Originally published in Australia and the U.K. in 2003, Stasiland describes a series of horrors and indignities visited upon the citizens of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) by the Stasi—the Ministry for State Security—in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Anna Funder began her research in 1996 by interviewing both victims and victimizers and rummaging through the vast Stasi headquarters, now a museum.

The Stasi and their spies were everywhere—and they made sure people knew it, reasoning that knowing there was no chance of privacy would discourage subversive activity. “In the GDR, there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people,” Funder reports. “If part-time informers are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens.”

In this heavily policed state, private residences were routinely searched on mere suspicion or whim, telephones were tapped, mail was opened and the contents recorded. The Stasi kept voluminous records on virtually every citizen. When the Wall fell, there was an orgy of paper shredding. Even so, there were far too many files to destroy. Now there are teams trying to reassemble the shredded documents, a task predicted to take well over 300 years.

Funder’s stories are at once heartbreaking and outrageous: A 16-year-old girl is imprisoned for a year and a half, some of that time in solitary confinement, for posting “seditious” leaflets; 10 years later her sweetheart dies under mysterious circumstances in a Stasi prison cell; a young woman is summoned by a Stasi official to discuss the intimate portions of her love letters; parents are separated from their gravely ill child for the first five years of his life. Despite all this, the Stasi officials whom Funder interviewed are generally unrepentant.

Fortunately, there are flashes of Orwellian humor amid the soul-crushing darkness. In one such instance, a woman goes to a state agency to apply for a job and makes the mistake of telling the clerk there that she is “unemployed.” This enrages the clerk. “You are not unemployed!” she barks. “You are seeking work. There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!”

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