Human Courage in East Germany

Set in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Stasiland by Anna Funder, recreates a “land gone wrong” and attempts to explore the lasting influence that the meticulous and pervasive secret police agency, the Stasi, had on its own citizens. Funder focuses on elucidating the harrowing and extraordinary tales of individual characters as she tries to grasp a “perspective” on a “lost” society that was “built on lies”. She is motivated by the notion that “history is made of personal stories” and that there must have been someone out there who stood up against the duplicitous regime and the coercive and subversive tactics that were employed. Scheller’s suggestion that the stories of those who stood up against the regime would have “come out years ago” is proven wrong as she finds countless individual stories of fortitude in the face of oppression. However, the acts of defiance and bravery do not come without their costs as we encounter stories of agony, despair and longing which are interwoven.

In this “secret walled-in garden” Funder repeatedly illuminates the acts of resistance to the regime. She desperately seeks to make people understand that not everyone conformed to the degrading and demeaning tactics that Stasi employed. There are still fighters like Miriam and Julia, who have yet to have their story told.  Funder is inspired by Miriam’s fearlessness and plethora of provocative acts aimed at challenging the authoritarian society that she lived in. Through her first person narration, we inspired to feel awe at how at the age of sixteen, she demanded state “consultation” regarding the demolition of a nearby church and decided to try her luck at going over the wall, overcoming so many obstacles. Comparing her as nothing more than a “child” in “Beatrix potter’s garden” an allusion to Peter Rabbit when trying to climb over the wall, her fearlessness and capacity to take control of her life is captured.  Her ability to weave around the Stasi demands and gain control over her own life is continued in her adulthood. She does not conform to the Stasi interference of her husband’s funeral and continuously seeks answers despite being played “like a mouse” each time. Similarly, Julia exhibits qualities that Funder admires, how unlike others she didn’t “subordinate” herself “to authority”. She refuses the deal offered by Major N to be “with them” and takes a risk of bluffing that she will complain directly to Honecker. It is these acts of resisting that is the source of Funder’s admiration and motivation and through her journey she uncovers many.

The ability to stand up again in the face of despair and attempt to overcome the events of the past is uncovered Funder and one that underpins her whole investigation. The ramifications of the Stasi grip on the mind can be long lasting and have a detrimental effect on the psychological wellbeing of many individuals. Funder admires Frau Paul’s resilience in being able to return to Hohenschönhausen prison, “the place that broke her” and work as a tour guide telling people about “instruments deigned for indignity”. Despite the threats from former Stasi officers and the constant reminders of “deciding against [her] son”, Frau Paul wants to determine her own life and face the horrifying facts of her past. She goes from being someone “who is unable to go forwards into her own future” to tackling it directly by going to. In the same way, Julia represents someone who willing to develop a “forward looking-faith” and come out of her “gap” with “reality and fiction”.  Her  longing for transformation is evident when at the end of the book she goes to San Francisco and works in a feminist bookshop resisting the urge to “whisk back” into her “shell”. Funder both finds and goes through the journeys of individuals who endeavour to regain their grip on life, to once again find meaning in it that the Stasi irrevocably destroyed.

At the same time, Funder also uncovers the suffering and displacement that one endures. As architects of the soul and “Faustian bargain hunters”, the Stasi with their “instruments”, permanently destroyed the lives of many innocent people. For many they cannot ever truly “destroy [the] past” as for them the horrors of experiences are “not ever, really over”. Despite Miriam’s seemingly newfound “light” in life in the last chapter titled “Miriam and Charlie”, Funder still observes that “for now the beasts are all in their cages” and that all that has changed is that she “blowing smoke” now.  This demonstrates to the reader how in many ways, despite this newfound forward mentality, the psychological damage cannot be easily reversed. “So slender and crumpled”, Miriam is still stuck in a tower, searching for answers about Charlie, which won’t come for another “375 years”. Whilst not as obvious, the psychological calamity that was imposed on Herr Koch likewise causes perpetual misery. He is a victim of the regime that he was brought up to believe in. In the face of the truth, Koch still maintains his “lone crusader” stance, for to deny the past is to deny the significance of his life. Funder encapsulates the sadness in his story how he was “trained” as a “poster boy for the new regime” and like Miriam is forced to seek a sense of significance in life through the seemingly small victories, displayed through the sentimental value that he places on the “cheap” plastic plate. The pernicious grasp that the Stasi had on their citizens is enduring and inescapable no matter if they resisted or abided by it.

The denial from the perpetrators and many of the citizens of the wrongdoing of the GDR astounds Funder as she tries to find an explanation for their mentality.  Instead of uncovering truths about regret, Funder is surprised by the many of the reactions how for many of them there exists a deep sense of “Ostalgie”, the longing for the East to once again come back. She burlesques Professor Mushroom’s fondness upon GDR as a place of security, jobs and cheap bear and lampoons at the suggesting that if people “didn’t buck the system that it wouldn’t harm” them. Equivalently, von Schnitzler’s view is a source of ridicule for Funder which we can see through the lack of respect that is placed upon his censored name in the chapter heading and his flawed thinking countered through the subjective narration of Funder. She is in disbelief how he can “switch from one view to another with frightening ease” and is still able to turn “inhumanity into humanity”, “justifying” the existence of the Wall. For many, the “Wall persists… as something they might hope one day will come again” and is a notion that Funder find both intriguing yet horrifying.

Funder undergoes an “adventure” in a distorted version of “Alice in Wonderland” as she rediscovers and a tries to grasp a “perspective” of a society where “what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed”. In a world that defies logic, Funder divulges into the lives of both the victims and perpetrators and unravels more than just stories of the fearlessness and determination. Both the lingering impact that these acts of physical and moral courage can have on their lives and the immutable mentality of some are omnipresent throughout the book.

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