“You cannot destroy your past, nor what it does to you. It’s not ever, really over.” Stasiland reflects on the power memories have on people’s lives.
Set in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 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. At the forefront of Funder’s journey is to fight “against forgetting”, to establish a fundamental truth of life under the GDR and make “portraits of people” so that their stories are not lost within the encroaching confinements of time. Through her explorations into demeaning effects of the persistent dehumanisation inflicted by the duplicitous regime, she elucidates the harshness and burdens of personal memory. For many they cannot ever truly “destroy [the] past” as for them the horrors of experiences are “not ever, really over”. She is additionally confronted by the notion of how the German societal mentality seems as a whole; perpetrate the forgetting of a painful past as if it never existed. Yet, Funder ultimately endorses the need to remember the individual stories, to learn from a past reality so that it is not forgetting and repeated.
Funder uncovers the suffering and displacement that one endures, how for many people, they are unable to face the future, forever stuck in the unresolved agonizing past. As architects of the soul and “Faustian bargain hunters”, the Stasi with their “instruments”, permanently destroyed the lives of many innocent people. Miriam who despite her tremendous courage, is an individual who has undergone “internal emigration”, unable to overcome that trauma exacted by her past. Through her first person narrative journey, Funder compels readers to see this, immediately observing Miriam as a “small still women in a stream of alighting passenger”, metaphorical language that highlights the fragility of her soul. She shows that whilst everyone is moving forward, Miriam is standing still, being dragged back by a past that haunts her. She cannot supress the scars inflicted by the Stasi as she starts to “sweat and go cold”, speaking to Funder as if her “existence is no longer real to her”, her life taken away from her the day Charlie inexplicably died. 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”. For Miriam, the stranglehold of the painful past enacted by the Stasi grips her and she is unable to truly let go.
Similarly, many of the Stasi men became imprisoned of the views they indoctrinated, stuck in the past they created, unable to let go a past of inventive malice and the “wall in their head”. The psychological calamity that was imposed on Herr Koch shows that memories can cause 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. Funder empathises and expresses sorrow at how “the Wall defined” him and he is “unable to let it go”, when she meets him by chance back at the site of the wall in which he ironically drew up, working there as a tour guide. Likewise, Herr Christian explains the he is unable to relinquish his past as he had been “brought-up” to think from a Communist viewpoint, a notion Funder tragically shows defines him now. The grasp that the Stasi had on their citizens is enduring and inescapable no matter if they resisted or abided by it, which still pervades today in the minds of both victims and its perpetrators.
Even for those that try to actively remove or confront their brutal past are unable to escape the clutches of the Stasi control. The remnants of the trauma and tormenting grip that the Stasi inflicted upon the lives of its citizens are still distinctly palpable through her characterisation of Klaus Renft who tries to dismiss his victimisation at the hands of the Stasi. Funder at first seems to admire his ability to be a “survivor”, accentuating his equanimity at how he “seems incapable of regret and anger” which “evaporate off him like sweet”. However this dissipates as Klaus reveals his painful story of the cost of “scratching the GDR at its marrow”, a society that required total obedience. As she looks down on the table, “the ashtray and cans of beer”, she invites the reader to see how the past is still very real to him, only drowned and lessened by the effects of alcohol and tobacco. Frau Paul parallels this as Funder contrasts the courage displayed when she returns to Hohenschönhausen prison, “the place the broke her” and still work as a tour guide telling people about the instruments “designed for indignity”, to her own subtle characterisation and observation of a woman “holding onto the note on her own life”. Her precise and vivid detail of how there are no “family photographs”, accentuates the fact that she is still troubled by the past, a “soul buckled out of shape forever”. Funder expresses how Frau Paul is still conditioned by the innovative Stasi to fell like a “criminal”, unable to view her actions as being “heroic” as she is still paying off the “mortgage” and guilt of having to choose between her maternal bond with her son Tortsen and a stranger. Both Frau Paul and Klaus Renft are in some ways still controlled by the strings of the Stasi.
Despite, the pain and torment encountered by the victims in the face of brutal adversity at the hands of the Stasi perpetrators; Funder personally believes in the value that it is important to uncover the individual stories of the GDR so that they are not forgotten and repeated. She is driven by the need to reveal these memories to serve as warning to the rest of society of the “risk of doing it all again”. She is shocked at how Germany has been effectively desensitized, deploring the fact how “cranes are picking over holes open as wounds” and “thing had been put behind glass” to make the past seem “tawdry” and “safe”. The need to humanise history is one that underpins her journey as she lampoons at the “sanitised Disney version” of the Wall that has been “airbrushed for effect” in an act of “ideological redecoration”. Funder alludes to the consequences, if the past were to be ignored through the analogy of the Hitler Bunker, comparing it to the crumbling Palast der Republik. Yet, she emphasises that history has to be recalled for the right reasons, criticising the way some people choose to reflect, longing for the return of East, “Ostalgie”. Through her subtle sarcasm, she draws attentions to the absurdity in the view presented by people such as “Professor Mushroom” who develops a fondness upon GDR as a place of security, jobs and cheap bear where if people “didn’t buck the system that it wouldn’t harm” . Serving as a “memorial warning from the past”, Funder is determined to uncover the stories and memories of those that showed courage and suffered against a regime that turned its citizens against each other.
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, the memories of the past can be painful and powerful to the extent that it can overtake the tangible ability to move forward. Yet what Funder discloses quite forcibly is that in order to avoid repeating the past, individual memories serve as a prevailing tool in which society can learn from.