Dan Katz reviews Stasiland by Anna Funder (Granta, £7.99)
There’s a photo above our fire taken on New Year’s Eve, 1989. Me (compulsory donkey jacket) and girlfriend (long-hair, long-gone) and four pints of Guinness. We were drinking enthusiastically for the smashing of Stalinist rule across Eastern Europe. The Berlin wall had been pulled down in November 1989, Russian miners had set up workers’ councils, and then, over Xmas, the Romanian dictators, the Ceausescus, had been put up against a wall and shot.
As one Romanian commentator declared: “When I saw the Ceausescus dead, I, like everybody, rejoiced. It was the most beautiful Christmas in my whole life.”
“Cheers! Rot in hell you bastards!”
Our paper at the time, Socialist Organiser, described the liberation: “People were dancing on the Berlin wall, smashing it with hammers, pouring through in thousands with looks of sheer joy and disbelief.”
Now it is true, in hindsight, I for one didn’t understand the scale of the bourgeois backlash that was to come. Nevertheless I was very clear that this was a great victory against police-state terror. That’s important to remember because much of the left was deeply ambivalent about the routing of Eastern European “communism” (one little sect, Socialist Action, currently with a role as Ken Livingstone’s bag carriers, even described the events as the “biggest defeat for the working class since the Second World War”).
This book, Stasiland, gave me a little reminder. It’s easy to read, and might help anyone trying to get a picture of the reality of life in Eastern Europe under Stalinism to understand the scale of the problem. This is a story of the obscenity that was the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and is completely unnecessarily prefaced with a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Who needs Lewis Carroll with a history like this?
An example. A 17-year-old woman has a foreign boyfriend. He’s Italian and she met him when he attended a trade fair in the GDR. This is good enough reason for the Stasi — the East German secret police — to believe she is a risk to the state, and they attempt to ruin her life. The Stasi make sure she is unable to get work.
In the dole she had a confrontation.
“You are not unemployed!”
“Of course I’m unemployed, why else would I be here?”
“This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office! You are not unemployed, you are seeking work!”
She wasn’t daunted: “I am seeking work because I am unemployed.”
The official started to shout hysterically, “you are not unemployed, there is no unemployment in the GDR!”
But there is a question about how to read such a story. We might see shades of Thatcher-Blair (re-naming unemployed as job seeker). And we have all had idiotic encounters with bureaucracy. So perhaps the GDR was just a worse version of bourgeois Britain? No, not at all. The point to understand is that this little story is the norm, not an abnormality. This degree of absurdity governed every major aspect of life in the GDR.
So the GDR was a multi-party state with free elections (where the ruling party always got 99% of the vote). The GDR was Socialist (where the workers were corralled behind a wall to stop them leaving). The GDR was a democracy (which ruthlessly trampled on dissent).
The GDR was built on lies to a degree the UK is not. These people lied big.
And because the ideas of the Stalinist ruling class were in large part obviously ridiculous, the rulers required a truly enormous repressive machine to keep order. The secret police were a key element.
The author rightly states that without the Stasi (and without the threat of Soviet tanks) the regime would not have survived. But even by Eastern Bloc standards the Stasi ran a vast operation.
To rule over a population of 17 million the Stasi employed 97,000 staff and 173,000 informers. That’s a ratio of one Stasi officer, or informer, to 63 members of the population (by comparison, under Hitler the ratio was one Gestapo agent per 2,000 citizens; in Stalin’s Russia the ratio was one KGB agent per 5,830). But even these figures understate the Stasi’s reach. If less-formal informers are included, some estimates of this ratio is one agent per 6.5 members of the population. Towards the end of the regime Stasi officers were complaining that the Church groups were now so heavily infiltrated that the participation of Stasi members in their protests was giving the impression the opposition was stronger than it actually was.
The Stasi’s files, placed one on top of each other, would have run to 180km. These people were obsessive, almost insane in their information gathering.
There are plenty of funny stories — funny from this distance — in this book. But the state was vilely brutal too — from violence (Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi, “Comrades, all this blithering… for the death penalty or against. Execute! And where necessary without a court order”), to blackmail and systematic bullying. All carried out with a modern, conveyor-belt thoroughness.