Really Existing Big Brother

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Review of 'Stasiland', Anna Funder, Granta £7.99

Channel 4's turgid, voyeuristic reality TV programme stole its name from George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. 'Big Brother' was a metaphor for an all-seeing totalitarian state. The Stasi - the East German secret police - was Big Brother, for real.

It employed over 90,000 secret agents, a higher ratio per head of population than the Third Reich's Gestapo. Official figures suggest one in 50 people were Stasi informants, although some claim one in six of the population were unofficial informants.

They kept files on almost everyone. Experts reckon that some 180 kilometres of shelving was needed to store the files. Surveillance went to extreme levels, the most bizarre being the collecting and storing of 'smell samples' - dirty underwear - of potential 'enemies of the state'.

After the fall of the regime in 1989 protesters found over 100 burnt-out shredders in just one of many Stasi offices. Terrified officials had tried to destroy the evidence. Today a special office in Nuremberg employs people trying to piece together the shreds. Current estimates are that it will take 375 years for them to finish.

These stories from the paranoid world of the Stasi - a really existing 'Big Brother' - are described in Stasiland. It is a fascinating book that opens the lid on the reality of what was once supposed to be 'really existing socialism'.

Its author, Anna Funder, is a journalist, not a historian. The stories she tells are based around a series of interviews with a mix of people - including some fairly senior ex Stasi officials. She finds them, interviews them and sometimes gets drunk with them. The stories are often tragic, sometimes hilarious.

Take, for example, the East German 'Mik Jegger', who performed cover versions of Rolling Stones songs but was later officially declared to be 'non-existent'. Or Hagan Koch, the official cartographer. He drew the line on the map where the Berlin Wall was built. Today his council flat is a museum for Stasi memorabilia.

She also interviews ordinary people, for example a 16 year old girl who tried to escape over the wall. She is good at getting people to talk about their harrowing experiences. Occasionally she probes them to see how they interpret the destruction of the wall. It is this aspect that is perhaps the book's greatest weakness. Funder herself appears to have little understanding of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc beyond the conventional account of the 'fall of Communism'. She takes at face value the claim that East Germany represented an attempt to create socialism. As a result she misses some wonderful opportunities to expose the realities and rhetoric of the Stalinist dictatorship.

She also fails to probe how people evaluate the new, united Germany and the 'free market' that promised so much. Ultimately this helps to reinforce the stereotype - West was good, East was bad.

Only occasionally does the reality seep out that both East and West were repressive states in their different ways. She tells a wonderful story about the Stasi crackdown on television aerials in east Berlin. At first the Stasi were ruthless. Any person who aligned their aerial to receive West German television was deemed to be an 'enemy of the state'. However, after a while the Stasi cooled off. They began to recognise that watching Western TV was more likely to keep people in their homes, off the streets and politically sedated.

If you want a glimpse of what life was like under Stalinism this book is an enjoyable read.