Stories of the past, constructed by individuals, influence and shape an understanding of self in the present. This article deals with a fracture that can occur when new stories supplant traditional notions of identity, or when the immediate past does not relate or cohere to the present moment. This study employs Frank Ankersmit’s idea of the ‘sublime historical experience’ which occurs when historical reality is encountered anew and when one is forced to re-define one’s relationship to the past. Hidden stories of a past, half-forgotten, repressed or dismantled, appear when circumstances necessitate the recognition of a change that brings to the surface a collision between a documented past and one re-evaluated; these stories are accompanied by an emergent recognition of formerly repressed trauma as well as experienced as bewildering in an ungraspable present. Anna Funder’s Stasiland is relevant to this investigation in that it activates and embodies Ankersmit’s view that the past needs to be documented , not only in terms of what is arrived at cognitively with the analysis of primary and secondary historical material and critiques, but by accessing the personal experience of that time from those who lived in it. The art of Funder’s book is that she was able to present what it is like to be psychologically placed in a double vision of a past, negated by change, without the opportunity to understand the transition emotionally.
The practice of superseding a past is a great challenge for postmodern historiography and for historical prose fiction, for if individuals and communities conceive of their identity in terms of the narratives they construct for themselves in order to survive, that identity may be subject to being splintered when a their story is confronted with new, or unfolding, information. This has significance for the culture of a community, as much as it does the meaning and value given to moments or places of heritage and history. This article investigates fractured identities in Eastern Germany following the end of the Cold War; furthermore it argues that historical fiction, as opposed to other forms of historical documentation, can be a positive, alternative means of articulating historical moments. Narrative history, I argue, is able to express sublime moments whereas traditional history has been less inclined to represent moments of emotion that fall outside logical explanation or which are not ratified by empirical evidence. It is that ‘in between’ experience of a ‘past breaking away from the present. The past is then born from the historian’s [and the individual’s] traumatic experience of having entered a new world and from the awareness of irreparably having lost a previous world forever’ (Ankersmit, 2005:265).
This paper offers a brief recount of events in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and considers how Ankersmit’s notion of the sublime historical experience can be viewed in regard to the unification of East and West Germany in 1990. Analysis of journalistic records, prose fiction, and ‘traditional’ histories focussing on the stories told by East Germans and their response to the collapse of Socialism in their county . The focus is twofold: firstly it looks at the ‘ending’ of Communism, and secondly in the influence the Stasi, or secret police, held over East Germans’ lives from 1950-1989. Anna Funder’s textStasiland exemplifies the fracture, or shift, in personal and community understandings of Self and Culture and serves in this work to demonstrate the integrity of narrative history.
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the world watched as the symbol that had come to define the forty-year Cold War collapsed. East Germans were free to travel outside the German Democratic Republic for the first time since 1961 and at once, tens of thousands of citizens fled to the West. Over the next twelve months those who stayed behind watched as their government and Socialism lost relevance. They participated in numerous public votes, and decided their fates lay in being ‘absorbed’ into the Federal Republic. Two ideologies that had stood on either side of the Wall collided as millions of East and West Germans were told their nationalities, their identities and homelands had been ‘unified’ (Reynolds, 2000: 561). The bipolar world of communist against capitalist, dominated by two superpowers, was a conflict of ideology more than it ever was an armed battle. Each side knew the rules, the boundaries, pacts and alliances, and rarely stepped over the line. The Cold War’s end shattered this understanding and for those in the East, accustomed to life ruled by surveillance and the Wall, a new reality emerged.
Many Western observers were surprised by the collapse of East Germany, and it was even described by David Childs in 1988 as ‘one of the world’s most stable regimes’ (Reynolds, 2000: 554). But pressure from other satellite states exposed troubles brewing beneath the surface. For example, when Hungarian soldiers rolled up the wire across its border with Austria, thus removing the physical presence of the Iron Curtain, many thousands of East Germans took the opportunity to seek asylum at Western embassies, or in even more desperate cases, driving to the Hungarian border and making a dash for Austria (Reynolds, 2000: 554). Tens of thousands fled. This haemorrhage forced the East German government to consider reforms and it made promises of greater freedoms to come. However, promises were too little and too late. On the night of 9 November 1989, a party spokesperson blundered an official communiqué, which sent thousands of excited East Berliners to the Wall believing they had been given the right to cross. The guards were without official instruction and knew the crowd could not be held back, and so the barriers were lifted. The Berlin Wall, that defining symbol of the Cold War and Soviet oppression, began to be chipped away. The estimate is that between two and three million people crossed to the West within a few days.
The GDR was one of six nations that broke away from the Soviet Union in 1989. This domino effect of revolutions were emboldened by people power in East Germany and encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev’s repeal of the Brezhnev Doctrine which removed the threat of Soviet aggression if a state sought self-determination. Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia each gained diplomatic sovereignty and political independence by December 1989. The pace of events was breathtaking (Reynolds, 2000: 558).
These latter states emerged as new nations, able to reclaim old territory, past traditions, and customs such as religious practice. Statues of Lenin and Marx were torn down across the Eastern Bloc, and place and street names reverted to their pre-Communist titles in what Anna Funder refers to as a ‘massive act of ideological redecoration’ (Funder, 2004: 52). In the early 1990s there was even talk of these states joining the European Union with aims of forging a common currency by the end of the decade. For these once-shunned nations, outcasts held within the Soviet’s grip, the reality of national independence and European recognition must have been mind-blowing.
Yet for the GDR the results of 1989 were different, as they did not, and could not, have gained independence as a single nation state – instead when the Wall came down East and West were forced to accommodate each other’s differences; Cold War rivalries were forgotten and East Germany were erased from the political map – its government was retired, public service deemed redundant and its legal system dismantled. Indeed, it is this ‘speedy absorption… that makes the GDR story so unique… as once the old regime collapsed, its citizens… voted for quick reunion with its Cold War enemy, thereby sacrificing any possibility of national autonomy and/or socialist reform’ (Betts, 2000: 734-735). Whether this is to be deemed a missed opportunity is not relevant to this paper, instead, I would like to consider why this decision can be seen as ‘forever sever[ing] East German history and memory’ (Betts, 2000: 735).
Frank Ankersmit reminds us that ‘historical reality is not something that we stumble upon in the way that we may find out about the chairs and tables in a room that we have just entered… Historical reality… is only encountered in our attempts to define our relationship to our past, in our attempt to “write ourselves” by writing history. Here history functions as the mirror of the radically alien in which we can begin to recognise our own cultural identity’ (Ankersmit, 1998:193). Ankersmit proposes that when a society or nation experiences revolution, or a rupture such as the collapse of the GDR, that a separation occurs in terms of its historical, political and social understandings of identity – a chasm appears between the past (the era of Soviet rule) and the present (1989 and beyond). Ankersmit calls this a ‘sublime historical experience’; this is experienced by the wider social and political community as well as personally and individually by all those that formed this community. Negotiating this divide is a complicated task, as although within reach, the most immediate past is near unrecognisable in the present: ‘For a nation, a collectivity, a culture, or a civilisation that has had such a sublime historical experience, the past and an awareness of this past will become ineluctable realities. The past will then be for them no less a part of what they are as our limbs are part of our bodies – and forgetting the past would then be an intellectual amputation’ (Ankersmit, 2005, p. xv).
One way of illuminating this is to revisit Funder’s notion of ‘ideological redecoration’ in relation to the GDR’s Ministry for State Security, the Stasi. I have chosen to reflect on the Stasi, as it was known to be one of the most effective and repressive intelligence agencies in the world, but more so because the agency infiltrated almost every element of East German culture and identity. The Stasi’s role was to maintain public order, and if a person displayed dissent or was identified as an enemy of the state (often without due cause), the Stasi was empowered to monitor his or her every move. ‘Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around’ (Funder, 2004: 5). The Stasi was a callous presence and with over 97,000 employed as agents, and over 173,000 informers among a population of seventeen million, ‘there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informants are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens’ (Funder, 2004: 57). Citizens lived under the constant threat and observation of the Stasi, and paranoia was a way of life (McGirr, 2004: 44). The Stasi governed many peoples’ lives, and its authority was implicit. Yet it lost power when the GDR did, and its agents swiftly removed their grey shirts and blended into the general population. Overnight, the Stasi headquarters became a museum.
Following the events of 1989, Germany experienced a period of ‘unified’ happiness, yet by the early 1990s it was becoming clear that ‘absorption’ for East Germans meant doing away with the past, their culture and many aspects of their identity. The Stasi may have been obliterated, but for some the allure of joining the west, and all that it seemed to promise, had not been realised. Dreams of financial betterment, a higher living standard and improved housing and consumer goods faded and many were faced with the prejudice of western Germans and a ‘devaluation’ of their life experiences (Freudenstein, 2009:265). Further, as Roland Freudenstein proposes, ‘the very fact that many Ossis (East Germans) and Wessis (West Germans) still classify themselves and each other in these categories and have very distinct collective identities, as well as differing narratives, is proof that not everything went smoothly and successfully’ (Freudenstein, 2009:265).
An insightful literary text that reflects these concerns and uses narrative to present moments of historical fact is Funder’s Stasiland. Anna Funder provides an analysis of what was kept hidden about the life of people in East Germany during the Cold War from the perspective of an outsider visiting a unified Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. Her interest was to interview a cross-section of people and to discover not only the nature of control that was imposed on their lives and the politics that it engendered, but also of those who took the role of controllers.Stasiland reveals the stories of many who tried to flee the GDR and of those whose lives were controlled by the Wall, the government and the Stasi. It is a work of literary journalism, best described as book-length journalism with a literary ambition (Josephi & Müller, 2009: 67), and tells the hidden stories of families bisected by the Wall, of post-Cold War opportunists and also of the ex-agents mourning the passing of their ‘great nation’. It is at once investigative and compassionate as Funder imbues the text with facts and detail as much as she engages with many of her subjects as friends, and shows empathy for their circumstances.
Some people are comfortable talking about their lives, as if they can make sense of the progression of random events that made them what they are. This involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life; a conviction that cause and effect are linked, and that they themselves are more than the sum of their past. For Miriam, the past stopped when Charlie died… It is as if the time after his death doesn’t count; it has been a non-time, laying down non-history. She is brave and strong and broken all at once. As she speaks it is as if her existence is no longer real to her in itself, more like a living epitaph to a life that was (Funder, 2004: 69).
Literary journalism suffers the similar misfortune of historical fiction, as critics often question the credibility of non-fiction narratives that contain experiential moments or fictive elements that suggest something other than objective study. Yet, it needs to be noted that experience-based discourses are able to present truths that exist beyond simple facts, ‘as facts in themselves do not necessarily provide understanding’ (Josephi & Müller, 2009: 68-69). That Stasiland uses the genre of literary journalism, not a straightforward, fact-based account, is fitting given that representations of life in the GDR did not exist as lucid facts in themselves. There was little ‘fact’, as surveillance and fear often blurred the line between what was true and what coerced. ‘The mistake the GDR made was to force people into a position… either you are against us or an enemy. And if you then came to think of yourself as an enemy you had to ask yourself: what am I doing here? They wanted to put everything into their narrow schema, but life simply didn’t fit into it’ (Funder, 2004: 268).
Funder, an Australian-born lawyer and documentary filmmaker, travelled through Germany in the 1980s and again in the 1990s and was captivated by stories of ‘Wall-sickness,’ unexplained deaths in custody and the 15,000 bags of shredded evidence the Stasi left behind (Prins, 1990:76). Stasiland was praised in Australia, Britain and the United States, yet struggled to find a German publisher. The book received icy reviews from eastern German critics with many concerned more with Funder as an Ausländer, or an outsider: ‘Why does an Australian have to tell us what it was like? … What interest does an Australian have in the GDR? … Does she ever wonder how she herself would have behaved had she lived here?’ (Josephi & Müller, 2009:74). Unified Germany was reluctant to address its past, and struggled with the massive amount of documentation the Stasi collected in its forty years, and despite many believing that allowing access to the files would do more harm than good, they were opened to the public in 1991. Suddenly everyone knew who had been spying on whom. Many former Stasi and even political leaders were exposed and often vilified in the press, and later demanded that no public disclosures be permitted. Since 2007 rulings against the media give ‘the clear message that German courts place privacy and personal rights above the right to free speech’ (Josephi & Müller, 2009: 71).
Funder supposed that many of her subjects would not have revealed their stories to a fellow-German, and that writing as an Ausländer gave her the benefit of lacking any political agenda, or fewer prejudices. Yet Stasiland, too, has been subject to censor, and a page of the German edition was removed from all copies published after 2004. The page details Funder’s meeting with Herr Winz, an ex-Stasi agent with links to the Insiderkomitee, a group who present themselves as providing an objective view of the past, but who are also suspected of intimidating those who could reveal their roles as Stasi. ‘One man had a ticking package delivered to his doorstep; wives have had to sign for porn not ordered by their husbands… car brake-leads have been cut, accidents and deaths reverse-engineered’ (Funder, 2004: 84). In Germany, at least, literary journalism is seen to be a fact-based narrative; and in the former-GDR, the truth is best left unspoken.
The sense of place and environment is crucial throughout Stasiland and it is an effective device for telling the experience of unification in the former East Germany. Funder presents a city unified in name only, for there is nothing homely about this Berlin. Apartments are sparse and lack heating and carpet, with house lights always kept low; streets are grey, cold and unfriendly and subjected to name changes – Marx-Engels-Platz is now Schlossplatz, Leninallee now Landsberger. Yet the past may be easily erased from street signs and Metro stations, but the buildings themselves are reminders of the lies that were as pervasive as the Stasi themselves. ‘The top part would be bare concrete… It was because when [Party leader] Honecker travelled through the city, that was the level he could see to from the back of the limousine. They didn’t have enough paint to go further up!’ (Funder, 2004:187). And some buildings cannot be renamed or even renovated – Hitler’s bunker was unearthed and swiftly reburied in the 1990s and the Palace of the Republic, the GDR parliament building, stood behind a fence, abandoned and brimming with asbestos while the new government debated ‘whether to make [it] into a memorial warning from the past, or to get rid of it altogether and go into the future unburdened of everything, except the risk of doing it all again’ (Funder, 2004: 51).
Stasiland offers idiosyncratic reminders of the GDR that would not be found in a traditional study of the regime. Trams that stall on streets for no reason, waiting for passengers who never arrive, long roads with stray streetlamps make real the idea of being watched or caught in a spotlight, ex-agents who meet for birthdays or funerals, according to rank and with an agenda to be met, item by item. As Funder journeys through unified Germany, we learn that although we can bury the past, it is impossible to ‘redecorate’ one’s own judgement and that ‘old habits die hard’. Herr Winz reminds himself that ‘one cannot be too careful these days’ (Funder, 2004: 82), as he asks for Funder’s identity card; Frau Paul, who refused to become an informer even to visit her ill child in West Berlin, remains active in an organisation for those persecuted by the government, and continues to be followed by ex-Stasi; and Hagen Koch who helped build the Berlin Wall and now runs tour guides of its perimeter and is proud to be ‘“the only person who is keeping alive the sense of the Wall from the eastern side,” warns that “one must not see things just from one side”’ (Funder, 2004:259). Although a paradigm shift was registered in the West; it seems many in East Berlin didn’t feel the same tremor.
Doctor of Modern German History Paul Betts wrote that Stasiland is a black-and-white rendering that trawls the GDR’s lurid underworld to paint an image of life in East Germany as ‘dominated by Stasi henchmen, ideological cranks, shameless opportunists and crushed idealists’ (Betts, 2008: 215). Surely any ‘well-documented’ history would pay heed to economic statistics, political reform and cultural developments? One cannot argue with this point, nevertheless it must also be considered that Funder’s stories are testimonials from non-traditional sources, disclosed by individuals who would be removed from such textbook histories because they show personal experience, emotion and conviction;, this should not be judged as compromising the truths of the past. More so, such as the case of Herr Bohnsack, an agent who outed himself as ex-Stasi days before his name was published in a newspaper along with 20,000 other employees, the day-to-day reality of life post-Wall is told through the rare perspective of a man seen as both villain and whistleblower, someone who has ‘fallen between two stools, you might say’ (Funder, 2004: 243).
Funder’s exploration of common stories and her illustration of the lives of everyday eastern Germans differentiate Stasiland from other textbook histories. Through her many interviews, she discovers that ‘for anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told. Not just the activists or the famous writers… You have to look at how normal people manage with such things in their past’ (Funder, 2004:144). What Funder learnt was that the paradigm shift of 1989, documented so widely in the West, has had a limited impact on the lives of ordinary people in the East; freedoms promised have not arrived, instead a greater sense of alienation, or not ‘belonging’, pervades: ‘“We easterners have an advantage, perhaps, in that we can remember and compare two kinds of systems… But I don’t know if that’s an advantage. I mean you see the mistakes of one system – the surveillance – and the mistakes of the other – the inequality – but there’s nothing you could have done in one, and nothing you can do now about the other”’ (Funder, 2004: 144-145).
Stasiland is effective in its presentation of two ideologies at work, caught in the shift from East to West and suffering the similar fate of wanting to get back what they lost – be it the ‘good old days’ of the GDR where rents were low and the Party provided for everyone, to the 15,000 bags of shredded Stasi files – human experience being recreated by a small team of ‘puzzlers’ in Nuremberg. Funder’s journey is contained in a grey, almost decaying domain and in many waysStasiland does represent the ‘lurid underworld’ that existed in the GDR and continues into Federated Germany where western Germans seem ambivalent toward their new neighbours, and some have become more concerned for the economic impact of unification.
I am interested in how the stories we tell of the past shape our understanding of self in the present, and I have used Ankersmit’s idea of the ‘sublime historical experience’ to comment on the experience of East German residents following German unification. Funder’s Stasiland is drawn on to examine the ways in which narratives based on past events can investigate the immediate and long-term effects of an historical episode, as well as the social and political forces that led to that event. This text was of particular relevance as it engaged with the end of an era in which the central stage of world philosophy was focused on what might be called the oppositional split between Communism/Marxism and Democracy/Capitalism. Analysis of this works demonstrates that narrative plays a significant role in dealing with the human cost and the experiential suffering of individuals living through events such as 1989. Human experience is central here, and the reader benefits from the personalised reflection of the narrator. Narrative and literary journalism allow a writer to illuminate the history that ‘falls between the gaps’ when paradigm shifts occur and also when narrative is judged as erroneous or simply not true.
Ankersmit, F.R., (1998) ‘Hayden White’s Appeal to the Historians’, in History & Theory, Vol. 37, Issue 2, pp. 182-193.
Ankersmit, F.R., (2005) Sublime Historical Experience . Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Betts, Paul, (2000) ‘The twilight of the idols: East German memory and material culture’ inJournal of Modern History , Vol 72, no 3, pp. 731-765.
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