Anna Funder: Inside the real Room 101

Anna Funder's tragi-comic tale of secrets and lies in the East German spy-state has won Britain's top non-fiction prize

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."

Funder had studied German at school in Australia: a bizarre, unsettling choice of interest, so it seemed. "My family was nonplussed about me learning such an odd, ugly language... the language of the enemy," she writes. "But I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together." She found her curiosity about the closed world of the GDR piqued when she studied literature in West Berlin during the 1980s, and "wondered long and hard about what went on behind that Wall".

Now she recalls that, "I became fascinated by what was happening behind the wall - no one really knew. There were people whom I met who had been kicked out of East Germany, mainly writers and artists. Their families, friends and kids were on the other side of the Wall and they couldn't get to them. It was a bit like watching the Iron Curtain come down through somebody's life."

At that time, day-trips through the checkpoints offered the only chance to see the other Germany. Later, after the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the East German regime, she returned to work for a TV station in the newly-reunited Berlin. Funder's book identifies her strange attraction to the dead and dreary GDR as a "horror-romance. It's a dumb feeling, but I don't want to shake it. The romance comes from the dream of a better world the Communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past... The horror comes from what they did in its name. East Germany has disappeared, but its remains are still at the site."

By the mid-1990s, when her project took shape, her interest in exploring the prolonged impact of the Stasi on East German lives ran into a new kind of wall: one built of indifference and forgetfulness. The process of unification entailed the turning of millions of blind eyes towards the sorrows of recent history. Moreover, many people "would like to remember East Germany as being not as bad as it was. People want to sweep under the carpet the fact that there was another sinister, almost perverted, German dictatorship straight after the Nazi dictatorship. It's a source of shame for West Germans, and shame and discomfort for East Germans."

After her book's publication in Germany, Funder would do readings and find that "there would be former Stasi people in vinyl bomber jackets and Brylcreemed hair looking at me very aggressively, who would leave when the discussion started after the reading. But people who were against the regime loved it. Often someone would stand up and say, 'I was in prison. Thank you for writing this book'."

This young outsider from the other side of the world could think the unthinkable, and ask the unaskable. Rather than pretending that Germany could simply bury its immediate past, she opened to her informants a rare and precious space for truth and, in some cases, reconciliation. People spoke more frankly to her than they might have done to a German researcher, and also took care to clarify the background of their lives.

Unlike many books on dissidence and resistance in the former Soviet bloc, Stasiland spends as much time talking to perpetrators as sufferers. "There are quite a lot of drinking scenes and hungover moments in the book," Funder admits, "and they are there not to parade my alcoholism, but because that's a way of presenting the toxic effect of having to listen to stories of enormous pain, and interviewing lots of creepy men. But that was minor compared to my fascination with the bravery of Miriam and the others. I was enthralled as well as horrified."

The creeps and bullies aside, many of the Stasi agents come across as disturbingly normal folk. With their sound career records, plenty of lower-level Stasi operatives did well in the reunited Germany. It's no surprise that they flourished in sectors such as marketing and insurance, which can involve a measure of deception or disguise. And, yes, some of them did become estate agents.

Via a newspaper ad she placed, asking for Stasi veterans as well as Stasi victims, Funder also met some crusty old Cold Warriors. They often live in the same suburbs and drink in the same bars as they did in the days when they held their fellow-citizens in an icy grip of fear. One, Hagen Koch, was the man who first mapped the course of the Berlin Wall, another, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, hosted an anti-Western television show.

Her book poses - although it cannot definitively answer - the question of whether some innately authoritarian streak in German culture and history made so many workers and citizens of the GDR willing to inform on their colleagues, friends and even family. What also emerge strongly are the perils of the slippery slope of betrayal. In a slow moral descent, some casual complaint or piece of tittle-tattle would eventually lead the gossiper into the sort of full- dress denunciation that led to prison and penury.

Funder comments that "the fundamental question that a lot of Germans asked me in both West and East was: 'What is it about us that makes us do these things, and institute these systems with the Nazis and the Stasi?' It's an unanswerable question." However, she is sure that silence and forgetting alone will never bring healing. "I don't subscribe to that view at all," she says, "because the people who resisted dictatorship should be honoured in Germany in a way that they're not. People in Germany insist on calling the type of people in my book 'victims'. To me, they're heroes."

Biography: Anna Funder

Anna Funder was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1966, and grew up there and in Paris. She has worked as an international lawyer and a radio and television producer. In the 1980s, she studied in West Berlin and later worked for a TV station in the city. In 1997, she was writer-in-residence at the Australia Centre in Potsdam. Stasiland: stories from behind the Berlin Wall, published by Granta, is her first book. It was shortlisted in Australia for the Melbourne Age Book of the Year and the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and, in the UK, for the Guardian First Book award. This week, it won the BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Anna Funder lives in Sydney with her husband and daughter; she is expecting her second child. She is now at work on a novel set in Sydney.

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