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Stasiland: Ana Funder takes us inside the real Room 101
March 26, 2010, 7:32 am
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http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/anna-funder-inside-the-real-room-101-732525.html

In the snooper’s state of East Germany, the Stasi secret police employed one informer for every 6.5 citizens. Its agents monitored every aspect of daily life, from pub chat and workplace banter to (in some notorious cases) the pillow talk of couples who consisted of one official snitch and one innocent partner. This vast “internal army” of shadows knew your visitors, and knew who you telephoned. It knew your favourite books, and your favourite beer.

In the snooper’s state of East Germany, the Stasi secret police employed one informer for every 6.5 citizens. Its agents monitored every aspect of daily life, from pub chat and workplace banter to (in some notorious cases) the pillow talk of couples who consisted of one official snitch and one innocent partner. This vast “internal army” of shadows knew your visitors, and knew who you telephoned. It knew your favourite books, and your favourite beer.

“Laid out upright and end to end,” reports Stasiland, a first book which this week won the Australian writer Anna Funder the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize, “the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen would form a line 180km long.” In its abandoned Leipzig offices, Funder even came across the “smell samples” of underpants that the Stasi used – or at least pretended to use – in order to trail and identify dissidents with the aid of sniffer dogs. Repression, in Stasiland, had a most peculiar stink.

“The Stasi wanted to control every aspect of society,” says Funder, who, after six previous appearances on literary prize shortlists, but no victories, flew in from her home city of Sydney for Tuesday’s ceremony more in hope than expectation. Interviewed the day after her win, Funder says: “If you belonged to the Stasi you couldn’t have any contact with Westerners. If you had relatives in the West – bad luck. By the same token, if you had an affair, that was an exercise in having a private life, a realm separate from the Stasi, and they couldn’t bear it.”

It was in Leipzig that she heard the story of Miriam Weber, the book’s most consistently heroic witness. Miriam made a madly courageous teenage attempt to scale the Wall; her husband died on remand in a Stasi cell; and her brave, blighted life unfolded in the shadow of its surveillance. Still, after 15 years of relative freedom, the nightmare continues.

“I’m in contact with Miriam,” Funder says. “She works in a public organisation that also employs former Stasi informers as her bosses. So they know her history as, effectively, a political prisoner, and she knows that they were informers. These people are still living and working cheek by jowl, without much resolution.”

Other stories in Stasiland tell of an everyday heroism still unrewarded, and often unacknowledged. Sigrid Paul, for instance, secretly sent her sick baby across the Wall for the treatment that would save his life. She spent five years in an East German prison after she refused to betray her accomplice – when betrayal, so the Stasi had promised, would have meant reunion with her son.

The people of the GDR lived through their own private Nineteen Eighty-Four every single day. Funder describes Orwell’s book as “like a manual for the GDR, right down to the most incredible detail”. The party, if not the proles, knew that very well. She remembers that the much-dreaded Stasi chief Erich Mielke even managed to renumber the offices in the secret-service headquarters. “His office was on the second floor, so all the office numbers started with ‘2’. Orwell was banned in the GDR, but he would have had access to it. Because he so wanted the room number to be 101, he had the entire first floor renamed the mezzanine, and so his office was Room 101.”

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