Sunday, June 20, 2004

stasiland

Anna Funder’s Stasiland was my Book of 2003 by a fairly long way. What distinguishes the regime it describes from other tales of totalitarianism is a kind of repulsive intimacy.

"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"

Other dictators get in your face. The Stasi got in your knickers. They were one of East Germany’s largest employers. Additionally, around one in six of the population was working for them part time. Clearly, this isn’t your classic secret police set up. There just wasn’t enough political dissidence to keep all these spooks and snitches employed. About halfway through the book it occurred to me that East Germany had come to exist precisely so that its population could be spied on. Hostility to caopitalsim was the official position of the State. Hostility to privacy was it's actual raison d'etre. Minding other people’s business depended on them having business to mind, so it helped that East Germany was just about successful enough economically to create a ramshackle facsimile of consumerism.

Funder interviews a number of ex-Stasi operatives. They don’t seem too bothered by what they did, and most don’t defend it in a way that indicates they might have a bad conscience. As far as they were concerned they were staunch communitarians. I’m inclined to believe they were right.