Sunday, November 06, 2005

Book Review - Stasiland

Today's book review is Stasiland, by Anna Funder. Stasiland is the former East Germany, and this book is the story of people who Anna Funder met in East Germany, and what life was really like for them. It is a powerful story, and told in wonderfully evocative language that gets you deep into the reality of a totalitarian state.

It really forces you to think about what a police state is actually like. I've always known, theoretically, that a police state is a horrible place. But deep down, I've also secretly thought that it would be a problem for other people. I would be one of those people who were outraged at what was happening, but would manage to live my life reasonably comfortably. Sure, I'd be happier in a democracy, but I wouldn't be one of those disruptive people who got punished.

This book skewers those deep assumptions, and makes you realise how important freedom is to everyone, not just the protesters, the ratbags, the intellectuals. The most striking example to me is the story of Julia, who had a teenage love affair with an Italian. Julia is almost exactly my age, and when she was 16 she had a long distance affair with an Italian businessman who she met when she was showing him around her town.

Whenever she was with him, she was subject to intense surveillance. She probably got sent to a distant boarding school (rather than her local high school) because of it. She failed her entrance exam to translator school, and was told there was no point in trying again. She tried and failed to get jobs in hotels as a receptionist, with her excellent language skills. Because of a teenage love affair (with a foreigner, who was not even subversive by any rational measure), her professional and educational life was over. She was only rescued from permanent unemployment by bringing the whole thing to a head by threatening to write to Erich Honecker (which she is still surprised had any effect on the Stasi). The thing that still weighs on her from the experience is being forced to confront the fact that there were people who genuinely watched everything she did, and knew everything about her.

I very much doubt whether the people who originally set up the East German Stasi thought that destroying someone's life over having an italian boyfriend as a teenager would be a sensible outcome. But forty years later, in the dying days of the regime, that's what happened.

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