The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the resultant re-unification of Germany, known to so many in Germany simply as “Die Wende” or “turning point”, is a fascinating chapter in both German and European history. The lives of those who lived behind the wall for the 28 years of its existence were quite unlike those of their compatriots in the West and it is only in recent years that many former “Ossis” have felt confident in recounting their stories such as those which form the backbone of Anna Funder’s superbly constructed account, for which she was awarded the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2004 and for which she was also shortlisted for the “Guardian” newspaper first book award.
Anna Funder is an Australian journalist whose interest in the former East Germany is aroused when she is working for a television station in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall – known to the West Berliners as “Die Schandmauer”, the “Wall of Shame” or to the “sogenannte (so-called) DDR” authorities as “Der antifaschistische Schutzwall” – literally translated as the “antifascist protection rampart”. She wonders why the subject of the former DDR appears to have been glossed over. She sets out to find out for herself what life was like in the times of Ulbricht and Honecker. She interviews a number of “everyday” people and she places an advertisement in a local newspaper which produces a surprisingly heavy response from a number of former Stasi members. The result is a superbly drawn picture of the time: the living conditions, the surveillance methods used by the Stasi and their informants, the pressures under which both the informers and the informed upon worked, the description of failed escapes, the powerlessness of the victims, the bureaucracy of the system and the cruelty inflicted all create a sense of oppression which is all too reminiscent of the previous régime: the Nazis. All of the people interviewed come across as very human, including a number of the former Stasi agents – on occasions the absurdity of the situation leads to humour.
Although this is a well researched work of non-fiction, the book is written in the first person and in the style of a novel which captures the reader’s attention at the outset. The author’s description of her hangover after a very heavy drinking session in Berlin immediately captures the reader’s attention and her interpretation of events and character is both incisive and sympathetic.
The construction of the book has a satisfying symmetry: it starts and ends with the story of her first interviewee, Miriam, whose story does much to propel the interest of both the author and the reader forwards. Anna Funder’s writing style is both powerful and economical. Having described the horrors of the Hohenschönhausen prison, she concludes with a single sentence: “Not one of the torturers at Hohenschönhausen has been brought to justice”.
There are of course questions which to which neither this book nor other studies can provide a definitive answer. Primarily there is the one which motivates the author’s initial search – why is it that so much appears to have been swept under the carpet? Why have many people been reluctant to speak out, even years after the event? How powerful is the current vogue for “Ostalgie” – nostalgia for the days of the former DDR? But this is the fascination of the subject matter, with the lurking question – could it ever happen again in a democratic society?
In short, this book is a “must” for anyone interested in modern German history. The subject matter is fascinating, the authority of the author without question and the impression made upon the reader deep and moving. A superb narrative and wholeheartedly recommended!
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