual from Cambridge Analytica, a “how to” for any age in which weaponised mass misinformation is possible.

Who will tell us when things are being “perfectionised” and taken too far – in governments, at Google and Facebook and elsewhere? It will not be the “reliable, proven informers” or their modern corporate equivalents. Nor will it be the loyal or frightened ordinary people, or the careerists and apparatchiks. It will be people like Miriam, Sigrid, Julia and Klaus, and the thousands of others like them who lived in the GDR. These are the people on whom we rely to alert us to the human cost of “perfection”. A “perfectionised” system, then as now, values order over justice. It accepts that humans will be broken in the service of a “great” idea, political or corporate. And order without justice is tyranny.

What does it mean if a society chooses order now, over justice to the victims of the previous order? One of the most astonishing examples of the privileging of order – in this case administrative continuity – over justice is in the employment of ex-Stasi at the BStU, the agency responsible for Stasi files. The BStU was set up, against massive governmental opposition from both East and West, in 1990. (It took a sit-in and hunger strike by civil rights activists to stop the files being sealed away from the people.) At the BStU, citizens of the former GDR can access their stolen biographies and learn how their lives were manipulated, and who spied on them. Astonishingly, ex-Stasi were (re)employed as guards on the doors; applicants would have to pass them to see their files. And ex-Stasi were also employed in positions where they had access to the files. Indeed, at very senior levels of the archive, staff members who were in powerful positions in the SED regime have for years been in positions of power over access to the files containing evidence of the criminality of that regime. I have been told this is because the file system is very complicated. But if it could be learnt by the Stasi, it can also be learnt by people who do not have an interest in the destruction or prevention of access to the files.

In June 1989, the Chinese regime killed thousands during the Tiananmen Square protests. In East Germany the streets were filling every Monday with candle-bearing demonstrators. Hospitals began stockpiling blood. People – including within the Stasi – feared a bloodbath. The Stasi barricaded themselves in their offices and panicked. Orders came to shred the most incriminating files, because to burn them would antagonise the demonstrators. The shredders broke under the load. Of course among other shortages in the GDR there was a shredder shortage, so agents were sent out undercover to the West to smuggle more back in. When those broke too, the order came to hand-rip the files. Some 16,000 sacks of hand-ripped files exist to this day, stored in Berlin and in the former regional Stasi headquarters.

Miriam is still hoping, in a muted and sane and not very hopeful way, that something will be found at the Stasi file agency – or, perhaps, in one of the sacks – explaining how her young husband, Charlie, died in Stasi custody in 1980. She shouldn’t hold her breath. In 2000 when I visited the file authority’s “Manual Reconstruction” group in the Bavarian hamlet of Zirndorf, the archivist there slipped me a note, as if to let me know something he couldn’t bring himself to say: at the current rate of reconstruction by hand it was going to take 375 years to piece the files together. Since then, though, the brilliant, internationally awarded and indefatigable Dr Bertram Nickolay and his team at the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin (a CSIRO-like body) have invented a special scanner and computer program that could piece them together in possibly 10 to 15 years. But successive government agencies have refused to fund the reconstruction. They don’t want to know what’s in those files, or, more specifically, they don’t want the content of those files to be known. When I visited the place where some of them are kept in Berlin, the huge, hunched sacks appeared anthropomorphic, like body bags. And inside them, I was told, the contents were indeed disintegrating: the torn edges of the fragments, which Dr Nickolay’s computer needs to recognise in order to fit them together, are rubbing smooth. It is a paper version of the “biological solution”: waiting for the possibility of justice to die, along with the evidence. The sad-faced archivist at Zirndorf knew the truth: 375 years is another way of saying never.

Meanwhile, a sanitised version of memory, divorced from the evidence and the eyewitnesses, takes root. At the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, a replica of the Berlin Wall, replete with sandstrip and guard tower, was erected exactly where the real wall had been pulled down. In Leipzig, a fancy museum was built with federal funds, making the museum run by former civil rights activists and housed in the real former Stasi offices at the Runde Ecke look old, run-down and underfunded in comparison. A pox of shiny memorials and GDR museums spreads over Berlin and the former east: the ersatz being more palatable than the real, because it distances us from it. Like a rare, dead butterfly pinned in a box, the real is contained, to be safely and beautifully mourned. But here the species of brave resisters is still living. They do not want to be silenced behind glass and mounted alongside kitschy souvenirs of the quaint country with its kooky cars and red neckerchiefs and slapstick secret service.

At the Berlin museum of Hohenschönhausen, the former Stasi prison for political prisoners, it is harder to silence the real voices of the victims and resisters because they are the guides to what were once their cells. But there are attempts. Some in the media are discrediting their point of view as not “objective” enough – they are labelled monoperspektivisch – as if, somehow, the point of view of the political prisoner were not the most important point of view to learn in a former political prison of a dictatorship. Furthermore, the long-term director of Hohenschönhausen, Dr Hubertus Knabe, an eminent historian who skilfully defended the memorial in its early days against attempts by ex-Stasi to shut it down, and who oversaw massive growth of national and international visitor numbers, was sacked in controversial circumstances in October 2018. Whatever the outcome of the investigation into his sacking, one of the most articulate and prominent voices for the victims has lost his institutional base.

In possibly the most telling administrative erasure, it has been decided to abolish the Stasi file authority (the BStU) and house all the files in the Federal Archives. They will, apparently, still be accessible to the people they were kept on, but the institution which represented the GDR and its stolen secrets will cease to exist, just at a time when the whole world could usefully be reminded of the inevitable harms of a surveillance state.

In 2016 Stasiland was honoured with a special edition by The Folio Society, a British publisher that makes beautiful, illustrated hardback editions of classic texts. When they approached me, I immediately thought of Miriam, who is a gifted photographer. I remembered the pictures she showed me of herself and Charlie that she kept loose in an old suitcase. I wondered whether she might offer those for the book. While I waited for her to get back to me, I pulled out 11 archive boxes of my own old material from storage. Some of it was 15 years old, some of it almost 20.

I rummaged through the Stasiland boxes gingerly, pulling out notebooks, analogue and digital tapes, photographs, slides and negatives. So long as it was material for Stasiland I was fine. But interspersed with these were more personal pictures, along with cards and letters from people who are gone from my life. To go through one’s past like this is to find photographic evidence of the road not taken, the friend not kept, time tragically wasted. It is, possibly, to unravel the delicate narrative of your self, stitched together over time, story by story. Would I fall into the gulf between that young woman and myself now, at nearly 50? Perhaps like the Stasi men, I might have to steel myself to believe in the rightness of my choices in the face of contradictory facts, long-buried in boxes. I had been a fool to think other people who had lived through the regime would admire that hard, bright thing formed under pressure that I went looking for. But it changed my life to find it, and then I wanted to change theirs.

When I asked Miriam to open her case, I knew it would be almost unimaginably painful. And yet I asked. Stasiland hinges on a question: Is it better to remember or to forget? For an individual, I do not know. Personally, I am inclined towards memory – but then I didn’t have a state try to break me. For a nation, it is better to remember. The truth of a tyranny cannot be found in what the perpetrators, their heirs and apologists will tell you. It can only be discovered by listening to the victims and resisters who saw the regime for what it was. And that truth is this: if you “perfectionise” a system in the service of an idea, the cost is in lives.

In the end, it proved too difficult to include Miriam’s photos. If she were respected and honoured for her resistance and her example I imagine it would have been easier for her. But she isn’t, and so it wasn’t. I told her story as best I could, but the real thing remains in a poor and obscure hero’s flat outside of Leipzig, still in a case.

Anna Funder

Anna Funder is the author of All That I Am, which won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize–winning Stasiland. She is a chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UTS.

From the front page

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

In This Issue

Image of US troops in Syria

Peace with dishonour

On the West’s Trump-led exit from the wreckage of the Middle East

Image of Alan Bond and Bob Hawke

Australia 2.0

The America’s Cup winged keel and the transformation of a nation

Image of family members of Tanya Day

Remember her name

Systemic racism, unconscious bias, and the death in custody of Tanya Day

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Diaries (2018–19)

Collected thoughts on writers seeking permission to write, Eurydice Dixon, the Nobel for Murnane and dealing with errant chooks

More in The Monthly Essays

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Kakadu National Park

Park of the covenant

With the Ranger Uranium Mine now closed, Kakadu’s traditional owners want the government to make good on the original promise of a national park in their care

Ningaloo, Western Australia

Writing in nature

The laureate of the Western Australian surf break sees a task ahead for our essayists, our novelists and our poets alike in the fight against climate catastrophe

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Online latest

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence