The surveillance state: story of life under the Stasi wins book prize

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A book telling the story of life under the secret police in cold war Berlin won the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last night.

A book telling the story of life under the secret police in cold war Berlin won the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last night.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, reveals the legacy of surveillance, repression and paranoia through the personal histories of characters, including the man who painted the line which became the infamous wall.

The subject was so controversial in Germany that no major publisher there would buy the book.

Announcing the judges' decision at the Savoy Hotel in London, Michael Wood, the historian and judges' chairman, said the six contenders, including Bill Bryson with A Short History of Nearly Everything, had been wonderful in their range and quality.

But, he said: "The winner, Anna Funder's Stasiland, is a fresh and highly original close-up of what happens to people in the corrosive atmosphere of a totalitarian state. [It is] an intimate portrait - both touching and funny - of survivors caught between their desire to forget and the need to remember. A beautifully executed first book."

It is the first book by Funder, an Australian former radio and television producer and lawyer, who once lived in the former East Germany.

Many Germans warned her the book would be impossible to write because no former Stasi would speak about its workings. Undeterred, she advertised in a German newspaper and found her telephone line hot with confidants.

Written from the side of those who resisted the regime, one of the main characters is Miriam, who tried to scale the Berlin Wall in 1968 to escape a trial for treason and later loses her husband in suspicious circumstances.

Funder said she was repeatedly asked by Germans what gave her the right to tell the story. She came to realise that "when they read my book, people in the East are not proud of the courage of their compatriots in it. Instead, they reproach themselves for having done nothing, or perhaps, in some cases, for having collaborated."

The other shortlisted titles were Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps by Anne Applebaum; John Clare: A Biography by Jonathan Bate; The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War by Aidan Hartley; and Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Public by Tom Holland.

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