An East German Horror-Romance

Anna Funder chooses the sticklebrick word “horror-romance” to describe the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). After reading StasilandStories from Behind the Berlin Wall, it feels right. She explains,

“It’s a dumb feeling, but I don’t want to shake it. The romance comes from the dream of a better world the German Communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past. . . . The horror comes from what they did in its name.” (4)

Cover of the 2011 edition of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. 
Source: Amazon.com.

The description fits so well because it captures the ambiguousness of memory about the regime. On one hand, the atrocities committed by the Stasi are shocking – along the lines of murder, torture, and long term psychological trauma. One East Berlin family in Funder’s book described being sentenced to four years of hard labor for the crime of wanting to visit their child, born with serious physical impairments, who was being cared for in a West Berlin hospital. A sixteen-year-old girl endured ten days of sleep deprivation before inventing a story about collaborators in her one-woman escape attempt. Another woman named Miriam continued long after the Wall came down to search for information about her husband, Charlie,  who by official accounts hanged himself in a Stasi cell, but by other accounts was beaten to death by guards. On top of that, Stasi officers demanded that countless citizens inform on others – not only strangers, but the people around them they loved the most.

Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler

Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler was a propagandist in the GDR whose show, “Der Schwarze Kanal” (The Black Channel) played clips of television shows from the west, then viciously berated the people and ideas shown in these clips.
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-41751-0001 / Zimontkowski / CC-BY-SA, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

In contrast to the overwhelming darkness of these disturbing accounts of the GDR, Ostalgie, or nostalgia for life in now-defunct East Germany, lingers. When Funder visited the East German television station at Adlershof, she encountered “Frau Anderson.” This woman in her mid-fifties remembered Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, possibly the “most hated face of the regime,” with a certain reverence and fondness:

Ach, Herr von Schnitzler . . . He was a one. You’ve got to give it to him: at least he has stuck with what he said back then. Not a damn turncoat like the rest of them.” (122)

(In contrast, one of Funder’s interviewees who suffered greatly under the GDR regime remembered watching von Schnitzler as a part of her boarding school’s program of “TV-torture”: “That man radiated so much nastiness he simply wasn’t credible. You’d come away feeling sullied” (101).)

After the Wall fell, even people too young to remember the GDR took part in the trend of Ostalgie parties, “where if you show an East German ID you get in for free, everyone calls one another ‘Comrade’ and the beer is only DM 1.30” (275).

Most surprisingly, however, is the fact that this sentiment existed on both sides of the wall. One young woman from the western city of Zirndorf told Funder,

“I think there were advantages over there, that we forget, particularly for mothers and children. I’m a single mum and I know what I’m talking about. I had to work, and it was hard to find a kindergarten place. I have a friend who lived over there and she says she didn’t want for anything . . . It all became crudely clear to me after the Wall came down. I met a couple in the street who’d just come over from the east and had no money and nowhere to go, so I said they could stay with me. They were with me for a weekend and I showed them . . . the Karstadt department store and looked in the food section. They were beside themselves. ‘How many kinds of ketchup do you have?’ they said as they looked at the shelves. Then I thought to myself, it really is too much – there must be a middle way.” (267)

A kindergarten from the East German town of Motzlar in 1986, featuring a Sandman mural. One of Funder’s interviewees explained: “The kindergartens were there . . . because they wanted to get the children early to bring them up loyal to the state” (268).
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-0324-023 / CC-BY-SA, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Without arguing for a return to life under a police state, one might find it hard to argue with the woman’s perspective on ketchup. Here again, Funder’s description of “horror-romance” fits well – the horror of knowing that East German kindergartens were propaganda machines, free of charge except for the demand of children’s loyalty to the state – but also romance – the beautiful idea of a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of without the corrupting influence of Kapitalismus.

East Germans can also offer perspective on outsider views of the United States. An East German growing up in the city of Lindau recalled how, in 1948 and 1949 during the Berlin Airlift, Russian propagandists convinced schoolchildren that the American planes were spraying potato beetles over East German crops to ruin their harvest. Funder asked why this explanation, though it “seemed improbable that a nuclear superpower would be loading up planes full of live beetles on leaves and setting off across the Atlantic with them,” was credible. The response cut contrary to how Americans view their own history:

“‘Because they had just bombed Dresden flat!’ he cried. ‘That beautiful centre of German culture! Senselessly! And they even dropped two atom bombs on Japan! They were clearly truly evil! What more proof do you need?'” (166-167)

Is this simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Or should Americans take more than a few lessons from the GDR’s horror-romance tale of an oppressive, information-gathering, omnipotent state, hiding just behind the veil of a beautiful ideology?

Funder, Anna. Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

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2 responses to “An East German Horror-Romance

  1. What an interesting examination! Clearly this book is a must-read. That quote about Von Schnitzler is just classic. So descriptive. Democracy is a balancing act, and with liberty, I guess, come liberties…

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