John Green: ‘Stasiland’ offers ‘cheap caricature’ of the GDR

Click HERE for more on 'East Germany'.

Review by John Green

August 26, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Anna Funder’s book Stasiland seems to have become the touchstone for anyone who wishes to find out about life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany). It was given enormous publicity, has been translated into several languages and is one of the most quoted books of reference on the GDR. Its aim is to show how horrendous life in the GDR really was.

Funder visited the GDR once as a tourist in 1987 and then returned again in 1996 (six years after unification with the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany) and wrote her book. It is made up almost entirely of interviews with only three women who suffered under the GDR authorities, plus a former GDR rock star, a television presenter who was loyal to the state, as well as several shorter ones with former officers of the state security services.

None of the interview partners is asked about their daily lives, and Funder makes no effort to talk to anyone from the former GDR who lived what could be considered to be a normal life and had no horrendous experiences to reveal; she is clearly only interested in “Stasi-related stories”.

If Funder’s book were simply one of many giving varied interpretations and evaluations of GDR reality, it wouldn’t be necessary to provide a detailed critique. But precisely because there is, in the West, no differentiated evaluation, her book has come to define the image for those who never experienced real life in the GDR.

She embarked on her book with an agenda and it clearly became a mission for her which has paid off handsomely. But someone who only visited the GDR once on a short tourist trip and then returns to a united Germany six years after the GDR ceased to exist is, one could argue, hardly a reliable or informed historical witness.

Funder’s purpose is to provide “evidence” for her clearly pre-formed viewpoint that the GDR was one big prison camp run by the GDR’s state security apparatus, the Stasi. In her study, there are no subtle shades of interpretation or of viewpoint, no doubts, no questioning; she pursues her quarry like a hungry dog gnawing on its bone.

Her book is a quasi textual accompaniment to the film, The Lives of Others, made by Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck. Where this film of the GDR portrays a country that experiences almost permanent darkness, where the sun never shines, Funder’s book also gives us skies that are always grey and buildings that resemble prisons (even though she is describing scenes in 1996). She appears to have a dystopian picture not only of the old GDR but even of the contemporary united Germany: most individuals described are ugly or disfigured in some way; the parks near her home on the Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin are full of drunks or punks and the apartments are uniformly dreary.

Her opening paragraphs in the book describe a drunk pissing against a wall, a street cleaner “pushing disinfectant pellets along the platform” and making “arcs of green powder and cigarette butts and urine”. This is Funder’s Berlin six years after unification and already reveals her eye focused on the underbelly of the city, but it reads more like a description of a run-down hick town in the Appalachians during the depression.

No historical context

Funder provides no historical context for her interviews and descriptions nor does she reveal much knowledge or understanding of German or European history. The events leading to the birth of the GDR are hardly mentioned, the context of the Cold War and the often bitter struggles between the two military alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact ­– with the GDR on the front line – play no role. She also ignores the fact that the GDR, like any other country, was not one static entity for 40 years, but changed and developed over the period of its existence.

It is as if someone had written a book about a Western country based only on interviews with those who had been falsely arrested and imprisoned or otherwise suffered at the hands of the state – examples not difficult to find in all countries.

Her book is also full of inaccuracies, assumptions, sweeping generalisations and exaggeration. Here I mention a number simply to underline how sceptically such a book should be read and interpreted.

Funder’s trip as a tourist, she writes, began “on a cold grey day” (could it be otherwise in the GDR?) when “a busload of undergraduates visited only the paved and gilded parts of this show town [Potsdam]”… And in Dresden “were shunted up a hill in a cable car and fed a meal including steak substitute, that came entirely from tins”. I would like to know any East German or visitor who ever ate “steak substitute” or was given food in a restaurant that came out of tins – the GDR had canned vegetables but not meat, which readily available. Certainly from the 1960s onwards, hundreds of Western tourists visited the GDR each year and the only restrictions on movement were around military or security installations, otherwise you could move about quite freely; there was no injunction on visitors to see only “gilded parts”.

In interviewing her chosen subjects she also doesn’t reflect on the possibility that anyone who had a story to tell about the horrors of the GDR or Stasi oppression immediately became a “celebrity” and their tales were lapped up by a Western press avid for lurid copy.

The only ex-Stasi operatives she talks to are those who answered an advert she placed in a Potsdam newspaper, so they are self-selecting. She writes of an “Insiderkomitee” of old Stasi agents who still harass people they think might inform on them, even delivering death threats, cutting car brake leads and setting up “accidents and deaths [that] are reverse engineered”. This is really James Bond stuff and I am surprised that the new German police and security forces appear to be so incompetent that they are unable to catch the perpetrators. No sources are given for her allegations. They are as lurid as the (West) German Bild newspaper headline: “Putch! Stasi is handing out guns!”. This story was pure fabrication, but it served to sow panic and fear, even before the GDR had disappeared.

Her main interview partners for the book are Miriam Weber and Julia (no surname given). Both had been imprisoned and suffered under the regime, but neither story is corroborated – they have to be taken at face value. Julia, she writes, wanted to go to a secondary school that specialised in languages, but “instead, for reasons never made clear, the authorities sent her far away to a boarding school with no reputation at all”. This happened, one assumes, despite her parents’ opposition. I have never heard any stories of children being forcibly sent to any school by whatever authorities. But Funder never questions this assertion or any other critique of the GDR made by her interviewees. She seems prepared to accept at face value any negative story.

Funder also adds an interview with Eduard von Schnitzler, an aristocrat who, appalled by what the Nazis had done, threw in his lot with the GDR after the war. He was renowned for his weekly TV program, der Schwarze Kanal (the black channel), whose purpose was to deconstruct the “democratic façade” of West German society and media. He was never much liked in the GDR, largely because of his schoolmasterish, patronising and sardonic style that irritated many viewers, but he was perhaps even more hated by the establishment in the West. This is the only interview with anyone close to the leadership or who had been in a position of power in the country.

After interviewing von Schnitzler in his home, Funder makes a visit to the GDR’s old television centre to watch some old programs he made. The room where she watches the films has “the proportions of a prison cell, but is decorated like a trailer home of the 1960s”. “This place [the GDR television complex at Adlershof] seems to have been designed on the same one-size-fits-all architectural principle as everything else”, she writes, like “the Runde Ecke Stasi museum in Leipzig and Stasi HQ in Normannenstrasse, the same as prisons, hospitals, schools and administrative buildings, all over this country, and probably the same as inside the brown Palast der Republik only now it’s behind bars so I can’t get in.”

The Palace of the Republic – seen as a symbol of GDR achievements in the centre of Berlin – is described further as “… brown and plastic-looking, full of asbestos, and all shut up … The structure is one long rectangular metal frame, made up of smaller rectangles of brown-tinted [most unprejudiced commentators described it more accurately as “bronze-tinted”] mirror glass… In there dreams were turned into words, decisions made …”, Funder tells us. She had clearly never been in the building – it was already closed and boarded up when she arrived in 1996 – but as well as housing the state parliament, it had been a well-loved centre of cultural activity for Berlin’s citizens, with its cafes, restaurants, dance hall and theatre.

You can argue over its architectural and aesthetic value, but it was a symbol of what the GDR was trying to build and that’s why it had to be destroyed by the new masters. The fact that some asbestos had been used as insulation in its construction – as was the case in many public buildings in the West – was merely the excuse to close it. If she had asked someone who had been inside the “palace” or bought one of the several, lavishly illustrated books written about it, she would have heard a very different story. But this is the monotone adopted throughout her book.

Funder leaves no hyperbole unused. “East Germans”, she says, “drank more than twice as much as their West German counterparts… People were drunk on the job, drunk after work, and drunk at home putting up with one another in a place from which there was no escape.” Apart from this statement contradicting what her interviewee Julia tells her, it beggars belief, how the country managed to become the most efficient in the Eastern block and produced more manufactured goods than many a Western country despite workers being in an alcohol fug.

When Schnitzler’s Schwarze Kanal came on, “the workers had to struggle to stop the power supply from collapsing under a back-surge as everyone simultaneously, switched off their sets”, she tells us. Apart from the fact that such an eventuality would have been extremely unlikely as a result of people simply switching their TVs off, these are the same people who supposedly didn’t watch GDR TV. Also, many would have merely switched channels, not switched their sets off. This “fact” she quotes seems to be based on a well-known GDR joke told about what happened when Eduard von Schnitzler took to the air: that he became known as “Karl Eduard von Schnitz…” because that was as much time as the announcer was given before people switched off!

In her interview with Miriam, she expresses surprise that GDR citizens could actually buy those children’s printing sets made up of rubber letters and wooden frames – such a set was used by Miriam to print dissident leaflets. “You could buy that sort of thing?”, she asks Miriam, with amazement, going on to say, “I know that Roneo printers, typewriters and later photocopiers were strictly (if not particularly effectively) controlled by licence in the GDR.” This, again, is factual nonsense. Anyone could and did buy typewriters, which were freely available in the shops and you certainly didn’t require a licence to purchase one. Photocopiers were scarce, because they were not manufactured in the GDR and were simply unavailable.

Later, Funder writes that “access to books was restricted” – no explanations or qualifications. Yes, a whole number of Western books were not available in the GDR and the import of some was indeed banned, but a whole plethora of translations of foreign authors was available and GDR citizens on the whole were certainly well read in terms of world literature. They would have read books by Graham Greene, Harold Pinter and Alan Sillitoe or US authors like Howard Fast and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few.

Funder goes on, that what “the government couldn’t control was the signal from Western television stations, but it tried [and] until the early seventies the Stasi used to monitor the angle of people’s antennae hanging out of their apartments, punishing them if they were turned to the west.’

This once again, is a cheap caricature of the actual situation. Most people lived in blocks of flats and the antennae (serving a whole block) were housed in the roof space, not on individual balconies. While it is true that in the very early years citizens were actively discouraged from watching West German television (a stupid and ineffective exercise), it soon became clear to the authorities that they couldn’t do much about it and there were very few who didn’t watch at least some Western programs on a regular basis. I never heard of anyone being prosecuted for simply watching or listening to Western transmissions and such programs would be discussed openly among friends.

Sixteen-year-old Miriam Weber, who was arrested by the Stasi for trying to flee to the West over the Wall, describes her treatment in detail, her main accusation of mistreatment being that she was deprived of proper sleep between interrogations – a form of torture clearly, but that is all she mentions. It was in the women’s prison of Hoheneck where she received some rough treatment and abuse, but this was no Stasi prison, it was a normal one for convicted criminals and run by the state prison service. “She tells me the prisoners worked in a sweatshop making sheets”, Funder relates. Prisoners in many countries, like the USA and Britain, undertake work for very little pay, but these examples are rarely if ever described as “sweatshops”. Were conditions in GDR jails any different, one could legitimately ask? Would it have been better having prisoners locked in their cells all day with nothing useful to do?

After Miriam was released, she describes her search for jobs, but says “they” [the Stasi?] prevented her finding employment even though every adult in the GDR was supposed to be in gainful employment or education; the right to work was anchored in the constitution. So she found herself in a Catch 22 situation, she alleges, “illegally” unemployed and unable to get a job and “prevented from studying”. If true, this must have been a unique case, as all ex-prisoners in the GDR were helped to find jobs and to reintegrate on returning to civilian life.

Mielke, the head of the state security organisation was, Funder writes in good Ian Fleming style, “a small man with no neck. His eyes are set close together, his cheeks puffy. He has the face and the lisp of a pugilist … [and] was certainly the most feared man in the GDR …”

More ridiculed than feared would be a more accurate characterisation she would have found if she’s only asked.

Funder includes in her book two short “quotes” from speeches Mielke supposedly made to Stasi officers. “We are not immune from villains amongst us”, he says, and “if I knew of any already, they wouldn’t live past tomorrow” and “all this blithering about whether to execute or not to execute, for the death penalty or against – all rot comrades. Execute! And, where necessary, without a court judgement.”

She provides no source for these “quotations” and it is so out of tune with GDR and Communist Party policy that it has little credibility. No leading GDR figure would say such things, not even to an internal audience. After all, the GDR prided itself on being a “humanitarian socialist society based on ethical norms”.

Mielke may have been a much disliked individual – what authoritarian policemen isn’t? – but he was neither stupid nor incompetent.

Unlike all the other East European Communist-led states, the GDR never underwent the draconian Stalin-instigated show trials and executions that the others did. And that was largely due to the determined stance of the GDR leadership, all of whom had experienced the Nazi terror and had no wish to go through anything similar again.

Mielke, Funder also says, helped organise the 1971 coup that brought Erich Honecker to power. This is unsubstantiated and certainly not corroborated by those who were in the know. Ulbricht’s resignation was certainly at the behest of the Soviets, as contemporary historical sources make clear. She goes on, “Honecker rewarded Mielke with candidacy for the Politburo, and a house in the luxurious Party compound at Wandlitz.” Did she ever visit this compound built for Politbureau members, one wonders. Those Western journalists who did and who were egged on by the lurid stories of luxury living by the party’s top brass, were severely disappointed by the relative modesty and utilitarianism of the homes. Even if they did offer more comfort than the average worker’s home, they were certainly far removed from the pomp and luxury of many a Western government official’s home. She also talks of “Mielke’s hunting estate”. He, like Honecker, loved hunting, a widespread German leisure activity, and they used a government hunting lodge in the forest near Berlin. Neither owned an “estate” – this description deliberately conjures up large shooting estates as in Scotland or elsewhere owned by wealthy aristocrats or oligarchs.

While visiting Mielke’s office in Berlin, she sees what she calls the GDR’s “invasion plans for West Berlin”. The fact that there were contingency plans for a possible occupation of West Berlin in the event of a war breaking out – after all, West Berlin was a foreign-controlled island in the middle of the GDR – would not be unusual, but to call it “an invasion plan” is, once again, a disingenuous accusation. No serious observer has argued that the GDR was preparing to invade West Berlin or West Germany – something that would have meant all-out war between the superpowers.

Funder describes the Stasi HQ as a place ‘where people disappeared behind doors and were never heard of again or were smuggled into other realms’. But she doesn’t even indicate who these people were. Has no one compiled a list and investigated what happened to them?

She writes that the Stasi “arrested, imprisoned and interrogated anyone it chose. It inspected all mail in secret rooms above post offices… It bugged hotel rooms and spied on diplomats. It ran its own universities, hospitals, elite sports centres and terrorist training programs for Libyans and the West German Red Army Faction [RAF].” There is no evidence that it trained anyone from the RAF, an ultra-left group active in West Germany that believed in the violent overthrow of the system, even though East Germany gave refuge to several who fled to avoid prosecution in West Germany.

Why does Funder mention only Libya as a country the GDR assisted and not the “terrorists” from South Africa’s African National Congress, the South West Afeican Peoples Organisatio (SWAPO) from Namibia, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and guerilla fighters from Latin America and elsewhere, who were given full support and training by the GDR? The Stasi didn’t have “universities”, but did have one training college, as any security service would have -- just as other security services, including our own, also bug rooms, open mail and infiltrate “dissident” organisations in the course of their dubious undertakings. They also have thousands of files on left-wing individuals, but such comparisons wouldn’t fit Funder’s black-and-white imagery.

The ex-Stasi men she talks to appear to be characters taken out of a red-scare comic book of the 1950s. One Stasi even gives her a copy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto in order “to convince her of the advantages of a communist system”. Others certainly don’t give the impression of being very competent or bright either, but nor do they come across as gruesome torturers. Funder expresses surprise that these Stasi men express no remorse for what they did. But why would they, if they did nothing criminal or inhumane (only a handful have been convicted of any crimes, despite the utmost efforts undertaken by the German government)?

In passing, Funder relates that there were those in the GDR who refused a Stasi offer to become informants and nothing happened to them, they were just struck off the list of potential recruits. Apparently they had no fear.

One of Funder’s most serious allegations is that the Stasi may have used radiation to cause some of their victims to die prematurely. She says the environmental activist Rudolph Bahro was one of those who “died prematurely of an unusual kind of cancer”. Yet after the demise of the GDR, Bahro immediately joined the (Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and remained an avid socialist; he never suggested that he had been poisoned by radiation.

When this issue arose, the government’s special commission to investigate the files of the Ministry for State Security (BStU) set up a specific committee to investigate these claims in March 2000. It came to the conclusion that “on the basis of the available documentation no evidence was found that the GDR Ministry of State Security deliberately used radioactive substances with the intention of harming oppositional individuals”. It did conclude, though, that they had used radioactive substances to mark documents etc. with the aim of tagging them, and did so in a careless or reckless manner.

In the West, we used to have watches and clocks in the 1950s that glowed in the dark so that you could see the time – the digits and hands were painted with radioactive material, but in such small quantities that damage was probably minimal, even though such use of radioactive materials is sensibly banned today.

After Julia’s trials and tribulations with the GDR authorities, Funder gratuitously tells us the story of her rape experience, but this took place after the Berlin Wall came down and after an amnesty for “political prisoners” had made it possible for many criminals to be released too. One of these was a serial rapist and Julia became one of his victims. What Funder doesn’t reveal is that once the GDR collapsed and an amnesty for “political” prisoners was announced, every incarcerated individual immediately declared themselves to have been a political prisoner.

Historical research?

When Funder attempts to enter the realm of historical research, she reveals her ignorance even further. After the end of World War II, she writes, “in their zones, the western powers set about catching prominent Nazis and establishing democratic systems of governance… In 1948 they handed over these institutions to the newly created Federal Republic …” But the Federal Republic was not created until a year later, and if readers know anything about immediate post-war Germany, they will be aware that after the Nuremberg trials Nazis were no longer hunted but, in fact, were soon re-ensconsed in their old jobs or were recruited by the Western allied powers, but now with their swastika badges removed from their lapels. “The Russians refused the offer of Marshall Aid”, Funder states blandly with no explanation. The fact that the USA made acceptance of Marshall Aid dependent on accepting capitalism is not mentioned.

When writing of the Soviet liberation of Germany, Funder places the word liberation in inverted commas. Is she suggesting that the Soviet Union didn’t liberate the country from fascism? She then goes on to suggest that in the eyes of the GDR administration “GDR citizens were not the same Germans who had responsibility for Hitler’s regime”. “This sleight-of history”, she writes, “must rank as one of the most extraordinary innocence manoeuvres of the century.”

She slanders all anti-fascists, including those of Jewish descent, who returned and settled in the GDR determined to build a new anti-fascist and peaceable state; she ignores the history that was taught in GDR schools about the Hitler period and the obligatory visits made by all school students to concentration camps, which were preserved as memorials.

She also amazingly refers to the “Russian invasion of 1945” -- what an insult to the many millions of Russians who died fighting their way to Berlin in their sacrifice to liberate Germany from its very own lunatic dictator, freeing them and Europe from Nazi domination and a cancerous Nazi ideology.

Funder writes that “School teachers [after the war] in the eastern regions were immediately dismissed because their job had been to educate children in the values of the Nazi regime. Socialist teachers had to be created.” She doesn’t say that only dyed-in-the wool Nazi teachers were dismissed, not all teachers, or that in the West no similar process took place – even rabid Nazi teachers got their jobs back. It appears from this statement that she is actually condemning this action taken by East Germany against former fascists.

She suggests that the GDR “created” fictional parties as “mirror-image replicas of the parties that existed in West Germany” in order to foster a pretence at democracy. She doesn’t say that three of those parties had been traditional parties in pre-war Germany and were simply a continuation of that tradition in both East and West.

Funder talks about the cutting off of supplies to West Berlin by the Russians on June 24, 1948, before the Berlin airlift, without mentioning the fact that the Western allies had unilaterally and without warning introduced a new currency in their sectors on June 20 and this act threatened to flood the Soviet sector with old Reichsmark notes, now worthless in the West, and undermine its economy.

Julia’s father belonged to the Free German Youth (the Freie Deutsche Jugend or FDJ – “the Communist successor to the Hitler Youth”, Funder states with calumnious condemnation. The FDJ’s credo and its activities had nothing in common with the Hitler Youth. Her description of the FDJ is a complete caricature. “People joked that the Free German youth and the Hitler Youth were so similar that only the colour of the neckerchiefs distinguished them”, she writes.

So, was the FDJ anti-Semitic, militaristic and mindlessly nationalistic? “In both”, she goes on, “there were meetings, torches, oaths of allegiance and a confirmation ceremony for thirteen-year olds complete with candles and prayer-like incantations.” Where did these images come from? The only occasions on which members of the FDJ carried torches were on very few special commemorative occasions at the national level; the only oath of allegiance was to the GDR state and the only secular coming of age ceremony (Jugendweihe) was nothing to do with the FDJ, but was organised by the schools and took place at age 14, becoming a very popular occasion in a nation that was overwhelmingly secular. And it certainly did not involve candles and “prayer-like incantations”.

Most youth movements throughout the world have similar uniforms and rituals, but to compare the FDJ, whose members were given a socialist and humanitarian outlook and encouraged to work for peace and against war, with the Hitler Youth is taking extreme liberties with the truth.

“All small children were required to join the Pioniere”, she writes. (The Junge Pioniere or Young Pioneers was the movement for younger children). No one was required to join either the Young Pioneers or the FDJ. Most young children wanted to join because it provided access to educational and play centres, holiday venues, team activities and games. Later, Funder unwittingly contradicts her own statement when she writes that a young girl who one of her interview partners had fallen in love with “hadn’t been in the Pioniere or the Free German Youth”. How did she manage to avoid joining then?

Funder mocks the campaign launched in the 1950s to combat the Colorado beetle – a deadly pest of potato crops. It was alleged that US planes were dropping this deadly bug over the GDR – not a totally wild suggestion when one reflects that the CIA introduced a deadly swine fever virus into Cuba, and the US dropped the extremely toxic Agent Orange over swathes of Vietnam, and used napalm – both illegal methods of waging war – and has certainly experimented with biological warfare.

Funder doesn’t ask why there were no Colorado beetles in West Germany at the time. Where did the GDR ones come from? The French had actually considered importing beetles from the US and dropping them over Germany after World War I – but the plan was abandoned due to fears it might also damage French agriculture. Could the US have taken up this idea? True or not – and there is no firm evidence for it being true – this story of US action is hardly unimaginable.

In her interview with the dissident GDR rock star, Klaus Renft, she writes: “Klaus and his friends listened illegally to western RIAS radio, and recorded the songs …”

Almost all young people in the GDR listened to Western music on the radio – it was not illegal even if frowned upon by some in authority. It was impossible to prevent anyway, so it was tolerated.

Klaus tells her that: “[In] Some towns we went to, the main street would have its buildings painted only halfway up. The top part would be bare concrete… It was because when Honecker came through, that was the level he could see from the back seat of his limousine. They didn’t have enough paint to go further up!” Such apocryphal tales were commonly told as jokes, but Funder’s lack of a sense of irony leads her to take such stories at face value and believes they were for real.

Funder also reiterates the myth that telling political jokes in the GDR could get you into deep trouble or jail. Little does she realise that telling political jokes in the GDR was common currency – it was a form of letting off steam – and if it had been such a dangerous occupation, why did so many risk it? I used to relish hearing the latest such political jokes because in Britain there are so few.

Frau Paul’s story, told to Funder, is also quite a harrowing one, but she didn’t tell Funder how deeply implicated she was in a people-smuggling ring assisting GDR citizens to leave the country illegally; that was only revealed when Funder talked to her West Berlin accomplice. One doesn’t have to approve of the GDR’s restrictions of movement or travel to accept that under the laws as they then existed, such activity was a dangerous as well as a criminal act.

Viewed from the other side of the fence, so to speak, in Britain we also prosecute and jail those who attempt to smuggle people into Britain. Yes, we’re not restricting our own citizens from leaving the country, but we are restricting the rights of others to freely travel into our country. Is there a moral difference?

Frau Paul was imprisoned for being involved in the smuggling ring and takes Funder to the former Stasi-run prison of Hohenschönhausen, where she shows her the basement “torture cells”, and Funder remarks laconicaly that, “Not one of the torturers at Hohenschönhausen has been brought to justice.” Ralph Hartmann, a former GDR ambassador to Yugoslavia and now researcher and writer, in his book, Die DDR unterm Lügenberg (“The GDR under a mountain of lies”), has the following to say on this question:

With enormous effort judicial investigations were undertaken against thousands of ex-Stasi employees. But the outcome of these investigations was only 20 successful prosecutions of which 12 of those convicted received fines, seven were given custodial sentences or probation. Not one single case of torture, the use of radioactive radiation, psychotic drugs, electric shocks or similar could be established. We have to ask, why not? The present German authorities have certainly shown no reticence about pursuing and bringing former GDR citizens to justice for alleged crimes, nor lack of diligence in sifting through Stasi documents. Surely bringing those to justice who allegedly carried out torture would be an easy matter? And surely some of those who were tortured in these cells would be more than keen to tell their stories and have their tormentors brought to justice.

On the Stasi prison of Hohenschönhausen, Hartmann writes:

The West German, Hubertus Knabe, who is known as an “SED specialist” and whose declared intention was to turn the Hohenschönhausen Memorial into the most important evidence of “Stasi terror”, was made the director of the memorial site. On taking up his post he said he wanted to turn this former prison into the “Dachau of Communism”.’ He has placed a railway carriage and railway lines there (as deliberate references to Nazi concentration camps) although during GDR times there were never any trains or railways to the prison.

Also, according to Hartmann, the “torture cells” were created retrospectively by the management.

For a very different version by someone who was incarcerated in that prison, read Verheizt und vergessen. Ein US-Agent und die DDR-Spionageabwehr (“Sold out and forgotten. A US agent and the GDR’s counter-espionage organisation”) by Hannes Sieberer und Herbert Kierstein, Edition Ost (2005), in which an Austrian former CIA agent and his GDR interrogator relate their experiences dealing with each other.

One of the Springer newspapers reported that in Stasi prisons more than 2500 prisoners were murdered and thousands committed suicide. Hartmann in his book states: “In reality – and that is bad enough – there were, from 1951 to 1989, i.e. in almost four decades, 14 suicides in all holding prisons of the State Security apparatus, six of them in this ‘Dachau of Communism’.”

Funder mocks those who tell her about what they lost when the GDR disappeared and in one of her concluding remarks says: “I doubt this genuine nostalgia [for the GDR], but I think it has coloured a cheap and nasty world golden; a world where there was nothing to buy, nowhere to go and anyone who wanted to do anything with their lives other than serve the party risked persecution or worse.” This again reveals her total ignorance of life as it was actually lived.

She paints an impossible reality not even experienced in the most dire places on this Earth – it is an evocation of George Orwell’s 1984 but purported to be non-fiction. Her narrative also disdains and ignores the many thousands of former GDR citizens who were and are genuinely saddened at what has been lost, despite all the shortcomings, restrictions and injustices. The two people she quotes who do actually mourn the passing of the GDR with its guarantees of the right to work, to a roof over your head, low rents and its kindergartens are two alcoholics in one of Berlin’s parks.

Funder has a whole number of minor inaccuracies in her book, such as alleging that there were no telephone boxes in the GDR; to prevent people communicating with each other or outsiders, she says. This is simply not true, even if they weren’t as numerous as in the West there were phone boxes everywhere.

On a more unwittingly comic note, she tells us the word Führer was forbidden in the GDR because of its associations with Hitler, so one became a “Lokkapitän instead of a Lokführer (train captain instead of train driver) and were given a ‘Fahrerlaubnis’ (licence to drive) rather than a ‘Führerschein’ (driver’s licence).” Führen in German means to drive as well as to lead. No one I knew in the GDR used the term “train captain” and even in the Free German Youth there was a “Schreibführer” – a minute taker. There were no “banned” words in the GDR and certainly not the word Führer, although anyone would be cautious of using it for a genuine leader because of the obvious association with Hitler.

And Funder mentions a Rosa Luxemburg Theatre in Berlin, not aware that the theatre is the Volksbühne; there never was a Rosa Luxemburg theatre. Or again, she writes that her local baker is “now freed of state-run constraints on his ingenuity” and could now offer a bigger selection of bakery products. In fact most bakers in the GDR were privately run and family-owned and were completely free to bake whatever they wanted to – and many did. Although these inaccuracies are individually unimportant, in terms of her overall claim to historical accuracy and truth they indicate, if not deliberate distortion, then slipshod research.

Her research for the book was sponsored or assisted by, among others, BMW, Mercedes, Dresdner and Deutsche Banks, and although this is perhaps not significant, these powerful firms have profited considerably from the new market that was GDR.

[John Green first visited the GDR before the Wall was built. In the 1960s he studied at the GDR’s National College of Film and Television and worked as a film journalist in many countries for 20 years. He later became a trade union communications officer and writer. He published his reminiscences as a television documentary film maker in Red Reporter. He has written a biography of Friedrich Engels and has just co-written a book about the GDR and what became of it (Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?). He has also written books on birds and the Welsh countryside. He contributes regular book and theatre reviews and articles for left-wing journals and newspapers. Green was co-editor of the Marxist arts magazine Artery. He is a member of the British Green Party and considers himself a Green Socialist and a neo-Marxist. He can be contacted at .]


John Green's surely over-length condemnation of this book is undermined for me by two (maybe more, let's see) factors:

1. The absence here of any reference to a more-balanced account.

2. His identifying this book with the movie, 'The Lives of Others',

'Her book is a quasi textual accompaniment to the film, The Lives of Others, made by Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck.

On Point 1: We have to assume that his own 'Stasi Hell or Socialist Paradise' (or is it vice-versa?) is the balanced account. I have, however, read this apology for the Stalinist DDR and its Stasi apparatus, and was severely under-impressed by it. If I can find my comments on that I will send them in a second comment.

On Point 2: In no way does the book condemned compare with the movie!

And, sorry, even if the director does have a lot of names, that no more condemns the movie than the five or so of my Peruvian wife condemns anything she might or might not have written about feminism.

As a British Communist, I spent a total of five years in Communist Czechoslovakia - a Stalinist state of a considerably less-repressive character than the DDR. Yet this movie (focused on the Stasi, rather than the 'DDR Experience' as a whole) spoke powerfully to me about political, social and personal relations within the Communist bloc as a whole! Perhaps Green can give us a review rather than a dismissal of a film every socialist ought to see. I mean: in order to not reproduce the 'really-existing socialism' of the Late-DDR.

And now for one or two of those 'other factors' that occur to me:

Like John Green, I went to the DDR before the Wall. I was a 15-year-old Young Communist, attending the 1951 World Festival of Youth there. And (no apologies this time) I was shocked at the appearance and behaviour of the FDJ - certainly just as conformist as their Hitler Jugend predecessors, singing the same military marching music - even if the conformism was to 'Peace and Friendship', if they marched behind pictures of Stalin rather than Hitler, and if the song was 'Bau Auf' (Build-Up!) rather than Smash-Up.

I suggest that the fundamental test of Communist regimes is what remains after their collapse.

In the case of the DDR it seems to have left behind less of Che Guevara's 'New Communist Man' and rather more of the 'Old Racist One'. This is, of course, due to not only the nature of the DDR, but to the savage manner in which capitalism was re-introduced there. But the fact is that, as in the Communist world as a whole, 'international solidarity' was a state policy rather than something felt, discussed and expressed by the people as a whole.

And the most significant expression of this was the total identification of the DDR with the Soviet Bloc's invasion of Communist Czechoslovakia in 1968, and its crushing of the attempt to turn that country from - let us see - an STB (Czecho Stasi) Hell into a Socialist Paradise? The only reason no GDR troops apparently entered Czechoslovakia was because of the Nazi invasion 30 years previously. This did not, of course, prevent the enraged citizens of Prague from making this comparison. Myself amongst them.

I am sure there must exist - in German if not in English - more balanced accounts of the DDR than provided by either the book review or the reviewer of it. In the meantime, I think this likely to be found in East German humour:

1. Supposedly from Bert Brecht, following the worker uprisings in East Germany, 1953 (???):

'There has been a serious breakdown in the relationship between the Government and the People. Would it not be advisable to dissolve the People and elect a new one in its place?'

Possibly later:

'People are complaining that they are not allowed to criticise anything the Party does or says. Would it not be possible for the Party to draw up an official list of criticisms the people are permitted to make?'

After the DDR-supported invasion of Czechoslovakia (Not from Brecht).

Teacher: Well would you like to tell me what good deeds you did to help the development of our socialist society this week?

Hans: Yes, well we went with the whole class to help an old Czech lady across Unter den Linden?

Teacher: The whole class to help one old lady?

Hans: Well, you see she didn't want to go.

Finally, the remark of a Czech Communist colleague, as our train crossed the DDR on its way to a conference of our international organisation, late-1968.

Peter: Jarda, what do you make of the dramatic number of international solidarity banners you see on buildings here compared with Czechoslovakia:

Jarda: Bigger banner-producing industry.


Well, I did say I might come back on John Green's apologia for the DDR. OK, here is my original criticism of ‘Stasi Hell…’, placed on Amazon, just after I had read the Kindle version:

'This is a remarkable apologia for a state the 'ruling class' of which demonstrated to the world its true feelings about this 'worker paradise' by fleeing to the West in vast numbers once the infamous Berlin Wall was abandoned by a regime itself abandoned by its Soviet military guarantors. I don't have this piece of fantasy football before me as I write but I had to burst out laughing where it declares that the German Democratic Republic was a model of international solidarity. When I, as a then Communist, visited the GDR, together with a Czech Communist colleague and friend, 1968, and asked him about the remarkable display of solidarity banners to be seen in comparison with Communist Czechoslovakia, he gave the laconic reply 'Bigger banner-producing industry'. The GDR was a state-sized Potemkhin Village. Anyone wanting an antidote to this pathetic piece of Ostalgia, should see the movie, 'The Lives of Others', which is about the Stasi (the ubiquitous internal security police), read 'The Tower' (admittedly a heavy and depressing, though convincing, tome), or try my own ebook autobio, available on Amazon, 'Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist'. It has at least two good East German jokes in it, one attributed to veteran Communist playwright Bertold Brecht.'

I would none the less encourage people to read this less for its 'balanced account' of the DDR compared with the book he trashes,than because it is another 'caricature', and even 'cheaper':

Stasi Hell or Workers Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic - what can we learn from it? Kindle Edition. $6 or so.…

And here, for critique by John Green or anyone on Links, is my autobio, which has several chapters on the state-socialist experience, including the DDR, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Cuba and Yugoslavia:

From Coldwar Communism to the Global Justice Movement: Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist. (Free).…

As to why on earth anyone now a Green-Leftist would, so many years after its ignominious collapse, have anything positive to say about a state that was neither Left (in any contemporary radical-democratic sense), nor Green, I leave others to judge.