11 March 2013

Monday Book Review - Stasi

I find the DDR/GDR one of the more fascinating Soviet satellites because of its divided nature.  It's what is sometimes called "a natural experiment", though that falsely implies it was by accident that it happened, and gives real insight into what happens when a nation is split in two and given two different regimes.  Reunification has been a difficult and wrenching process precisely because each former country's history has confronted each other's assumptions and world views.  Granted, the western hegemony is winning hands down, but there are uncomfortable truths about capitalism.  The most pernicious and vicious aspect of DDR/GDR history is the infamous Stasi.

Anna Funder's book Stasiland takes a hard look at what it meant on a personal level to live in a police state.  Germany at the time of the crushing of eastern Europe had a suffocating sense of guilt and the totalitarian state was a well-oiled machine, ready to rumble with whoever took the helm.  Applebaum's book (linked above) is a great introduction to how the Stasi was both a planned attack on Germany society and one of three instruments of control before the DDR even came to existence.  I consider Rosenberg's book an excellent companion to this one in exploring the effects of Stasi on civil life.  Where Funder's work comes in strongest is the tale of Miriam and Julia precisely because it touches on the nuances and subtle (micro-) aggressions of the state on citizens' lives.  Movies like Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) illustrates this in the story of Christa, but Funder digs deeply into three women who relate their weaknesses and how these accumulated pressures caused something to break inside them as they withstood state pressure. 

In some ways, the author's status as an outsider gives her a pass into the deeper secrets, but there always seems to be a stark division.  She portrays only the main perpetrators (Herr Bock and Von Schnitzler) and accidental victims, which is not inaccurate, but the greater story of the Stasi and its legacy is in those who both perpetuated and were victimized by the system.  Herr Bock is the closest we get to a fallen man, but there is a lack of balance in how these people supported the regime.  They either blatantly confronted it (by design or by accident) or blatantly perpetuated it with no real wavering.  Rosenberg had several anecdotes that captured the pressures that lead to informing and the aching grief over their decision, including a man who informed on his own wife.  The stories that resemble Christa from Das Leben der Anderen, who has dreams and a career, but a black spot on her record.  She withstood pressure and stood up to the men in power, but ultimately caved and killed herself in her remorse.  Those mixed stories are far more common and seldom get the same attention because they seem so ordinary or give a sinister feeling about human dignity.  However, they speak to the level of power the state exerted and how the pressure can mount too high for ordinary people.  I surmise that these stories are not as publicized because we see ourselves in them and do not want to recognize how our own weaknes and compliance.  Not everyone defies an entire system running against them and we laud them precisely because they are so few.  No one dares recognize our capacity to break openly.  Yes, we should live in truth, as Havel cried out, but that also means the truth of our weakness in the face of power.  We cannot lie about the ugly past.

I appreciated that the book is a first-hand account of exploring a world based on ideology largely misunderstood by the West and that Funder frames the novel with her own questions and understanding.  This is an important device considering that there is a cultural gap that needs to be addressed.  Her Western perspective is not neutral, and neither is an east German perspective.  It must be couched with an obviously stated point of view, colored by her own perceptions, simply because there is not really an objective point of view.  The writing is fair and even-handed; her even-handedness is due to her complete honesty about her point of view, even if it is not flattering.  She recognizes that she may be started to write caricatures of people who no longer exist and that's a hard truth when you feel like you're doing something altruistic.  There are cultural assumptions and misunderstandings that occur, like during her interview with Von Schnitzler, who assumes her ignorance and full allegiance to capitalism, which underscores the complexity of her position as an outsider.  Assumptions can be thrown both ways and they are both inaccurate.

I really loved reading this book, though I am critical of the selection of anecdotes.  I would suggest reading it in tandem with either Rosenberg or Applebaum to get a sense of the greater context and nuance.  Funder's work is a great foray into the world of life during and after such tight control, but personally, I found it lacking in the subtlety that could help neophytes understand the tangled nature of communism.  It exposes absurdity and pulls back the blanket, but it doesn't dig quite to the heart of it all.  There is great fiction (The Joke by Milan Kundera comes to mind) that brings out the struggle and acknowledges human weakness.  Funder's subjects appear unwavering, though broken, and the true mystery of eastern Europe lies in the dual complicity and victimization of its citizens, which is not fully explored here.  I hope that this accessible read will get people interested and asking questions, but I hope it's not where they stop since it doesn't bring up the harder-to-answer questions.