Stasiland

Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and – to a first approximation – the end of the German Democratic Republic. I don’t really have anything intelligent to say on the matter; I was seven at the time, and failed to notice much about it. I do remember, a couple of years later, visiting a relative with a little fragment of the Wall in the glass china case in their living room, and being duly impressed, but I’m not sure I could have explained why. (This is odd – I know I was aware of world news stories a year earlier, in 1988, perhaps even late ’87. Maybe my memory is at fault here, not my childish attention-spans.)

But it does reminds me, on the other hand, that I wanted to mention that:

  • there is a new discount bookshop open on St. Aldates;
  • it is selling copies of Stasiland for £2;
  • which is one of the best books I’ve read this year;
  • and you should be able to deduce #4 for yourself.

(Why, look at the tangential relevance. Classy, me.)

Stasiland is great. Absolutely, unqualifiedly, great. Well-written, moving, direct, vivid and detached; it describes horrors and terror without either dwelling on them or glossing over them, which is a rare skill. It’s a series of linked stories of daily life in East Germany – mostly East Berlin – told by former citizens, interspersed with a narrative of life in contemporary Berlin as the author tracked them down. She deliberately included interviews with ex-Stasi members, some devoted and some compelled, which provides an interesting second layer to the reminiscences.

Following on from Stasiland, I read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File a few months later. It was an interesting corollary, an attempt by a privileged observer – a Western historian – to trace back his time in East Germany through studying his file, to trace back the contacts with bystanders and informers. The problem is that neither is the book you’d really want to read; Funder tells a lot of stories second-hand, and Ash tells his own story and those entwined with his, but we never quite get a first-hand memoir of someone who actually lived under the regime and couldn’t, as Ash could, walk away.

Suggestions for further reading on East Germany, either from a social or a historic perspective, appreciated.

On a lighter note, Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle was enjoyable as a jokebook and a vaguely serious study of humour in adversity – I did like his idea that you could follow the trajectory of people’s faith in The Whole Grand Communist Project by looking at the tone of their jokes about it – but could have done with cutting out the 20% of padding about the author’s private life. Perhaps best just to read the original essay.

And finally, I have not yet bought a copy of K Blows Top, but I expect it to be all you’d expect from a book detailing Khruschev’s wacky road-trip across fifties America. (This must be one of the few sentences where “wacky” is the only appropriate adjective.)