I have a wishful relationship with a lot of history books. I want their contents to enter my mind by osmosis, to possess their insights into the past without having to wrap my brain around blocks of dry factual text. But that changes when a book articulates history in a way that makes it leap from the page, the sights and sounds and smells of the past made shockingly, almost painfully, present. Such is the case with ‘Stasiland’.

Title: Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
Author: Anna Funder
Genre: Historical / Journalistic / True stories
Published by: Granta Books (UK)
Publication date: 5 June 2003 (earlier in Australia)
Length: 304 pages

It was the mid-nineties, still just a handful of years since the fall of the Berlin wall, when the author, Anna Funder, was working in television in Berlin. She became interested in the world of the recent past: the former East Berlin, and its ministry of security – the Stasi. By placing an ad in a paper she managed to arrange meetings with a number of former Stasi men, which then led to also meeting some of the survivors of their furtive and controlling regime.

Through these meetings, Funder paints a very personal picture of life in East Germany before the wall came down. Among those she speaks to are Miriam, who was condemned as an enemy of the state at sixteen, Frau Paul, separated from her baby by the wall, and Hagen Koch, ex-Stasi man whose council flat was now a museum to the old regime. 

East Germany still felt like a secret walled-in garden, a place lost in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if things had tasted different here – apples like pears, say, or wine like blood.

‘Stasiland’, Anna Funder

Whether ex-Stasi or victim of the Stasi, the stories are told with detail and empathy. There’s a duality in the history told here: one part the story of East Germany while it still existed, one part the story of Funder’s mid-nineties present – the aftermath of the wall coming down and the attempts of former East Germans to live in the new world with the knowledge and lasting effects of their past.

It’s this that makes the book so affecting to me. The two timelines laced around each other, articulated through Funder’s vibrant, immediate writing style, bring these layers of history to life. It also gets around the worry I sometimes have, when reading history books, about what the sources are, and to what extent the statements of the historian are fact as opposed to interpretation. Funder tells us the story of her journalistic enquiry right alongside the stories that where the subject of that enquiry, and so the sources are right there in front of us, for us to assess as we wish.

I’d love to read more books that explore the past in this way. It’s a style of writing history that I particularly enjoy.