Stasiland Essay Questions

Introductory activities

Stasiland presents the story of German reunification through a re-presentation of personal experiences drawn from interviews and research undertaken by Anna Funder. In the context of the fall of communism, and with a focus on the role of the Stasi in the lives of East Germans, Funder confronts the reader with characters traumatised by the past and dislocated in the present. Narrative itself provides a human strategy for understanding time, process and change and this is particularly evident in this text. Funder presents her text in a hybrid genre, that of literary journalism, where she combines the power of facts with the craft of fiction.

Literary journalism enables us to appreciate the ways that stories help us understand the world in which we live and give us insights into human experience. This genre dramatically recreates the observable world of real people, real places and real events with the storyteller acting as the mediator of reality.

 By way of introduction to the text students will engage in activities where they:

  • consider metaphors associated with detente
  • develop their understanding of the historical context to Stasiland
  • reflect on the ways in which literature plays witness to history.

Activity 1: Inner borders and other metaphors

In this activity students analyse and create linguistic and visual metaphors associated with post World War II Germany.

  • Display for students the three images below and the following phrases. Phrases: inner border,cold war, iron curtain and missile shield.
Image 1: East German BT-9 border
watchtower at Point Alpha, Thuringia.
Image 2: Stasi interrogation room,
Berlin museum.

 

Image 3: Hohenschoenhausen prison.

These images have been licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.

  • Using the phrase missile shield as an example, illustrate for students, by way of a diagram, the paradoxes implicit in this metaphor: define the concept of a shield, name its properties and relate this to the action of a missile. Students should see the incongruence suggested in the metaphor of the shield when used in this context. Likewise, model for students how to create a metaphor based on one of the images.
  • Explain to students that metaphors, visual and linguistic, generate uniquely personal images in readers’ minds.
  • Working independently, students:
    • create a mindmap of the meaning of the remaining phrases that illustrates the force of the metaphor and its possibilities, nuances and ironies
    • generate metaphors based on the remaining images and share and test their effectiveness with fellow students.

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Activity 2: The promise in the title: Stasiland

In this activity students examine the nuances of the title, Stasiland, and share their responses to it on a class blog.

  • Explore with students possible meanings of the title and what it might suggest. The word land suggests sovereignty and territory, a defined political space. According to the Oxford dictionary the word stasi is an abbreviation of the German, from Sta(ats)si(cherheitsdienst) meaning the internal security service of the former German Democratic Republic, abolished in 1989. In the Collins dictionary it records that the stasi are the secret police. Discussion starters might be:
    • What are the possible nuances of the title?
    • Do you think the title positions the reader to respond in a particular way?
    • What promise does this title offer you?
  • Students navigate to the author’s website and explore the range of book covers forStasiland in the gallery. They select the covers that they think best capture the promise in the title. Students could also reflect here on the significance of the country of publication and its impact on the cover.
  • Direct students to upload their contributions to the blog.

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Activity 3: What if your homeland disappeared?

Prior knowledge of circumstances that led to the division of Germany and the construction of the inner border and the Berlin Wall can be gained through previewing a number of online resources. Students might like to reflect on how an individual’s homeland could be seen as disappearing at both the time of the division of Germany and at the time of reunification forty years later. In this activity students research the historical context, selecting photographs that represent critical moments in history for inclusion in a photo essay entitled: What if your homeland disappeared?

  • Prior to the research, explain to students some considerations for the creation of a photo essay:
    • an evocative title (in this case, given to them)
    • a lead photo that provokes an emotional response in the audience
    • an opening and closing paragraph that contextualises the essay
    • whether it is narrative or thematic
    • the range of photos such as panoramic, close-up, detailed, portrait
    • the order of photos: for example, a lead photo, a contextualising photo, a portrait, a photo of detail, a summative final photo
    • six photographs with captions – no more than 150 words
    • photos work with rather than against the written text in the photo essay.
  • Divide the class into two groups. One group will research the division of Germany, the second its reunification. Allocate to the two different groups a series of websites to use for research (see table below).
  • Distribute the focus questions below to students:
    • What have you learned from your research about how borders affect humanity?
    • How do people respond when their homeland disappears?
  • In small groups, student responses are combined into a photo essay. Groups should have six students with a balance of those students who have researched the division and reunification of Germany. Photo essays could be published in a range of places: class wikis, blogs, classroom presentation, prezis, Powerpoint, tablet apps such as Explain Everything. 

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Personal response on reading the text

Empathic reading of literary non-fiction texts adds a particular dimension to literature teaching: students are invited to empathise with real experiences of other people.

Prior to reading the text, teaching approaches could include activities where students:

  • Name the effects of key experiences in their lives that may have left a mark.
  • State two or three themes that emerge from the marks they carry.
  • Devise provisional topics for stories based on these themes. These topics could project into other contexts and situations. (Adapted from Michael Rabiger’s Directing the Documentary. 2nd ed. Elsevier, 2004.)

During reading teaching approaches enable students to appreciate how narrative has the power to build empathy and a deep understanding of the ‘other’. Beginning with reading students into the text, teaching approaches could include:

  • reading aloud in class the opening chapters of Stasiland and using personal triggers to stimulate engagement such as:
    • Have you ever been in a place that doesn’t exist?
    • Why do you think the author was so instinctively drawn to Miriam? Have you ever been instinctively, compellingly drawn to someone else’s story?
  • devising the interview questions that could have led to a particular chapter
  • mapping the locations and journeys of the characters on a large map of East Germany
  • selecting the most important word/line/image/object/event in the chapter and explaining your choice.

After reading learning activities could include:

  • conducting a conversational roundtable where students analyse how the author investigates an aspect of the texts such as character, place or aspect of life – for example surveillance
  • compiling a comparison chart that explores how Stasiland sheds light on underlying truths about human experience that remain relevant in the 21st century
  • debating whether the author is successful in portraying a truth ‘beyond the important facts of the world’ (Christa Wolf, German novelist and literary critic).

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Outline of key elements of the text

Stasiland is the result of a series of interviews undertaken by Anna Funder after the fall of socialism and the reunification of Germany. The text contains a series of individual accounts of experiences with the Stasi including those who were perpetrators and those who felt its consequences. Accounts of persecution – suffered by the characters Miriam, Julia, Charlie and Frau Paul – are interwoven with the perspective of the perpetrators of persecution, people inured to evil to different degrees: Herr Winz, Hagen Koch, Karl-Eduard Schnitzler, Herr Bock. The story of Miriam and the author’s empathic desire to resolve the unanswered questions around Charlie’s death operate as a refrain throughout the text. Miriam’s experience shows how injustice, surveillance and submission to authority shapes identity and, in some cases, fractures lives.

Anna Funder’s Stasiland: a study of power and the individual by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works articles)

In Stasiland, Anna Funder recounts the horrors faced by the East German citizens under the control of the German Secret Police known as the “Stasi”. In order to understand the extent of the personal damage and despair suffered by people on a daily basis, Funder interviews a range of East German citizens, including ordinary people, unwilling informers and the Stasi operators obsessed with power and control.  The use of the first-hand narrative enables her to capture the effects of the excessive surveillance employed by the Stasi as well as other psychological tactics that enabled them to skilfully prey on people’s vulnerabilities. As she personally sits in the torture rack, develops relationships with her interviewees, and organises “secret” meetings with former Stasi operators, Funder invites readers into their world to share their despair and their triumph.

The “satellite state”

During just one night, in 1949, the GDR becomes a “satellite state” of the USSR; overnight, this former stronghold of Nazi nationalistic power, becomes a Communist  powerhouse.

Funder describes this reworking of history as a “sleight of history” whereby the communist leaders systematically rewrite history, distancing themselves from the previous Nazi regime. Overnight, these former enemies, become leaders of the communist world, they are “communists” and their ideology consists of “communist brotherhood” rhetoric, that tells the story of how such communists liberated the East Germans from the perils of fascism.  In one fell swoop, these architects of history made themselves “innocent of Nazism”. They innocently and naively or conveniently believed that the Nazis simply returned to Western Germany.

Funder states: “Whatever their personal histories and private allegiances, the people living in this zone had to switch from being (rhetorically, at the very least) Nazis one day to being Communists and brothers with their former enemies the next” (161).

This switch, Funder believes, forms the basis upon which the new political narrative will be founded and history rewritten. It is now a story about communism and brotherhood, rather than Nazism and German nationalism.

Through an act of doublethink, Funder suggests, such leaders expediently, expunge themselves of any association with Nazism. She states, “history was so quickly remade, and so successfully, that it can truly be said that the easterners did not feel then, and do not feel now, that they were the same Germans as those responsible for Hitler’s regime. This sleight-of-history must rank as one of the most extraordinary innocence manoeuvres of the century” (161).  This is also behind the change in Herr Christian who changes from a Stasi “faustian bargain hunter” to a ‘private detective”.

The Berlin Wall

One of the first historical revisionist tools, is the construction of the Berlin Wall which, literally and geographically, as well as symbolically, rewrites history in another “sleight of hand”.  Overnight, the wall marks a division between the champions of socialism and the enemies of the “free world”.  The head of state, Ulbricht, was keen to build “an anti-fascist protective measure”, that is, a tool that protects easterners from the “western disease of shallow materialism”.  Funder notes that in “redrawing the limits of the free world”, through the construction of the wall, the GDR regime rewrite history based on their “closed system of belief”.  It is a system that “obeys all the logic of locking up free people to keep them safe from criminals”.  “It was a universe in a vacuum, complete with its own self-created hells and heavens, its punishments and redemptions meted out right here on earth” (157)

Power of the state

When Hagen Koch, General Honecker’s personal cartographer, sketched the outline of the Berlin Wall in 1961, he was “redrawing the limits of the free world”.  Eventually as Funder shows, each and every one, whether victim or perpetrator, were in the end defined by the physical and psychological restraints of the wall (234/256).  In other words, the Berlin Wall becomes a physical and symbolic representation of power.

The purpose of the wall was to divide the communist east from the free west. After World War two, the Potsdam agreement relegated the administration of Germany to the United States, France, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. After two years, it gradually disintegrated as the Soviets took action to separate the East from the West. The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961, controlled by vicious guards and equally vicious dogs, reminded East German citizens of the brutality of the Stasi regime and the price of communism.

Reminiscent of George Orwell’s fictional “Big Brother”,  Funder explores the pervasive nature of state control and the effect of ubiquitous surveillance on the lives of ordinary citizens.  In fact, the power of the state is so intrusive, and surveillance mechanisms so widespread, that the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women if laid “upright and end to end” would “form a  line 180 kilometres long.”  The records on each suspect’s actions and transgressions are so extensive that Funder evaluates that it would take 40 puzzle women 375 years to reconstruct the documents. The motto of communist leaders is particularly insidious. As Erich Mielke comments, “hang on to power at all costs. Without it you are nothing.” As the end approaches, even Herr Bohnsack is forced to recognise that “it’s them (the people) or us”.  (238-9) From the inception of the GDR after the end of World War II, power, to the communist leaders, becomes an important end in itself which captures and motivates its 20,000 party members.

A typically ruthless and dangerous defender of Stasi values, Herr Von Schnitzler was moulded in the 1920s and revered communist ideals and leaders such as Erich Mielke (the “most hated man dead”) to the very end.  Typically, he believed that the “wall was necessary to defend a threatened nation”.

The leaders rewrite history and indoctrinate the populace

Leaders such as Herr Von Schnitzler adamantly believed that the Berlin Wall “prevented imperialism from contaminating the East”, like an insidious disease.  “And there was Erich Mielke at the top, a living example of the most humane human being.” (137)  By 1961, the GDR was “haemorrhaging” and according to orthodox communist philosophy, they had to protect their citizens from the “western disease of shallow materialism”.  By 1961, just before the Wall was built, about “2000 people were leaving the east each day through West Berlin” (170).

The “Black Channel” run by Von Schnitzler until 1989, was a deft propaganda machine that exposed the “lies” of the west.   His ideas were moulded in the 1920s in the “battle against the free-market injustices of the Weimar Republic” (135).

Through systematic tools of persuasion and manipulation, the Stasi indoctrinated the youth, controlled the population and rewrote history. For example, the texts of George Orwell were banned. He, like his hero Winston, was considered a heretic.

At meetings such as the Free German Youth, somewhat akin to Hitler Youth, the younger generation indulged, during “prayer-like incantations”, their “love of Marx and country”. In meetings, they swore an oath of allegiance and participated in confirmation ceremonies.   Herr Hagen Koch was himself a poster boy for the new regime, becoming a Muster Knable.  His philosophy, like Von Schnitzler’s was that the Wall was necessary to “contain imperialism”.

During his interview with Funder, Herr Von Schnitzler is depicted as an angry man, who rails against the loss of power, the demise of the GDR and against Western media which spouts “filthy lies about the GDR” (132).  He detests Murdoch, the “global imperialist” and he believes that any escapes were “orchestrated” or “staged” to discredit the GDR.   Funder presents Herr von Schnitzler’s shield of anger as the mark of a delusional man who still clings to the fallacy that he is beloved by all those who fight against imperialism.  He also believes that the whilst the GDR was the best prevention of a war such as the bombing of Yugoslavia.

Similarly, most of the Stasi operators were indoctrinated by the State about the virtues of socialism and were encouraged by Mielke, the “most feared man in East Germany”  to “hang on to power at all costs”.  (238)  Many believed that, even despite the fall of the wall, that  “capitalism will not last”.

Faustian bargain-hunters

The Stasi turn surveillance into an art-form and, as “Faustian bargain hunters”, penetrate every aspect of a person’s life.  Funder describes the Stasi as an “internal army by which the government kept control” (5)  “It’s job was to know everything about anyone” (5). She notes that “the Firm” which operated for 40 years generated files on the country men and women that would have formed a 180-kilometre long line.  The Stasi resort to quaint methods such as “smell sampling”  “as a way to find criminals”. Funder notes that officers secretly stole items of private clothing such as underwear and preserved it in a sealed jar.

The variety of surveillance measures (labelled “Operation Control of Persons”)  includes:

  • telephone tapping;
  • mobilisation of informers;  post and parcel interception
  • use of investigative forces and technical forces including installation of technology.
  • a large number of people were informers: 1 to every 60.  (199)

 

As the stories and ideologies change, Funder suggests, it is difficult to uncover the facts, the evidence and the truth.

One of the most powerful analogies used by Funder to describe the pervasive extent and ideological significance of state power, is her comparison of the Stasi with the Catholic church. Koch states that members were “chosen” to belong to the elite group (156) to which exclusion exacted a high cost. Just as omnipotent as God, the Stasi also created its own system of heaven and hell on earth. It meted out punishment and rejection; people were punished for “lack of belief” or even more insidiously “suspected lack of belief”. Likewise, Funder compares the “leap of faith” one must make to that of Catholicism; someone is constantly looking inside the people to evaluate whether their faith was strong enough.  “The Stasi could see inside your life too, only they had a lot more sons on earth to help.” Ironically, Funder draws attention to the fact that the East Germans so easily absolved themselves of any traits of Nazism and yet they became many of the “chosen”;   “this sleight of history must rank as one of the most extraordinary innocence manoeuvres of the century” (161)

The Stasi place Miriam and her friend in solitary confinement for one month and they were denied visits from friends and family.  For ten days during which she is incarcerated, she suffers from sleep deprivation and finally “confesses”.  Funder comments: “Sleep deprivation can mimic the symptoms of starvation, particularly in children – victims become disorientated and cold. They lose their sense of time, becoming locked in an interminable present. Sleep deprivation also causes a number of neurological dysfunctions, which become more extreme the longer it continues.” (25)

In a question and answer-style of narration to show the automatic consequences of this treatment, Funder states: “Q: “What does the human spirit do after ten days without sleep, and ten days of isolation tempered only by nocturnal threat sessions”. A : it dreams up a solution.”

The girls were separated and divided and the Stasi said that they had testified against each other in their separate interrogations, which led to doubt and confession. Eventually, they buckled.

Just as the infamous torture Room 101 becomes the site of Winston’s capitulation at the hands of O’Brien in 1984 (George Orwell), so too, do the instruments of torture loom large in Room 118 in one of the Stasi’s most infamous prisons, Hohenschonhausen. Using the primitive technique referred to euphemistically these days as waterboarding, the barefoot prisoner is “yoked into position” and water drips onto his head. It causes such pain that the prisoner would lose consciousness and his “head would slump”. He would either revive from the water or drown (226).

Not surprisingly, this is the place of Frau Paul’s worst nightmares: the place that broke her spirit.  Funder returns with Frau Paul to the site of torture. Funder notes, “it was in offices that the Stasi truly came into their own: as innovators, story-makers, and Faustian bargain-hunters. That room was where a deal was offered and refused, and a soul buckled out of shape, forever.” (226)  In Frau Paul’s case, witnesses the prisoners being tortured, knowing that you could suffer a similar fate, almost breaks her spirit. She had to sit for 22 hours on a four-legged stook “like a milking stool”.  Funder also notes that none of the torturers had been brought to justice.

Funder attempts to experience first-hand the psychological terror that many victims endured in order to give readers a more accurate, dramatic and horrifying picture of the fear that would have gripped many prisoners as they sat in the room, disoriented and in a state of shock. Funder climbs into one of the very “tiny cells’ and Frau Paul asks her to imagine that “someone is sitting there with a machine gun”. Although Funder states that there are places she anxiously avoids, she is in awe of Frau Paul’s brave and resilient stance in revisiting the place that “broke her”

After some time, the party stopped direct action such as arrest, incarceration and torture against its people. It opted instead for subtler methods. Julia relates, “the typical thing that could happen to you in my day in the GDR – that your career was broken before it was begun- that had already happened to me! (108). Likewise, Hagen Koch’s father was sentenced to seven years as a prisoner of war for being in the armed forces. He is released and allowed to go home on the condition that he quits the Liberal Democratic Party and joins the Socialist Unity party. Heinz Koch was forced to teach his son (Hagen Koch) socialist values, or he would be deported back to the POW camp.  Typically, separating families, Hagen Koch was prevented from attending his father’s funeral as people from the west were attending.

Funder draws attention to the fact that constant intrusive nature of state control and the lack of freedom of speech resulted in a psychological state of splitting or conscious repression. As Julia states, from the time “we woke up… they were aware of what “could be said outside the home (very little) and what could be discussed in it (most things)” (95)

A “sleight of history”

In the DDR, history is remade and rewritten, not only because the evidence is shredded and hopefully, the stories are buried, but because those in power conveniently change, manipulate and distort their stories.Among the survivors of the GDR, and particularly among the “true believers”, there is a tendency to distort the past because it is so shameful and disturbing.   Von Schnitzler seeks to defend and manipulate Stasi ideology and suggests that it was important to ‘battle against the free-market injustices of the Weimar Republic”.  Funder also shows that those in a position of power also effortlessly alter and manipulate their ideology in way that reflects a need to “hold onto power at all costs”. She compares this process or “sleight-of-history” to the change from Nazism to Communism whereby citizens were Nazis one day and “communists and brothers with their former enemies the next”. She states, “history was so quickly remade, and so successfully, that it can truly be said that the easterners did not feel then, and do not feel now, that they were the same Germans as those responsible for Hitler’s regime. This sleight-of-history must rank as one of the most extraordinary innocence manoeuvres of the century” (161).  This is also behind the change in Herr Christian who changes from a Stasi “faustian bargain hunter” to a ‘private detective”. As the stories and ideologies change, Funder suggests, it is difficult to uncover the facts, the evidence and the truth.

The informers

“Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence” (28)

For some who choose to become informers, it is simply the power of “having one up on someone”; for others, it is a necessary survival tactic in a regime that pits informers against enemies. Whilst informers and party members renounce their independence, their honour and in many cases their heart and soul, Funder points to practical reasons as to why people would become informers; one joins not only the “group in the know” but becomes one of the “unmolested” who have the chance to enjoy a “peaceful life” and a “satisfying career”. Whilst there is officially “no unemployment in the GDR”, those who resist the powerful masters often have their careers “broken before they had begun”. For Julia, it is not just her career. She suspects that her life has been “broken” at every turn: “the boarding school, the headmaster’s visit, the constant street searches, the failed exam, the friend’s warning, the cruising Lada, the extraordinary unemployment.” (108)

The Stasi does not only make life difficult – practically impossible. They also target the individual’s most vulnerable trait and exploit their weaknesses, such as romantic or family failings. People are often placed in compromising situations and then encouraged to inform to redeem the situation.  Psychologically, the informers are trained in the art of convincing someone to do things “against their own self interest” (202). The Stasi operators were skilled at finding personal weaknesses, things they could “use as leverage” (198).

The enemies

Funder deliberately focuses on “ordinary people” to reinforce her point that mostly innocent people are forced into very difficult situations; they do not begin with an obvious anti-government stance.  They often become “enemies of the state” despite themselves, often because they have simply refused to inform on their neighbour or family member.   For example, the Behrends “weren’t dissidents; we weren’t in church groups or environmental groups or anything life that… We were an ordinary family.”   (95) Frau Paul was “not your classic resistance fighter”. She did not even belong to a political opposition.  (200)

Once an investigation was launched, people were labelled and treated as enemies. According to the Stasi’s “dictator logic” or mentality, “we investigate you, therefore you are an enemy” (199). The problem was that the definition of “enemy” becomes increasingly wider and soon encompasses most daily life activities.  Minor transgressions and shortcomings, or the most insignificant foibles turn citizens into enemies. For example, if one’s antenna is tuned into western television or one fails to hang the red flag on May Day or one tells an “off colour” joke about Honecker, then one becomes an enemy and a target of suspicion and surveillance. (157) The state searches for enemies in factories, in the state apparatus, in the church, in the schools. As Herr  Bock explains (197) the church was a chief bastion of “oppositional thought” and therefore a prime target for infiltration, so theology students were recruited. So successful were the recruitment methods, that up to 65 per cent of the church leaders were informers and the rest were under surveillance. Ironically, the informers swelled the ranks of the church, inflated numbers at demonstrations so that it appeared there may have been greater opposition than there actually was.

As 16-year-old school girls, Miriam and Ursula instinctively knew that there was something unjust about Stasi police “dousing people with fire hoses”, “roughing people up” and bringing in the horses during the demonstration sparked by the demolition  of the OId University Church in Leipzig in 1968. Thus began a personal rebellion that demanded a great deal of courage.  From erecting posters, Miriam seeks to stage an escape and, ends up within a few metres from liberty. She decided to go over the wall on New Year’s Eve in 1968 rather than await the trial resulting from her “crime of sedition” (circulating leaflets).

Funder details her escapade to cross the Berlin Wall (at the Bornholmer Bridge) whereby she has just “four more steps” and she will be enjoying freedom in the West.  She failed to see the “trip wire” and this marks the beginning of her downfall.  She realises that she had come “so close” and that “no one had even seen me” — a point that adds fuel to the Stasi officers’ fury.

She is caught and thus begins a series of imprisonment and interrogation sessions during which she is tortured by devices such as sleep-deprivation. Kafkaesque-like, Miriam searches for answers, especially about the whereabouts of her lost husband, Charlie, but like many of Kafka’s protagonists, she finds nothing but a closed door and a state apparatus that exonerates itself of any responsibility. Charlie was possibly one of the victims at Southern General Cemetery, for whom the cremator leaves the oven open “so that the Stasi could do their business” (74). Miriam also surmises that he was likely to have been uncooperative and was “roughed up in the cell, leading to a fatal fall” (279).

Divisions, separations and enemies

Hagen Koch’s marriage was also undermined when the Stasi demanded that he remove himself from “this negative influence” in order to be promoted. He not only loved her, but they also had a son. He was instructed to leave his wife because she was a “negative influence” and someone who could not be trusted. The Stasi had one simple idea, that “either you are for us or an enemy”. The Stasi did not consider that he was in love with her, but rather deemed her a detrimental influence on his role. She had to be eradicated. Fortuitously, Hagen Koch learnt from his son, who overheard the Stasi commands to his wife. It became evident that his wife reluctantly divorced him out of duress.

In Herr Koch’s case, he loses his job for failing to tell the Stasi about his father’s visit and is arrested. Hagen Koch’s father was sentenced to seven years as a prisoner of war for being in the armed forces. He is released and allowed to go home on the condition that he quits the Liberal Democratic Party and joins the Socialist Unity party. Heinz Koch was forced to teach his son (Hagen Koch) socialist values, or he would be deported back to the POW camp. Hagen Koch was prevented from attending his father’s funeral as people from the west were attending. He then resigned from the army because of this.

The Stasi insinuate that there is something wrong with the couple’s sex life, and that Frau Koch has encouraged her husband to prepare “this pornography”. (174). They tell her, “that as the instigator of a pornographic scheme, the penalties for you are severe”. They threaten to remove her son from her presence if she does not distance herself from her husband. (174). She must sign the application for a divorce .

Herr Koch states that “my world broke apart” when he saw the papers. He lives with a sense of pent up frustration and anger. Had it not been for his son, Frank, overhearing the conversation, he would have lost his wife forever (176). The Stasi attributed the remarriage to the “repeated negative influence of Frau Koch”.

Victims: short and long term impacts

The Berlin Wall becomes a symbol of the physical and psychological entrapment endured by the East German citizens. In many ways, their lives were all shaped by the wall, but none more evident than Torsten Ruhrdanz who was virtually institutionalised from birth because of his health condition. His formal and stilted relationship with his parents, addressing them by the formal “Sie” in German, reminds the family of their forced separation.

Funder depicts people in ordinary situations caught up in extraordinary times so that readers can understand the extent of their human dilemmas, problems, foibles, fears and phobias.  They are grappling with ordinary concerns revolving around a secure career and a secure lifestyle. Just a minor infraction leads to the label of enemy. As Miriam states, once you do something against the will of the Stasi, they will hate you for life and pursue you forever.

The citizens were generally under a permanent state of surveillance which becomes very stressful for those who disagree or seek to resist the tyranny of the state.  As mentioned previously,  the definition of an “enemy” is very broad and many people either knowingly or inadvertently become suspicious targets of the state. Eventually, the physical and psychological intrusion takes a severe toll on many individuals; their sanity buckles under the strain.

Funder uses the image of the hermit crab to depict the psychological defences erected by citizens. For example, she notes that the Behrend family has practised a form of shell-like migration to protect their inner core and this has taken a severe toll on their mental stability.  Funder encourages readers to understand the Stasi’s own special “self-created hells and heavens”. People were punished for a “lack of belief” or even a “suspected lack of belief”. For people, like Dieter Behrend, a small mistake such as the antenna turned to western television or the failure to hang a red flag on May Day or an “off colour” joke about Honecker could lead to enemy status. The author helps readers feel this incredible anxiety which takes its toll. Funder notes that in Dieter’s case, “living for so long in a relation of unspoken hostility but outward compliance to the state had broken him”  (96)

Physical consequences

  • People suffered a great deal both physically and psychologically. Many made difficult decisions that affected their loved ones, which continue to haunt them. Miriam is obsessed with the loss of her husband, Charlie, whose remains she never finds. She will never know the truth about his death. She can only imagine the worst. 
  • Frau Paul lives with a sense of regret that she was not able to provide her son, Torsten Ruhrdanz, with a decent home and loving parents. He comes home a stranger. (To her chagrin, her son is transferred from, Charite, a hospital in the East, to Westend Hospital in West Berlin, the fateful night of the erection of the Berlin Wall (12-13 August 1961). Through unfortunate circumstances, she now must seek permission (and numerous passes to visit him.) She wonders whether it would have been different if she had made the decision to visit him on that vital day when she was asked to betray Michael Hinze.  Her pain is that she decides “against my son”. Whilst she was able to maintain a clear conscience, she is forever haunted by the fact that she gave up the chance to see him and became forever imprisoned by her choices.
  • Herr Koch lives with a sense of regret and anger at the State which broke his marriage and manipulated the trust between husband and wife. His wife’s sinister views about the state were used as the basis for manipulation that led to the first divorce. Funder uncovers the extent of his pain in an interview at the fact that he questioned his wife’s loyalty and rejected her. Funder states, “it clearly upsets him to be telling me” (175). When Frank, his son, was five they were divorced. However, fortuitously Frank reveals to Herr Koch that the state officers had blackmailed his wife and threatened to take her son.   (176). Herr Koch is particularly incensed because he did not shirk his duties to the GDR as many others did. He was prepared to make necessary sacrifices unlike the hordes leaving the GDR in droves. (170)  (By 1961,  2000 people were leaving East Germany daily – not Herr Koch.) However, despite his loyalty he is reprimanded owing to the visit of his father from the West and once he becomes a target of suspicion, he never completely regains favour. In fact, he is cruelly betrayed and his contribution to the service of the state is completely overlooked.  He is incensed that he was so cruelly betrayed by the Stasi despite his loyalty. His campaign to retain the plate captures his incredible sense of humiliation and hurt.
  • Naturally, Funder highlights the extreme difficulties faced by the defiant East Germans; however, there were also many in the West who endangered their lives in numerous ways to help the East Germans escape to the West – often they paid a hefty price. For example, Karl Wilhelm Fricke, a broadcaster in the West, was kidnapped and whisked over the border. He spent four years in solitary confinement. Upon his release, he broadcast the story of his abduction “at some risk to himself” (220).
  • As part of a scheme involving Michael Hinze, students in the west often provided their passport to help the East Germans escape. One particular “western student … was arrested and served a two-year sentence in an eastern prison” (211).

Psychological problems

Many ordinary citizens  suffer from the constant pressure of being watched and of being conditioned to conform to Stasi ideology. This results in a state of heightened anxiety and causes a great deal of trauma for all those who refuse to become an informer. In this case the physical wall also becomes a metaphorical reminder of the intrusive nature of the state. Many victims carry within the “Mauer im Kopf”.

  • “Shell-like” internal migration: Funder draws attention to the constant intrusive nature of state control and the lack of freedom of speech, which resulted in a psychological state of division (or compartmentalisation). For example, the author metaphorically refers to Julia’s outer crust or shell as an example of “internal migration” (96)  This shell or façade is a symbol of the divided self; the  deeply, personal and private self buries from the outer crust; it is the only way for individuals to keep a secret inner life safe from state intrusion. Funder’s interviewees would attest to the fact that this is perhaps the only way that “enemies” can maintain some dignity, but even this will exact a price. As Julia states, from the time “we woke up… they were aware of what “could be said outside the home (very little) and what could be discussed in it (most things)” (95)   Julia describes her father, Dieter,  as one who is defeated by this constant intrusion. He is depressed and needs constant medication.  “Living for so long in a relation of unspoken hostility but outward compliance to the state had broken him”  (96)  Accordingly, Funder is aware of the need to be sensitive in her relationship with the “victims” because they often withdraw unpredictably. Julia is like a “hermit crab”, ready to “whisk back into its shell at the slightest sign of contact” (90)
  • The constant violation leads to an irrevocable loss of dignity: Julia finds that there is not even a kernel of self she can keep intact. In fact the violation is so thorough, the intrusion so deep, that she soon realises that she has no “private sphere left at all” (113)   In Room 118 Major N. interrogates Julia about her love letters to her Italian boyfriend. They have all been tampered with.  Not only do they know more information about the Italian boyfriend than Julia did (110) but they also want Julia to continue her relationship with him in order to extract information. Not only do they inveigle her into acts of deception and betrayal against her boyfriend, but they force her to conceal the interrogation process itself. She feels incredibly separated from everyone, disappointed in the “good father state” and experiences an acute sense of danger “without me having done anything at all”. She refuses to become an informer and courageously entertains plans of writing to Mr Erich Honecker. As she recalls, “it was the loss of everything until I had disappeared too.” (115) As it soon becomes evident, so traumatised is Julia by this violation, that she never completely recovers and is forever fearful of commitments.
  • Many of the “enemies” or victims display symptoms of phobia and anxiety. Julia also feels suffocated.  After she is later physically raped, she reacts “extremely” to men and the constant “invasion of my intimate sphere” (113)  This situation is ironically exacerbated after the fall of the security state because criminals were hastily released during the amnesties of 1990.
  • Julia cannot open the box of letters from her boyfriend.  The past is “never really, over” she states as there are always things she can’t look at, but can’t leave either.  (117) Fortunately, she does achieve some peace of mind in San Francisco where she resettles and finds a sense of “home”. (246)
  • Miriam becomes a victim of her intuitive sense of justice concerning the right to demonstrate, the right to freedom of expression and the necessity of the State to show duty of care towards its citizens. Consequently, her pursuit of the truth concerning Charley’s death reveals the extent of the State’s treachery and power. Unfortunately, she continues to suffer from the constant intrusion to such an extent that the writer realises that she will never secure a commitment from Miriam. She had been under surveillance for so long that she was forever reluctant to “tie herself down” (p. 278)
  • The people – either victims or oppressors – were brainwashed to such an extent that the fall of the wall and the fall of the dictator state, often did not ease their anxiety and conditioned behaviour. Owing to the depth of the intrusion and the reach of the surveillance mechanisms, the victims forever remain under a permanent state of siege. Funder’s depiction and her first-hand relationships suggest that that the “victims” are forever damaged.

The Stasi-operators: When Funder sets up meetings with the ex-Stasi operators, many are still implementing their spy tactics.  Herr Winz sets up the meeting as he would have at the height of the Stasi regime – he is still playing “spy games” seven years after the fall of the wall (81).   Likewise, many of the generals still run their meetings like divisional meetings as they did during the Stasi regime (242) Some continue their oppressive strategies and Frau Paul senses that she is being pursued because of her desire to expose the injustices.

Some appear to escape unscathed:

For example, during her interview with Herr Christian, Funder not only presents a rather human side to the Stasi officer who takes her on a “tour” as if he is proud or obsessed with his former role, but he still appears caught up in the spying games. The fact that he is grinning and “leaning on the bonnet of the biggest, blackest BMW I have ever seen” suggests that he has not been affected or damaged, or hindered by his involvement. Funder highlights the fact that he is still trying to find similar work as a “private detective” and sets him up for ridicule with the confession that there were even aspects of his job that he enjoyed such as disguising himself as the “blind man”, giving Funder a “mock punch” as if she should also enjoy the joke.

Small triumphs

A triumph of decency

Despite the fact that Funder shows the overwhelming negative effect of surveillance and the psychological disruptions, she also shows people who have survived and who have made significant choices in their lives; some even have scored “internal victories” (193). They are the ones who refuse to be bought. As Funder states, even thought there was “internal emigration”  there was also “internal victory” (192).

Julia’s and Miriam’s struggle to maintain their sense of dignity and personal freedom is heroic in the context of the GDR police state. Both are motivated by a sense of justice and a desire to protect their basic rights as an individual – rights that are constantly violated. For example, Miriam’s struggle to uncover the truth about Charley stems from a fundamental belief in justice. Likewise, Julia resists the attempts by Major N., a representative of State power, to blackmail her. He suggests that her failure to betray her Italian boyfriend will have career implications. However, Julia, who often suffers from what Funder describes as “internal migration” owing to her instinct to withdraw to protect her personal space, returns the blackmail. By threatening to write a letter to Honecker, she protects her dignity and maintains a small personal triumph.  (“We had never really known where the battle was … but we knew we’d won”.)

Funder also singles out Klaus, the musician, in particular because he tried to protect himself and refused to be compromised. He concludes, “I didn’t let them get to me”.  Perhaps he was naïve, but in a way, it is a form of “naivety” that was “nurtured and maintained” as a form of protection. (192)

  • The broadcaster Karl Wilhelm Fricke describes Frau Paul as an incredibly “very brave woman” because she refused to reveal Michael Hinze’s identity and remains steadfastly loyal despite the personal costs; she refused to be “bought” like so many of the GDR citizens. She knows that if she betrayed Hinze she would be “theirs forever; a stool pigeon and a tame little rat”(220) and so clings to a shred of dignity owing to the tenacious defence of her principles.
  • Against orders, Julia told her family about Room 118 (114). Despite the threats — that there were will be “serious repercussions for her, and possibly for her family, from this break of undertaking of silence” (116) — she does score a victory. They threatened to send a letter to Erick Honeger and so called the Major’s bluff. “We had never really known where the battle was … but we knew we’d won”.  It was one of the rare occasions when the “bluff” had been called and she had won, despite herself.  Eventually, Julia gains a job as a receptionist at a hotel. (117)
  • Miriam who remains loyal to the memory of Charlie, and who is obsessed with discovering his fate.
  • Klaus, perhaps thanks to his brand of naivety, was able to protect his integrity. He states that he does not carry the past around like a wound; he scored an “internal victory”, maintaining a clear conscience.

Herr Koch refuses to hand over his precious plate to the Stasi operators. The plate (172) was an award for cultural work undertaken by Herr Koch’s unit (third place) when he was working with the Ministry for State Security. It was not a personal award but he decided to claim it at a time when he was frustrated that he was so easily replaced and had sacrificed so much for the State. (It was sheer coincidence that they did not break his marriage.)  Specifically, Herr Koch refused to take the plate down during an interview, as the photographer was annoyed that it was shining in his lens.  A court order was sent in the mail reminding of Herr Koch that all possessions were the property of the Federal Republic of Germany.  He is charged with perjury because he swore an affidavit to the Ministry that he did not know where the plate was.  The plate becomes a powerful symbol of state control; for Herr Koch the plate symbolises his defiance and his small triumph affords him a “moment of glory”. The fact that the Stasi set up a “Working Group on Plate Re-Procurement” highlights the lengths the Stasi party employ to subjugate and crush individuals. Although trivial (the plate is only worth 16 Eastern marks); it is a powerful symbol of state control. (180)  He is one of the untold heroes; those who could not be bought (266).

Structurally, Funder begins and ends her memoires with Miriam’s story that charts her pain, her struggle and her transformation.  After her stint in prison, Miriam finds it difficult to make commitments. She will not “plan ahead” (277) and Funder admits that she is hard “to pin down” (278)  Funder realizes that after years of trying to get in touch with her, she “did not tie herself down with a response” (278)  “Having had her every move anticipated by them for so long, these days, she just wants to let things unroll” (278).

However, despite her reluctance to commit, there are signs that Miriam is ready to confront her future. During Funder’s first meeting with Miriam, she is a woman in her “mid forties” and wears “a long black sweater and pants” (15) During one of their final meetings she is “dressed entirely in white: loose pants and a flowing top”; (276). The transformation from black to white clothes metaphorically represents the emotional distance that Miriam has travelled in her journey to come to terms with her pain and loss of Charlie.  Also the photograph, from which she had “torn” herself out of existence, is this time, is intact.  (As Funder notes, “I’m glad she has let herself remain in existence in this one” (276).) In fact, the photograph features the young couple seated at a table after their wedding with Charlie “larking around”. Miriam is “extraordinarily beautiful” with a “breathtaking smile”.   As the sun “slants” into the room, painting “half her face golden”, Funder reflects upon the signs of Miriam’s emotional recovery.

The numerous personal stories also reflect that of East Germany itself. There are signs of emotional recovery, but there is a sense that there is still a great deal to achieve. On the one hand, the puzzlers are making a definite attempt to put the pieces back together. This is both a physical and a psychological task. Funder notes that the “smell of old men” and the “pungent scent” of public toilets is replaced with the “beautiful perfume” of “acacias”, a smell which is “more beautiful, at any rate, than the lions”. It is a place where children ‘spin on swings and roundabouts” which Funder “never noticed were there” before – new beginnings. But the embarrassing lack of interest in the museums and the desire to conceal the past also leads to collective suppression. 

by Dr Jennifer Minter

Stasiland: typical essay questions

  1. “I’ve been having some odd adventures in your old country! Curiouser and curiouser – I’ve a lot to tell.” How does Funder’s perspective on coming to terms with the past evolve through her experiences in Stasiland’?
  2.  “Things have been put behind glass, but they are not yet over”. There is no justice achieved in Stasiland. Discuss.
  3. Stasiland demonstrates the irrepressible power of the human spirit and that people can rise above crushing social oppression. Discuss.
  4. Even though the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Stasiland shows that one can never be free from the horrors of tyranny. To what extent do you agree?
  5. “When I got out of prison, I was basically no longer human.” What do Funder’s interviews reveal about the impact of the Stasi on its survivors?
Useful Exam Revision links
      1. Please see a sample essay on Stasiland with my comments
      2. Please see further Tips on Text Response and Tips on Writing a comparative-style Essay
      3. Please see Range of notes from students on Stasiland
      4. Please see the latest tips on arguments/language analysis
      5. See also our VCE workbook for students: Arguments and Persuasive Language: an essay-writing guide.

 

 

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