I've been interested in what went on behind the Iron Curtain ever since I found out that it existed. This meant that as soon as I was offered the opportunity to learn Russian I grabbed it with both hands, and was lucky enough on two occsions to get a personal glimpse behind that curtain and even try out a bit of my schoolgirl Russian.
Growing up in the northern part of what was then West Germany, we weren't that far from the Inner German Border, and driving around the autobahn we were always on the look out for vehicles from the Soviet Military Mission who used to drive around gathering intelligence on the west. (we even saw one once containing a driver and what looked like 2 very senior officers in the back, and reported it - although I never found out if it was a real one or the British Military intelligence doing their thing)
Anna Funder is Australian and came to Germany to practice her German and to work at the Overseas Television Service answering viewers' letters. During her time there she was surprised at the lack of interest, from either side, about the 40 years of the German Democratic Republic's existance.
The Stasi are incredibly famous and really need no introduction but as Anna puts it on page 5 of my copy:
The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everythng about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their felows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub.
Since the fall of the wall there have been many many works produced about post war East Germany, but they generally concern the "great and the good" - the famous and the well known. But who was telling the stories of the ordinary people, some of whom lived through extraordinary times. Anna decided to go after those stories.
And what stories they are! From Miriam who was imprisoned at a very young age through Julia to Frau Paul who tells one of the most tragic stories I've ever heard. But this book, which is written somewhat in the style of a novel doesn't only concern itself with the victims of the regime, but also with some of the perpetrators. There's also a brief visit to the organisation that is trying to piece together those documents that the Stasi tried to shred during that frantic time when they realised the game was up.
Possibly one of the sadest revelations in the book is that given their staffing and technology level it will take over 350 years to piece together the vast quantity of pieces they have. The really tragic thing: nobody seems to want this work done, the technology exists to speed this up exponentially but the money (or the will?) isn't there.
Back to my own experiences of life behind the iron curtain. Back in the middle-ages, or the 1970s as I prefer to call them*, (1979 to be exact, the year before my O-levels and the Moscow Olympics) I was lucky enough to join a school trip to Russia. We went by boat and train, via Berlin (both sides) through Warsaw to Brest and thence to Moscow and Leningrad. During our few days in Moscow we were taken to visit a school, the boys in our party played football against their boys. During that time we girls who had no interest in football, chatted to some of the Russian girls. In our useless Russian and their halting English we entertained each other under the watchful eye of their teachers for half an hour or so.
But at one point some of us wanted to use the facilities (toilets) and some of the girls took us. During the handwashing and lipstick-touching-up, one of them approached a couple of us and in a barely audible voice, but with an excited glint in her eye said "I love Pink Floyd. But don't tell anyone". Such a small exchange, and at the time it really didn't mean much to us - we were more interested in the likes of The Stranglers and Elvis Costello at the time. But the older I got, the more I realised not only the significance of what she had told us, but the courage it must have taken to even tell us.
Back to Stasiland. This book doesn't concern itself with ancient history, it is history that is still within living and well documented memory. And yet, and yet - how many of us can possibly imagine what went on in the DDR? Reading this will educate us just a little bit.
I have one or two little niggles about this book. The first is that there is a little too much about Anna and her life for my taste. She also doesn't seem to know that much about contemporary German life and being in Germany seems to annoy her.
The other is that in an almost throwaway line she mentions that disabled people in Germany have to wear a yellow armband with three black circles on it. Her meaning seems to be clear, but in fact, that is, as far as I know, an internationally recognised symbol to show the wearer is both deaf and blind and I think Anna has done the Germans a disservice even mentioning it.
*thanks due to Louise Rennison for that little gem.