Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

April 13, 2007

I’m back and ‘Stasiland’: a review

Filed under: Eastern Europe, GDR, Memorials, Museums, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:52 pm

I got back to Leicester this afternoon and immediately set to work.  No, not really – my brain is still very much elsewhere.  This is where blogging comes in. I find it a really useful way of getting back in ‘the swing of things’. 

While I was away, I abandoned the other books I’d been reading and settled down with my second-hand copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, as recommended to me by Mary.  It was great – obviously it’s a personal account/reflection on post-1989 Berlin and the fall of communism, but – as it’s based around a series of personal testimonies recorded by Funder in interviews with Stasi victims and operatives alike – it offers a good introduction to the subject from a ‘human’ perspective.  Funder’s writing style is warm and engaging, and the stories she presents equally moving and disturbing.

I want to single out a few points which correspond with my research.  In particular Funder’s personal reflections on the various museums/memorials related to the Berlin Wall, communist Germany and the Stasi , and their visitors, are richly descriptive and considered, reflecting my thoughts that – to a large extent – the memorialising of locations, such as the Stasi HQ, serve to contain the memories, experiences and power associated with the old regime.  But they also lend an authenticity to the documents and artefacts to the objects housed within them, something which visitors clearly value.   In a particularly illuminating passage Funder contrasts the brand new, but soulness – and, more crucially – sparsely visited (at least in her telling) Contemporary History Forum in Leipzig, with the ‘real deal’, the Runde Ecke (the Stasi HQ in Leipzig). (Incidentally, in her comment on my post about communist relics, Mary picked out a telling passage from this section of the book.)  In addition, there is a suggestion that the museumfication process heralds the death-knell of the ideology of the regime.  Miriam, a correspondent of Funder’s who ‘haunts’ the narrative throughout, expresses great satisfaction at the conversion of the Runde Ecke into a museum.  For her it represents a triumph over the regime (p. 46).  The survival of such sites – though much contested, by various ‘interest groups’ in the former GDR – into post-communist Berlin and Germany are clearly vitally important to several committed ‘activists’,  whom are simply not prepared to allow the unified nation of Germany to forget what happened in the GDR. 

Finally, Funder documents the ostalgie for and tourist kitsch related to the Berlin Wall. She describes hawkers of spurious relics: ‘genuine’ pieces of the wall, communist memorabilia and cheap GDR-themed souvenirs, who continue to peddle their wares despite the increasing ‘sanitisation’ of communist Germany, represented most iconically by the Berlin Wall, of which very little now remains in situ.

Overall, the impression one gets from Funder is of a country – for many residents (or at least those interviewed by Funder) still appear to consider themselves as Other from the ‘Wessis’ – struggling to find the best way of dealing with the legacy of communism and negotiating Kapitalismus.  It’s a great read, which – I’m sure – will continue to resonate with me for some time.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Web resources I’m back and ‘Stasiland’: a review […]

    Pingback by Revolution is Not a Garden Party « Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China — April 15, 2007 @ 4:05 pm

  2. Hi Amy,
    I’m really glad you enjoyed the book and don’t beat yourself up about not getting straight back to ‘work’. I think it’s important to set aside time once in a while for following the things you find interesting (rather that the things you know you ought to find interesting) – it’s the only way to develop your thinking I find.

    One of the sections of the book I found most harrowing was the description of the prison in an East Berlin suburb (with tiny subterranean torture cells). In the book the prison is being managed by a small voluntary committee of former detainees who hope to turn it into a museum (an idea of which Funder is broadly supportive). The museum is now open (http://en.stiftung-hsh.de/document.php?cat_id=CAT_231&special=0) and by 2004 had received half a million visitors. When I was in Berlin recently I considered trying to visit – and found that I didn’t want to. Not, I don’t think, because I don’t want to know, but because my experience of visiting similar locations (for example in Cambodia – I’ve never been to any of the Nazi death camps) left me feeling like a voyeur.
    Everyone knows that museums are the new cathedrals (the Tate Modern etc.) but actually I think it’s often these sites of conscience, as the new sites of pilgrimmage that really fulfil a quasi-religious function; visitors come away ‘redeemed’, their willingness to engage with these painful episodes standing as proof of their humanity, their sensitivity and their difference from the perpetrators of these acts. Yet at the same time these sites draw people in the same way as people go to gawp at the London Dungeon, or wherever. They offer a brush with horror in the name of civic virtue. Torture as spectacle seems to be to be founded on a pious hypocrisy that makes me very uncomfortable.

    That said, I’m glad such places exist. These concerns don’t apply at all to educational visits. It’s more the independent adults, tourists and coach parties that trouble me. And maybe I don’t want to go because I already know what I’m going to see and hence my visit would act only to offer me the excitement of the material encounter with the past (I am the sort of traditional heritage enthusiast who still gets most excited by authenticity, by my physical proximity to past actors) and not necessarily to learn very much. Maybe for people who know nothing about the GDR it’s a good place to start. But I find it very hard to imagine who visits these places on their holiday and not to be if not suspicious then at the very least cynical about their motives.

    This ties in to wider nagging feelings I have about Berlin’s memorial culture, which I think is all about making people feel better about themselves – like they’ve done something – and very little about respecting the victims or making sure it never happens again. But I’m not sure what I would do differently. These questions are incredibly difficult.

    Mary

    Comment by Mary — April 16, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

  3. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for the encouraging words. And interesting to hear that the Hohenschönhausen prison has now opened as a museum, largely due – I suspect to the efforts of campaigners and ex-inmates like Frau Paul. That for me too was one of the most unsettling sections of the book.

    I too sometimes wonder about the voyeuristic nature of tourist visits to these kinds of museums and memorial sites. And I wonder about the depth of knowledge or even awareness of the events and stories behind them people might have. And do they really care? Are they just there cos it’s one of those ‘must see, must do’ things? I’m also interested in your idea that visiting these sites acts as a form of redemption too, albeit on a superficial level, like it’s something one must be seen to be doing even if there’s no really strength of feeling or desire to confront past experiences behind the act. But I agree it is important that they exist. Hmmmm – lots of stuff to think about. As ever, many thanks for your contribution. It really helps to talk around these issues with someone, even if it is only ‘virtually’!

    Comment by amyjaneb — April 17, 2007 @ 2:46 pm


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