Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dystopia, but NOT Fiction

I know that a lot of the GuysLitWire target audience is too young to remember the Cold War. The Soviet Union and its East European allies have been gone for twenty years or so. But when I read Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, I knew I had to tell you about it. In the mid-1990s, soon after East Germany had abandoned the dictatorship, Australian journalist Anna Funder went there to talk with people about life under that regime.

"The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything 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 fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next. In its forty years, 'the Firm' generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the middle ages. Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometers long." (That's almost 112 miles.) I couldn't help thinking about George Orwell's 1984 as I read Stasiland. Orwell got a lot of it right! Herr Bock, who had taught Stasi agents how to recruit informers, told the author, 'You know... It is not widely known that in the end, 65 per cent of the church leaders were informers for us, and the rest of them were under surveillance anyhow.'

Ms. Funder writes, "I once saw a note on a Stasi file from early 1989 that I would never forget. In it a young lieutenant alerted his superiors to the fact that there were so many informers in church opposition groups at demonstrations that they were making these groups appear stronger than they really were. In one of the most beautiful ironies that I have ever seen, he dutifully noted that it appeared that, by having swelled the ranks of the opposition, the Stasi was giving the people heart to keep demonstrating against them."

She asked Herr Bock about those being investigated, "How did you know they were enemies?"

"'Well,' he says in his soft voice, 'once an investigation was started into someone, that meant there was suspicion of enemy activity.' This was perfect dictator-logic: we investigate you, therefore you are an enemy. 'We searched for enemies in all the areas I mentioned: in the factories, in the state apparatus, the church, the schools and so on. In fact,' he says, 'as time went on there was more and more work to do because the definition of enemy became wider and wider.'"

Funder also relates the story "of a factory worker who, after she was approached to inform, announced loudly the next day at the canteen table, 'Guess what! You wouldn't credit it, but They think me so reliable that I've been asked to inform!' Her cover blown, she was useless and she was left alone."

Many people tell their stories in this wonderful, important book. If you liked 1984, or if you wonder what the Iron Curtain was all about, do yourself a favor and check it out!

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