Granta, £12.99

Stasiland by Anna Funder

Private lives in the shadow of the secret police

Not all the past is a foreign country. History has a habit of lurking beneath the surface, influencing present and future. The Australian writer Anna Funder experienced this while living in post-reunification Berlin in the mid-1990s. When she visits the former Leipzig headquarters of the East German security services, she gets hooked on the personal histories of East Germans.

The Stasi, short for Staatssicherheit, spied on a vast number of East German citizens, manipulating and destroying lives. She wants to hear the other side and puts an advertisement in a paper: "Seeking: former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators for interview. Publication in English, anonymity guaranteed." Her phone doesn't stop ringing.

One encounter leads to another. There is Miriam, who tried to climb over the wall aged 16 and got caught. Her later husband, Charlie, died in a Stasi cell. Julia had an Italian boyfriend and caught the eyes of the secret police who observed her every move, and blocked her career. Frau Paul's baby boy, in hospital in West Berlin when the wall was built, was suddenly beyond reach.

Funder has collected impressive life stories of victims and perpetrators in a divided country. She tells their tales well. But she gets little things wrong, and her German history is shaky: Germany wasn't divided into zones at the Potsdam conference; you can't go from Alexanderplatz to Ostbahnhof by tube; "Berliner Schnauze" doesn't mean "in-your-face attitude" but the cheeky, ironic way Berliners talk themselves through life; Erich Honecker was not ruling East Germany when the wall was built (that was Walter Ulbricht). The torture chambers at Hohenschönhausen prison weren't used after 1958, which makes her claim that "Not one of the torturers has been brought to justice" not more bearable, but more understandable. And so on.

Does this matter? Couldn't one answer, as Orwell did: Well, but it is essentially true! Up to a point. When not retelling other people's stories, her description of Berlin life doesn't ring quite true. The Berliners she meets by chance, the toilet lady or alcoholics in the park, are caricatures. She makes things stylish in a morbid way, painting country and people even greyer than they are. This tends to cast doubt on other things she has to say.

Funder is not travelling uncharted territory. A great number of books have been published since 1989 about East Germany and the Stasi, some by English writers. She finds no stance for herself, unable to make up her mind, for instance, whether it is a good thing the wall has almost completely vanished.

While the life-stories are touching and infuriating, she fails to offer insights that would have given her book a wider theme. Nevertheless, taken with a pinch of salt, Stasiland is worth reading. In the end, German history is too serious to be left solely to the Germans.

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