Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I finished reading the excellent Stasiland by Anna Funder a few days ago, but refrained from posting a review on EC1 Cruise Control because, well, everyone else read it about two years ago. But reports today of a new German film called The Life of The Others, which is apparently the first to portray the former East German secret police with any degree of realism, have provided me with the perfect opportunity.

The concept of Ostalgie - nostalgia for the old German Democratic Republic - isn't a phenomenon restricted to people from eastern Germany at all. By way of their trading on it, it's been transmitted to every tourist to be snapped at Checkpoint Charlie, anyone who's seen Goodbye Lenin, every student to ever hang a red-and-black poster of Che Guevara on their wall. It's easy to see why. For outsiders, the sense of mystery surrounding an organisation best known for tapping phones, sending messages in code, and encouraging its population to spy on each other to a level of almost comic extremes is intensely intriguing. An entire city cut off from the outside world by an enormous concrete wall - it's the stuff of legend. And for those who lived through it, it must be tempting to look back with fondness on all the subsidised healthcare, security and employment (of sorts) that were part and parcel of a communist state.

Of course, both of these views conveniently skim over the interrogation, torture, invasion of privacy, and crippling restrictions on freedom of expression that also came along with the GDR thanks to the Stasi. I'm no expert on Germany, but Funder's book was a startling reminder of just how all-pervasive a force the Stasi was in the everyday lives of East Germans, many of whom continue to bear emotional scars after years of having their lives controlled by an unseen hand. How these people must feel while walking past the stalls of DDR t-shirts and novelty chunk-of-the-Wall fridge magnets on sale in central Berlin is anyone's guess (although one victim in Stasiland tells of her feeling of "triumph" at being able to drive up to the former local Stasi HQ in Leipzig, now that it is only a museum).

In Stasiland, when Funder first approaches her boss at the German TV station to make a programme on the impact of the Stasi on the lives of East Germans and how they had coped since the Wall came down, she notes with dismay and frustration the reluctance and apparent disinterest of her employers in pursuing the idea. This was then explained as being masked embarrassment at revisiting an unsavoury moment in Germany's past, in much the same way that most Germans tend to squirm when any foreigner brings up Adolf Hitler.

However, a new wave of media releases over the past few years - Stasiland, the movie Downfall, which was the first German-produced film to show the face of the actor to play Hitler, and now The Life of the Others - could mark the point at which the tide begins to turn. Getting rid of the enormous collective national guilt complex that seems to have been created by World War II and 40 years of the GDR first requires an honest and open debate about exactly what happened. I don't think it's too simplistic to suggest that this is the only way in which the country as a whole can move on.


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