runningtheberlinwall

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Running the Berlin Wall blogging makes Berlin anthology

In Berlin Wall, Books, GDR on August 10, 2009 at 4:28 pm
Out Nov-5

Out Nov-5

Some of my blogging on here – and on my sister site Bookpacking – about Berlin has been selected by the very nice people at Oxygen Books for their new City-lit series city-specific anthologies.

The format is to take a selection of writings about a city from some of the big literary guns, like Hemingway or Stein for Paris, mix it up with more contemporary writers and then give it some edge with some contributions from the blogosphere.

In the Berlin book, my entries will rub shoulders with excerpts from the likes of award-winning war reporter – and short-suffering wife to Hemingway – Martha Gellhorn and David Bowie. Another contributor is Anna Pfunder, writer of the excellent Stasiland.

In my own humble view, to be included alongside the works of such talented people is both an honour and an inspiration. And my own situation perfectly exemplifies the value of writing what you know (cliched but true); but also of writing about what excites and motivates you. Because that passion will come through in your prose.

To paraphrase Sontag, I wonder if this qualifies me for membership of (the very lowest echelons of) the Republic of Letters?

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The slow suffocation of the soul

In Books, DDR, Stasi on April 21, 2009 at 9:16 am
Leipzig Stasi emblem

Big organisation for small minds

This week we’ve been drawing towards the end of the brilliant Stasiland. Some things in life are so subtle and insidious in the way they wreak their destruction, that it’s hard to convey the level of harm they do without sounding histrionic. But Anna Funder‘s work steadily plots the low-key psychological violence that lay behind the Stasi’s bid to control every aspect of the DDR citizen’s life. Why draw attention to your organisation’s existence with a high profile execution when, using your network of coerced informants, you can quietly engineer a nervous breakdown for your target?

Many never found out that it was not life conspiring against them, but the state. It is this power, pulling invisible strings and playing God, that gives a stalker their thrill. Being in the secret police rewarded you for taking the path of least resistance and following your more base instincts. In a country of empty shelves, power was the only way to really feel one-up on your supposedly equal peers. And there were perks; if you were going to be thorough in your monitoring, then you had to listen to everything the target did. Who knows what you might hear through pillow talk?

Of course everybody knew the Stasi were everywhere, but doublethink was a key part of the denial and backwards-rationalisation that enabled the regime to exist. Many of the agents of the system knew what they were doing was ridiculous, but in that Emperor’s New Clothes culture the shops were full and everyone was happy, if the Party said so.

Listening to people in the former Eastern Bloc lament the passing of an era where ‘you knew where you were’, you could lull yourself into a 6th form common room rose-tinted view of communism. God only knows – or rather He doesn’t because He didn’t officially exist behind the Iron Curtain – that communism looks good on paper. But reading the intensely personal accounts of state persecution that Funder recorded, one becomes increasingly incredulous at such extreme cynicism; in a culture of suspicion where it seems flippant to apply that overused adjective ‘Kafka-esque’.

The subject – and there were many given there was a Stasi employee for at least every 10 people – was presumed guilty until proven guilty. With a relentless drip of propaganda and the steady application of duress, the authorities corroded the individual’s integrity and morality. They undermined the most basic bonds of humanity in a whole society, to prop up a worldview they only half-believed themselves. Like a twisted pyramid scheme, a citizen who was under suspicion could make it easy on themselves by informing on another suspect, who was informing on someone else who was spying on somone else…

The Nazi war machine, with its industrial might, used the direct route: bullets. But with the DDR’s threadbare infrastructure and austere economy, and the need to create jobs to maintain full employment, it suited the Nazis’ successors to maintain this huge and hidden army of grey men to slowly drain the life out of the individual. They called themselves the Sword and the Shield of the Party but, in a twist on the description sometimes applied to Prussia (and coincidentally the geographical boundaries overlap), this was not a state with a secret police force; but a secret police force with a state.

It’s fascinating, if slightly wearing for anyone with any capacity for empathy. One’s rising incredulity is inversely proportional to the characters’ dwindling reservoirs of self-belief; slowly ebbing away as a ‘template for undermining’ takes its toll. They certainly killed people, using locations in Leipzig and Dresden for secret executions, and Putin was allegedly stationed in Dresden as the local KGB presence. But for the majority of their victims, they preferred to wear them down until they became a shell of their former selves. And if you finally accepted you never going to make it to the West, it was tempting to retreat instead into your own mind. This withdrawl from daily life even had a name, ‘internal emigration’. Some might say that was the biggest crime of all. Not the killing of hundreds, but the burying of Hope for millions.

This post is a duplicate from my Bookpacking blog