Stasiland (2003) & Acts of Benign Psycho Horror
Anna Funder’s Stasiland was not the book I had originally intended to buy. Yet, that nagging feeling in my gut persisted with such intensity after that I returned back to the feminist bookstore I got it from and exchanged it. I’m embarrassed to say that it was the cover that first grabbed my attention. The 2021 edition from Granta Books features a photograph, taken by Ute Mahler in 1984, of a girl getting ready at a table that’s sparsely cluttered with makeup, cups, cigarettes, and a lone beer bottle. Her hair tumbles down her back in loose curls, her face is partially obscured as she holds a mirror up to put on lipstick. A portrait of a man — GDR leader Erich Honecker — hangs behind her shoulder in sharp contrast with the space’s patterned wallpaper, watching both us and her through the dark punctuation of his eyeglass frames.
I have been haunted by this book since I finished reading it 30,000 miles above the Atlantic Ocean on my flight home. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I was haunted at each step of reading Funder’s collected stories, spending my mornings in a disorienting stupor that feels like waking right before your alarm goes off.
After I reach the last page, take a final breath that feels like a loosened weight, and put the bag back in the tote bag splayed open under my seat, I think about the fact that my boyfriend and I ended up staying in a hostel in a former East Berlin neighborhood. It was pure coincidence, a location chosen solely for good reviews and the price. The ghosts Funder encountered as she visited the former GDR to speak with the people who lived through it have faded considerably in the past two decades. The neighborhood is now more known for its techno clubs and rapid gentrification. Walking around, we pass vintage clothing stores, coffee shops, and a skatepark punctuated with graffiti. Near the train station, a remnant of the Berlin Wall has become an outdoor gallery of murals that tourists take pictures in front of. When we go to the nearest U-Bahn station, we walk along a street lined with 1950s-era apartment buildings, massive and blocky and homogenous with intact socialist realist ornamentation and friezes meant to signal a national optimism of post-war reconstruction. Like I said, the ghosts aren’t entirely gone.
When Funder visits the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin, it’s been only about six years since the space was overtaken by protestors and its secretive bureaucracy exposed to the public. Compared to the self-guided Stasi Museum I’d eventually wander through, Funder encounters this building in the process of its own future preservation. A tour guide takes her and a group of West Berliners (who observe with a morbid curiosity how the other half of Berlin lived) up the building’s zig-zagging stairwell to the offices of the Stasi’s senior leadership to talk about the secret labyrinth of rooms protestors found when they occupied the space (a hair salon, a private bedroom and bathroom for Stasi leader Erich Mielke, a supermarket stocked with hard-to-find produce, an island of small luxuries kept from the public). The rooms’ simple mid-century furnishings are no longer covered by the administrative clutter of paperwork — files that weren’t completely destroyed by the Stasi as the collapse of the GDR drew closer were meticulously collected by activists and continue to be pieced back together to this day — and items used by the Stasi for their meticulous surveillance have been placed behind glass in a series of galleries that trace the organization’s growth and demise. Funder and I both take notice of a thermos with a camera hidden inside, a part of a car door that’s been dismantled to show the radar system inside, even a petrol can with a recording device inside. I notice a camera disguised as a button. It’s an absurd object with a bulky metal body and a simple plastic lens cap with four tiny pinholes. I try to imagine what it felt like to wear it, the small weight tapping against your chest as you moved and the shutter release cable snaking through your clothes. Funder’s guide tells her group that Berliners called the Stasi headquarters “the House of One Thousand Eyes.”
I take the phrase “benign psycho horror” from Rayne Fisher-Quann’s essay ‘The Pain Gap,’ a piece that considers the normalization of women’s pain in relationships with men and the exasperating nature of such encounters that leave one party hurt and the other “exonerated by their nonchalance.” Obviously, the experiences Fisher-Quann talks about are very different from Funder’s stories of a closed-off, surveilled society, but both authors tap into this maddening feeling of experiencing a kind of violence that’s become diffused into the banality of everyday life.
It’s worth noting that many of the victims of the GDR Funder speaks with are women. One finds herself unable to advance professionally as the state retaliates against her for maintaining a relationship with an Italian man, another still doesn’t know how her husband died in prison or if the coffin she buried even contains his body. A mother attempts to escape through a secret tunnel to be reunited with her baby who was sent to the West for treatment and later finds herself in an interview room being threatened by a Stasi officer to become an informant and aid in the abduction of her friend and enemy of the state. For their acts of resistance and refusal to comply with the state, these women endure violence ranging from physical torture during prison sentences and sleep-deprived interrogations to psychological terror brought on by small acts of sabotage (deflated car tires, tapped phone lines, intercepted mail), being tailed on foot or by car, interviews with male officers loaded with veiled threats and coded language. The inability to discuss these terrifying experiences with your loved ones lest someone is listening in or might inform — that invisible cage of silence around your life — is enough to drive you insane.
Funder doesn’t just interview those who were on the receiving end of Stasi surveillance. She also speaks to former Stasi officers: a man who Funder suspects wrote procedural manuals, a counter-espionage agent who remains part of a secret society of former Stasi agents that work to (his words) “present an objective view of history,” a former TV presenter who became the GDR’s leading propagandist, and Hagen Koch was enlisted as a new recruit to map out the border of the Berlin Wall with a trail of white paint and later became a keeper of its dark history. These interactions are equally as maddening. Many of these men continue in a kind of secretive normalcy under little-to-no threat of prosecution. Some are still playing their little spy games with old loyalties and ideological justifications for the harm they caused, clinging to scraps of ostalgie for a nation that no longer exists.
When I think about the mundane terror of life in the GDR and the scope of the Stasi’s observational power, I can’t help but recall estimates that there was one informant for every 7 people. Funder notes that other policing regimes have never achieved that kind of coverage over the population. The exact number of informants will probably never be known, although the organization’s 91,000 employees were assisted by up to 189,000 unofficial informants, meaning that one in every 30 East Germans worked for the Stasi while one in three was suspected or under surveillance (the organization kept almost 6 million files on its own citizens). The more you look at these numbers, the more absurd and contradictory they become. Everyone was expected to inform on their own neighbors, while also under the constant threat of suspicion.
Each of Funder’s subjects know they’re being watched, but never fully know the extent or can completely confirm some kind of conspiracy. They can only speculate about the interventions into their lives. When I refer to benign psycho horror, that constant internal state of anxiety is part of it. From between the lines of these stories from those who resisted, something deeply unsettling about the Stasi’s deliberate actions and meticulous planning emerges like the slow creep of a shadow.
There’s something unsettling about living in a constant state of knowing you’re being watched, but never receiving complete confirmation about what’s going on behind the scenes of the GDR’s administrative fabric. Requests to travel into the West are approved or denied like a cold, bureaucratic weapon. Professional development is withheld as punishment, with job interviews and school admissions that become rejections days later. Or, as seen in Funder’s conversation with the “Mik Jegger” of East Germany, the state decides that a rebellious rock band ceases is no longer allowed to exist in the GDR. Their music isn’t played on the radio, their records are pulled from stores, and their entire catalog of songs are rerecorded to erase them.
Retribution for doing or saying something against the state never happens immediately. Sometimes the prolonged psychological torture of being followed or having personal objects tampered is enough of a warning. Other times, Funder’s subjects are summoned to Stasi offices where they are threatened and blackmailed (like one moment when a teen girl has to hear her own love letters dissected), then offered a way out of their punishment. Become an informant and get access to what you need, find employment, get your career back, avoid prison time. When one of the Stasi men Funder speaks with tells her that prospective informers had to be “honest, faithful, and trustworthy,” Funder’s eyes widen with surprise and I try not to roll my eyes at the nauseating irony of such a statement. Most informants were never paid and, given the way the role was utilized by the Stasi as a kind of bribery, it’s safe to say that not all were enthusiastic or felt immense pressure to accept the offer. When Funder’s interviewees refuse to comply, their choices set off administrative chain reactions that leave them irreversibly harmed.
As I made my way through this book, I couldn’t help but reflect on the way we’ve normalized surveillance in our own day-to-day life. We know that the devices we use and the websites and social media platforms we visit track our movements and collect information about us. We know that this data is used internally to recommend content to us and that this data can be sold to third parties too. Sure there’s the occasional scandal or leak of company documents, moments of political outrage, instances when tech like facial recognition software goes awry, but we’ve all come to expect passing under the watchful eyes of cameras on the streets and inside buildings wherever we go. We even joke about it in the form of ‘the F.B.I agent watching me’ memes.
The kind of surveillance Funder learns about is conducted primarily through people recruited to be the eyes the state. This is not to say that technology wasn’t used to intercept communications or collect information about ‘subversive’ people or groups targets, it was just a very different operation than our current widespread access to networks of computers and security cameras at every intersection. Yet, Funder’s point rings true to this day: even the most benign goals of national security or public safety can become dangerous, seemingly neutral tools for social control and observation can become weaponized by powers meant to govern and represent us. Reading narrative after narrative, it was hard not to think about the ongoing debates taking place across all level of government in the U.S. and beyond) about how or when our data is given to law enforcement, how much say we have in our digital privacy, and whether or not to expand the funding and militarization of law enforcement.
There’s this notion many of the Stasi men use in their justifications: that they were effectively saving the people from themselves, protecting them by some ominous outside threat beyond the Wall’s border. In the end — perhaps best exemplified by the way Stasi agents checked the identification papers of activists walking into the Berlin headquarters to occupy the building — the nation’s citizens became its own enemy. Their frustration at rigged elections, failing government, stagnant economy, and a secret network of spies are incomprehensible to agents buried deep in their righteous ideological superiority and belief in the system’s correctness until it all unraveled.
Funder muses, “Why are some things easier to remember the more time has passed since they occurred?” Over the past 30 years, a team of eight ‘puzzlers’ have been piecing back together millions of documents from the Stasi’s files and operations. One estimate notes that about 500 sacks of documents (that were meant to be destroyed by agents but intercepted) have been processed and 15,000 remain. Secrets have been exposed, families have fractured, new revelations have brought scandal through this work. When Funder begins interviewing her subjects, the victims steel themselves as they recall their traumatic experiences, knowing that the pain of these memories must be endured in order to share their stories with the world. Some of these conversations leave not just Funder’s interviewees exhausted and emotional, but Funder herself becomes weighed down by the profound responsibility of documenting this history that at the time remained untold. These stories, and the lessons they carry about power and the mundane insanity of those who abuse it, still linger.