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STASILAND: TRUE STORIES FROM BEHIND THE BERLIN WALL
by Anna Funder
beats giants of non-fiction
John Ezard, arts correspondent
Wednesday June 16, 2004
A new author and a small independent publisher last night beat the big battalions by snatching the world's most valuable non-fiction prize.
Anna Funder's Stasiland, a mosaic of stories from East Germany's secret police, won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson award - a first book, defeating Bill Bryson's chart-topper, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Tom Holland's well-publicised Rubicon, and Anne Appelbaum's Pulitzer-prize-winning Gulag.
The announcement, at a London ceremony, gave the publishers Granta the thrill of trouncing big players such as Doubleday, Penguin and HarperCollins in the contest for what it called "a big, starry prize". A Granta spokeswoman said: "For Anna and for us, it is a very, very, big victory against much bigger players."
The judges' chairman, the television presenter Michael Wood, said: "Stasiland is a fresh, original close-up of what happens to people in the corrosive atmosphere of a totalitarian state. It is an intimate portrait, both touching and funny, of survivors caught between their desire to forget and need to remember. It is a beautifully executed first book."
Martin Higgs, the literary editor of the bookstores chain Waterstone's, said: "Funder has a strong journalistic style and writes about real lives in a real way. This has the effect of making Stasiland extremely accessible and it has met with high acclaim among our reader groups."
Stasiland is a collection of absurd or pitiable accounts of life under a regime in which, it is estimated, one person in six spied for the secret police. It is told as a journalist's first-person narrative, but parts of it read like a novel.
Funder writes: "I've been having adventures in Stasiland ... a place where what was said was not real and what was real was not allowed, where people disappeared from behind doors and were never heard from again, or were smuggled into other realms ... They're all around us. I advertised for Stasi men. I put an ad. In the paper."
Among her characters are the man who painted the line along which the Berlin Wall was built, and a singer nicknamed the Mick Jagger of Marxism until the state declared him an "unperson".
The award is open to authors of any nationality writing in English and published in the UK. Funder, an Australian, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book prize.
Other shortlisted titles for the Samuel Johnson were John Clare by Jonathan Bate, and The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley.
16 June 2004
A book telling the story of life under the secret police in cold war Berlin won the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last night.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, reveals the legacy of surveillance, repression and paranoia through the personal histories of characters, including the man who painted the line which became the infamous wall.
The subject was so controversial in Germany that no major publisher there would buy the book.
Announcing the judges' decision at the Savoy Hotel in London, Michael Wood, the historian and judges' chairman, said the six contenders, including Bill Bryson with A Short History of Nearly Everything, had been wonderful in their range and quality.
But, he said: "The winner, Anna Funder's Stasiland, is a fresh and highly original close-up of what happens to people in the corrosive atmosphere of a totalitarian state. [It is] an intimate portrait - both touching and funny - of survivors caught between their desire to forget and the need to remember. A beautifully executed first book."
It is the first book by Funder, an Australian former radio and television producer and lawyer, who once lived in the former East Germany.
Many Germans warned her the book would be impossible to write because no former Stasi would speak about its workings. Undeterred, she advertised in a German newspaper and found her telephone line hot with confidants.
Written from the side of those who resisted the regime, one of the main characters is Miriam, who tried to scale the Berlin Wall in 1968 to escape a trial for treason and later loses her husband in suspicious circumstances.
Funder said she was repeatedly asked by Germans what gave her the right to tell the story. She came to realise that "when they read my book, people in the East are not proud of the courage of their compatriots in it. Instead, they reproach themselves for having done nothing, or perhaps, in some cases, for having collaborated."
The other shortlisted titles were Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps by Anne Applebaum; John Clare: A Biography by Jonathan Bate; The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War by Aidan Hartley; and Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Public by Tom Holland.
18 June 2004
In the snooper's state of East Germany, the Stasi secret police employed one informer for every 6.5 citizens. Its agents monitored every aspect of daily life, from pub chat and workplace banter to (in some notorious cases) the pillow talk of couples who consisted of one official snitch and one innocent partner. This vast "internal army" of shadows knew your visitors, and knew who you telephoned. It knew your favourite books, and your favourite beer.
"Laid out upright and end to end," reports Stasiland, a first book which this week won the Australian writer Anna Funder the £30,000 BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize, "the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen would form a line 180km long." In its abandoned Leipzig offices, Funder even came across the "smell samples" of underpants that the Stasi used - or at least pretended to use - in order to trail and identify dissidents with the aid of sniffer dogs. Repression, in Stasiland, had a most peculiar stink.
"The Stasi wanted to control every aspect of society," says Funder, who, after six previous appearances on literary prize shortlists, but no victories, flew in from her home city of Sydney for Tuesday's ceremony more in hope than expectation. Interviewed the day after her win, Funder says: "If you belonged to the Stasi you couldn't have any contact with Westerners. If you had relatives in the West - bad luck. By the same token, if you had an affair, that was an exercise in having a private life, a realm separate from the Stasi, and they couldn't bear it."
It was in Leipzig that she heard the story of Miriam Weber, the book's most consistently heroic witness. Miriam made a madly courageous teenage attempt to scale the Wall; her husband died on remand in a Stasi cell; and her brave, blighted life unfolded in the shadow of its surveillance. Still, after 15 years of relative freedom, the nightmare continues.
"I'm in contact with Miriam," Funder says. "She works in a public organisation that also employs former Stasi informers as her bosses. So they know her history as, effectively, a political prisoner, and she knows that they were informers. These people are still living and working cheek by jowl, without much resolution."
Other stories in Stasiland tell of an everyday heroism still unrewarded, and often unacknowledged. Sigrid Paul, for instance, secretly sent her sick baby across the Wall for the treatment that would save his life. She spent five years in an East German prison after she refused to betray her accomplice - when betrayal, so the Stasi had promised, would have meant reunion with her son.
The people of the GDR lived through their own private Nineteen Eighty-Four every single day. Funder describes Orwell's book as "like a manual for the GDR, right down to the most incredible detail". The party, if not the proles, knew that very well. She remembers that the much-dreaded Stasi chief Erich Mielke even managed to renumber the offices in the secret-service headquarters. "His office was on the second floor, so all the office numbers started with '2'. Orwell was banned in the GDR, but he would have had access to it. Because he so wanted the room number to be 101, he had the entire first floor renamed the mezzanine, and so his office was Room 101."
Funder had studied German at school in Australia: a bizarre, unsettling choice of interest, so it seemed. "My family was nonplussed about me learning such an odd, ugly language... the language of the enemy," she writes. "But I liked the sticklebrick nature of it, building long supple words by putting short ones together." She found her curiosity about the closed world of the GDR piqued when she studied literature in West Berlin during the 1980s, and "wondered long and hard about what went on behind that Wall".
Now she recalls that, "I became fascinated by what was happening behind the wall - no one really knew. There were people whom I met who had been kicked out of East Germany, mainly writers and artists. Their families, friends and kids were on the other side of the Wall and they couldn't get to them. It was a bit like watching the Iron Curtain come down through somebody's life."
At that time, day-trips through the checkpoints offered the only chance to see the other Germany. Later, after the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the East German regime, she returned to work for a TV station in the newly-reunited Berlin. Funder's book identifies her strange attraction to the dead and dreary GDR as a "horror-romance. It's a dumb feeling, but I don't want to shake it. The romance comes from the dream of a better world the Communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past... The horror comes from what they did in its name. East Germany has disappeared, but its remains are still at the site."
By the mid-1990s, when her project took shape, her interest in exploring the prolonged impact of the Stasi on East German lives ran into a new kind of wall: one built of indifference and forgetfulness. The process of unification entailed the turning of millions of blind eyes towards the sorrows of recent history. Moreover, many people "would like to remember East Germany as being not as bad as it was. People want to sweep under the carpet the fact that there was another sinister, almost perverted, German dictatorship straight after the Nazi dictatorship. It's a source of shame for West Germans, and shame and discomfort for East Germans."
After her book's publication in Germany, Funder would do readings and find that "there would be former Stasi people in vinyl bomber jackets and Brylcreemed hair looking at me very aggressively, who would leave when the discussion started after the reading. But people who were against the regime loved it. Often someone would stand up and say, 'I was in prison. Thank you for writing this book'."
This young outsider from the other side of the world could think the unthinkable, and ask the unaskable. Rather than pretending that Germany could simply bury its immediate past, she opened to her informants a rare and precious space for truth and, in some cases, reconciliation. People spoke more frankly to her than they might have done to a German researcher, and also took care to clarify the background of their lives.
Unlike many books on dissidence and resistance in the former Soviet bloc, Stasiland spends as much time talking to perpetrators as sufferers. "There are quite a lot of drinking scenes and hungover moments in the book," Funder admits, "and they are there not to parade my alcoholism, but because that's a way of presenting the toxic effect of having to listen to stories of enormous pain, and interviewing lots of creepy men. But that was minor compared to my fascination with the bravery of Miriam and the others. I was enthralled as well as horrified."
The creeps and bullies aside, many of the Stasi agents come across as disturbingly normal folk. With their sound career records, plenty of lower-level Stasi operatives did well in the reunited Germany. It's no surprise that they flourished in sectors such as marketing and insurance, which can involve a measure of deception or disguise. And, yes, some of them did become estate agents.
Via a newspaper ad she placed, asking for Stasi veterans as well as Stasi victims, Funder also met some crusty old Cold Warriors. They often live in the same suburbs and drink in the same bars as they did in the days when they held their fellow-citizens in an icy grip of fear. One, Hagen Koch, was the man who first mapped the course of the Berlin Wall, another, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, hosted an anti-Western television show.
Her book poses - although it cannot definitively answer - the question of whether some innately authoritarian streak in German culture and history made so many workers and citizens of the GDR willing to inform on their colleagues, friends and even family. What also emerge strongly are the perils of the slippery slope of betrayal. In a slow moral descent, some casual complaint or piece of tittle-tattle would eventually lead the gossiper into the sort of full- dress denunciation that led to prison and penury.
Funder comments that "the fundamental question that a lot of Germans asked me in both West and East was: 'What is it about us that makes us do these things, and institute these systems with the Nazis and the Stasi?' It's an unanswerable question." However, she is sure that silence and forgetting alone will never bring healing. "I don't subscribe to that view at all," she says, "because the people who resisted dictatorship should be honoured in Germany in a way that they're not. People in Germany insist on calling the type of people in my book 'victims'. To me, they're heroes."
Biography: Anna Funder
Anna Funder was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1966, and grew up there and in Paris. She has worked as an international lawyer and a radio and television producer. In the 1980s, she studied in West Berlin and later worked for a TV station in the city. In 1997, she was writer-in-residence at the Australia Centre in Potsdam. Stasiland: stories from behind the Berlin Wall, published by Granta, is her first book. It was shortlisted in Australia for the Melbourne Age Book of the Year and the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and, in the UK, for the Guardian First Book award. This week, it won the BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.
25 June 2004
Stasiland by Anna Funder GRANTA £7.99 (288pp)
Though a worthy winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, this was an adventurous choice. With a cool empathy reminiscent of Orwell, the Australian Funder explores the the oppression of the East German people by their own secret police. Eschewing historical background, she plunges into the story of Miriam, who tried to cross the Berlin Wall at the age of 16 in 1968. "When I got out of prison, I was basically no longer human," she says. The authentic stink of the old regime emerges when she talks to a cleaner in the Stasi HQ in Leipzig, now a museum: "When we first opened, we couldn't get rid of the smell. It was the smell of old men." Chillingly, an unrepentant GDR apparatchik defends the Berlin Wall: "It prevented imperialism from contaminating the east." Stasiland is not unremittingly bleak. The farcical pursuit of a disillusioned official for the return of a plastic regimental award, first by the Stasi, then by officials of reunited Germany, might be an episode from Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. The most memorable figure remains Miriam. After she was released, Miriam's boyfriend died in Stasi custody. Now, Miriam says she loves to drive to the old Stasi HQ: "I just sit there in my car and feel triumph... You lot are gone!" This is a book about Berlin that ranks beside Isherwood's slim masterpieces. CH
WIRED MAGAZINE: ISSUE 16.02
Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany's Secret Police
By Andrew Curry 01.18.08
Read this article here
November 3, 2009
The Berlin Wall didn’t fall; it was happily hacked to pieces. Ordinary people from East and West came, some with hammers or picks, others simply to give it it a good kicking to get their piece. Everyone wanted to be in on it: if all the “Certified Genuine Souvenir Fragments” in all the living rooms in all the world were put together now they’d make an even more monstrous edifice. When we think of November 9, 1989, the overwhelming picture is one of joyful, incredulous Berliners — East and West together — out of danger and dancing on top of the Wall.
But somewhere in a Berlin suburb, I imagine, still lives the Stasi man who was in charge of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint that night. From his post he watched the throng milling outside, impatient and wanting to flee. The people had rushed there after seeing the East German minister [Günter] Schabowski on the evening news, stammering that free travel was to be allowed “immediately”.
But no orders had come down to the man at his post. (In one of a pantomime of errors, Schabowski had been caught off-guard at the press conference — the decision was meant to be effective only from the next day.) The man did not know what to do. So, in what he no doubt imagined to be the spirit of the regime, he took the initiative: he invented a secret sign. He ordered the border guards to pick out “the most uppity” in the crowd and discreetly to stamp their exit visa to the left-hand side of their ID photos. That way these people — possibly those most desperate for freedom, or bravest — could be identified on their way home again and, for reasons they would never know, be refused re-entry.
That story, and it is true, combines in microcosm salient reminders about the East German regime: its anti-democratic character, the über-diligence and loyalty of its employees and the secrecy and chicanery of their methods. Most of all, it shows the overwhelming delusion that many of its functionaries held (and may still hold) that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was superior, that it would continue to exist and that people would want to come back.
Twenty years on, we in the West are celebrating the fall of the Wall. But I wonder how that Stasi officer feels about it, sitting in his apartment? Like the hundreds of thousands of other members of the state apparatus — the government, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the army, the 91,000-strong secret police the Stasi, the journalists, teachers, judges, and some of the 170,000 ex-informers — his loyalty to the late state may continue. All except one of the former Stasi officers to whom I spoke remained loyal to the GDR. Partly out of conviction, partly out of pride: it is hard to admit, as the lone (and shunned) dissenter among its ranks did: “I told lies for 26 years.”
We grow to be who we are around the stake of what we love. The GDR has ceased to be, but those who loved her still do. If they stopped, I had the impression, they might crumble, fall limp and spineless to the ground. And, it must be said, their love is made easier because the love-object always was a fantasy: the ideal of the fairer, socialist world to come. The reality of the GDR, as they well knew (though rarely admitted), fell far short.
It is worth recapping how far short. The East German Government maintained its power by subjecting the people to fear and intimidation by its secret police. People were turned into informers or collaborators in a terrible bargain to stay “safe” from the Stasi: there was at least one informer for every 50 people in the country; by some estimates one for every seven. The Stasi ruined the lives of anyone it chose: men, women, teenagers, children. In the early days there were a lot of deaths, or “liquidations”, of opponents. In the 1970s and 1980s the regime preferred to destroy opponents psychologically — spread rumours, ruin careers, marriages, take children away — or to exile them.
Its practical methods demonstrate an institutional pathology of inventive malice and utter disregard for human dignity: the Stasi broke into flats and stole people’s underwear, bottling it as “smell samples” for identification purposes; it irradiated objects and people (with lethal consequences) so as to track them with Geiger counters; it used psychotropic drugs to turn opponents into zombies under house arrest. The essential condition of the GDR was the vicious war it waged on its own citizens, whom, with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, it turned into “traitors”, “asocials” or, most spectacularly, “negative-enemy elements”.
The Stasi and its informers accumulated, in the 40 years of its existence (1949 to 1989), more written records (largely the stolen biographies of its own people) than in all of German history since the Middle Ages. Now, the battle over how the GDR is to be remembered — or not — is raging hot. The former cadres would like the GDR to be remembered as some kind of benign leftist social-welfare experiment, idealistic and well-intentioned in looking after people from cradle to grave, if perhaps a tad over-zealous.
Former human rights activists, political prisoners and historians — of left and right — would have it remembered as it was. Then it might serve as a warning to future generations about the dual seductions of belief and obedience.
A growing degree of Ostalgie — toxic, rose-coloured fantasy — infects misrepresentations of the late state. A visit to the new GDR Museum in Berlin could leave you with the impression that the Stalinist dictatorship was an exercise in mid-century domestic kitsch and a “liberated” nude-bathing culture. For £48 you can stay in the “Stasi Suite” of an hotel offering an eastern experience — minus interrogation or arbitrary imprisonment. You might take a Trabi ride to one of the proliferating “DDR stores” and come away believing that consumers were happy back then with what was on offer. I have heard countless examples of the insidious misremembering of those who can’t afford things in a free society wanting to go back to a past where there was nothing to buy and nowhere to go, and anyone who complained could have his or her life destroyed.
There were some things that could have been examples to us in the West — the documented better sense of self-worth and autonomy of women in the GDR as opposed to West Germany might be one of them. But nothing is worth the price some people paid.
Miriam Weber* is a sparrow of a woman with short hair and round glasses. She was imprisoned as a 16-year-old in the late 1960s for leafleting, and then again for trying to escape over the Wall. Later, her young husband Charlie was taken into custody and died mysteriously in his cell. Miriam spent many years bravely refusing to co-operate with the Stasi and, after the Wall fell, hoping for an explanation of Charlie’s death and some kind of justice. Her extraordinary story became the cornerstone of my book Stasiland.
I asked her recently how she feels, 20 years on. “I feel good!” she says. “Fundamentally. I feel free. Of course, die alten sitzen da.” She means that the old cadres — from the Stasi and the Socialist Unity Party — are still in places of relative privilege. As Faulkner has it, so beautifully: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nothing in contemporary Germany could be truer.
Miriam is a producer at the state public radio station and among her managers are former Stasi informers. At a 20th anniversary commemorative demonstration last month, she says: “All the bosses went along, candles and everything. And we — the former dissidents — were rostered to work.” She laughs deeply; Miriam has the gift of distilling humour from the blackest of ironies, to ward off despair. “It is right though, in a way,” she adds, “because they were there in the crowd 20 years ago. They were there as informers.”
What does it do to a society and to its ability to remember accurately the dictatorship in its recent past, to have those loyal to it still in positions of state responsibility? The judge who signed the warrant for Charlie’s arrest — a charge found to be baseless after the fall of the Wall — is, extraordinarily, still on the bench. Did he switch overnight from being someone who got his orders from the political police to condemn demonstrators for democracy, to someone who could uphold the values for which they they were fighting?
At the radio station, Miriam’s most senior boss, now in charge of this important state-funded media body, was responsible for political commentary at the GDR radio station Stimme der DDR. Was he able to change from being a spokesman for a dictatorship to being a bulwark of democracy against one? In this part of the world there had been no democracy since Hitler took power in 1933.
Miriam relates a telling effect of having former cadres in power at the radio station. After the Wall fell the SED — allegedly with billions in state funds — changed its name to the “Party of Democratic Socialism” and launched itself into the Western electoral system. Today this party still has many members who are former SED or Stasi. It was regularly referred to in news bulletins as “the PDS, successor party to the SED”. That is, until the directive from above to cease mentioning the SED in relation to it. Now, the PDS no longer needs the former comrades in the media to spin its moniker. It has erased all mention of socialism by changing its name to “Die Linke” — The Left. And, in the September elections it won, astoundingly, almost 30 per cent of the vote in some former eastern states and fielded successful, former Stasi informer candidates.
Miriam quips that it’s more likely that the GDR is stealthily taking over the Federal Republic than the other way around. Then she turns serious. “Democracy is being poisoned by the former Easterners,” she says. “Forgetting how the GDR really was and the increase in their power go together.”
One of the few voices in Germany to call for an accurate remembering is the historian Hubertus Knabe, director of the memorial museum at Hohenschönhausen, formerly the main prison for political prisoners in East Berlin. He has faced many threats from organisations of former Stasi men. He says that Miriam’s experiences — the judge still on the bench, the former cadres controlling the media — are “quite typical”. After the Wall fell there was barely any holding to account for the crimes of those in power. Almost all the high-level functionaries retained their positions and their pension rights and are now much better off than their former victims.
“You get more compensation if you were a warder in Bautzen [a notorious jail] than if you were a prisoner there for ten years,” Knabe says. It’s similar to after the Nazi period, he says, when the over-valuing of the continuity of administrative experience meant people kept their jobs. “A big mistake was made in the early 1990s, in that there was no programme for the quick training of new journalists, teachers and, especially, [new people] in the justice system — more than half of all judges and prosecutors stayed in office.”
Knabe tells of one effect of having the old system’s schoolteachers still in control. “If a teacher wanted to bring his class to visit the museum at Hohenschönhausen he would be isolated in his school.”
As a result, today’s generation is shockingly ignorant of the truth of the GDR. A survey in June found the GDR to have its highest approval rating since unification: 57 per cent of people agreed with the statement that the GDR was “more good than bad”, and a majority of schoolchildren were under the illusion that it had a legitimate, democratically elected government.
I have some small experience of former cadres. I was stared down threateningly by a phalanx of vinyl-jacketed former Stasi or Party men at the German launch of Stasiland. (Fittingly, the launch was in the so-called Runde Ecke — the former HQ of the Leipzig Stasi, now a museum about its regime.) Then my German publisher was sued by a group of former cadres who objected to me reporting on the Stasi’s alleged harassment of former activists after the Wall fell. Although all the activities — the cutting of brake leads, the detention of someone’s child for a few hours, the delivery of a ticking package on a doorstep — were on the public record, both the original and subsequent publishers of the book have been cowed into deleting the paragraph (retained in the UK edition).
The former Stasi have been quick to learn how to use democratic means to their ends, in the electoral and the judicial system. They have the habit of power and the funds to wield it. Until their victims — among them many as yet unsung heroes of the resistance — are properly financially compensated and more generally honoured it looks as if the SED and its Stasi lost the Cold War, but prevailed in the end.
Hubertus Knabe asks: “Where are the street names, the school names honouring the resisters?” Or as Miriam puts it: “If the resisters are not properly remembered, the lesson of history looks to be: conformity and collaboration pay, in both the short and the long term.”
Knabe, though, is optimistic about whether the GDR will be remembered accurately in its “criminal character”. “When this generation dies,” he says, “the next might speak more critically.”
But that will be too late for Miriam to live in a place where she could tell me her story under her real name, or feel confident enough of no reprisals at work to have her photograph taken for this article.
Though she too is optimistic. Long ago she told me that after the Wall fell she used to drive up to the Runde Ecke in Leipzig, park outside and just feel “triumph!” I ask her if she still gets that feeling. “I love that it is a museum,” she says. “Even if some people go there for nostalgic reasons, they are still — it’s still — just a museum.”
So much is true: the Stasi headquarters is now a museum. Before I finish our conversation, I think of making a joke about the film Night at the Museum where all the exhibits come back to life . . . but it sticks in my throat.
* Not her real name
The author’s Stasiland was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004. She is now working on a novel based on the true stories of four anti-Hitler activists in exile in London.
Anna Funder joins David Chipperfield, David Edgar, Misha Glenny and Susanne Schädlich for the discussion “Berlin and Beyond” on Monday, November 9 at 7.45pm, at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London SE1.
19 June 2004
It takes less than two hours to get from Leipzig to Berlin, but Miriam had never been there before in her life. Alone in the big city, she bought herself a map at the station. "I wanted to have a look at the border in a few places. I thought, this cannot be for real; somewhere or other you just must be able to get over that thing."
At the Brandenburg Gate she was amazed that she could walk right up to the Wall. She couldn't believe the guards let her get that close. But it was too flat and too high to climb. Later she learned the whole border paraphernalia only started behind the Wall at that spot. "Even if I had been able to get up there, I could only have put my head over and waved hello to the eastern guards." She waves with both hands, and shrugs her shoulders.
By nightfall the chances were looking slim. "I hadn't found any holes in it," Miriam says. She was cold and unhappy. She sat in the suburban train on her way to Alexanderplatz station to catch the regional line home.
It was dark and she felt as if she were going back to prison. The train sluiced between buildings, travelling high up on its stilts. Buildings on both sides, flat concrete facades with rectangular windows, five storeys high. Some lit, some dark; some with plants, some without. Then the vista changed. It took Miriam a moment to notice it in the dark, but suddenly she was going past high wire-mesh fencing. "I thought, if I am travelling along here, and there's this big wire fence right next to me, then West Berlin would have to be just over there on the other side."
A train line in the West and one in the East rarely met in divided Germany. At Bornholmer Bridge the western railway line still swoops down from the northwest to the southwest, and the eastern one up from the southeast to the northeast. The shape they make on the map is like figures in profile performing a Maori nose-kiss. At Bornholmer Bridge the border ran, in theory, along the space between the tracks. In other places in Berlin the border, and with it the Wall, cut a strange wound through the city. The Wall went through houses, along streets, along waterways and sliced underground train lines to pieces. Here, instead of cutting the train line, the East Germans built most of the Wall's fortifications in front of the train line on the East, letting their trains run through to the furthest barrier at the end of the death strip.
Miriam climbed through and over the fences separating the gardens, trying to get closer to the Wall. She got as far as she could until she reached a "great, fat hedge" blocking her path. She rummaged around in someone's tool shed for a ladder, and found one. She put it against the hedge, climbed up and took a long look around. The whole strip was lit by a row of huge street lamps on poles, their heads bent in submission at exactly the same angle. Overhead, fireworks had started to fizz and pop for the New Year.
The Bornholmer Bridge was about 150m away. Between her and the West there were a wire mesh fence, a patrol strip, a barbed-wire fence, a 20m wide road for the guards' personnel carriers and a footpath. "Beyond all of that, I could see the wall I had seen from inside the train, the wall that runs along the train line. I assumed that there, behind it, was the West, and I was right. I could have been wrong, but I was right." If she had any future it was over there, and she needed to get to it.
She says suddenly, "I still have the scars on my hands from climbing the barbed wire, but you can't see them so well now." She holds out her hands. The soft parts of her palms are crazed with definite white scars, each about a centimetre long.
The first fence was wire mesh with a roll of barbed wire along the top. "The strange thing is, you know how the barbed wire used to be looped in a sort of tube along the top of the fence? My pants were all ripped up and I got caught - stuck on the roll. I just hung there. I cannot believe no one saw me."
Miriam must have come unstuck, because the next thing she remembers is getting down on all fours and starting her way across the path, across the wide road and over the next strip. The whole area was lit as bright as day. "I just got down on my knees and went for it. But I was careful. I was very slow"' After the footpath she crossed the wide road. She could not feel her body, she felt invisible. She was nothing but nerve endings and fear.
Why didn't they come for her? What were they doing?
She reached the edge of the road and they still had not come. There was a cable suspended about a metre off the ground. She stopped. "I had seen it from my ladder. I thought it might be some sort of alarm or something, so I went down flat on my belly underneath." She crawled across the last stretch to a kink in the wall and crouched and looked and did not breathe. "I stayed there. I was waiting to see what would happen. I just stared." She thought her eyes would come loose from her skull. Where were the guards?
Something shifted, right near her. It was a dog. The huge German Shep-herd pointed himself in her direction. The cable was not an alarm: it had dogs chained to it. She could not move. The dog did not move. She thought the guards' eyes would follow the pointing dog to her. She waited for him to bark. If she moved away, along the wall, he would go for her.
"I don't know why it didn't attack me. I don't know how dogs see, but maybe it had been trained to attack moving targets, people running across, and I'd gone on all fours. Maybe it thought I was another dog." They held each other's gaze for what seemed a long time. Then a train went by, and, unusually, it was a steam train. The two of them were covered in a fine mist.
"Perhaps then he lost my scent?" she wonders. Eventually, the dog walked away. Miriam waited another long time. "I thought he would come back for me, but he didn't." She climbed the last barbed-wire fence to reach the top of the wall bordering the railway line. She could see the West - shiny cars and lit streets and the Springer Press building. She could even see the western guards sitting at their sentry posts. The wall was broad. She had about four metres to cross on top of it, and then a little railing to get under. That was all there was. She could not believe it. She wanted to run the last few steps, before they caught her.
"The railing was really only so high," she says, putting an arm out to thigh height. "All I had to do was get under it. I had been so very careful and so very slow. Now I thought, you have only four more steps, just RUN before they get you. But here" - she marks an X, over and over, on the map she has drawn for me - "here, was a tripwire." Her voice is very soft. She marks and re-marks the X till I think the paper will tear. "I did not see the wire."
Sirens went off, wailing. The western sentry huts shone searchlights to find her, and to prevent the easterners from shooting her. The eastern guards took her away quickly.
"You piece of shit," a young one said. They took her to the Berlin Stasi HQ. They bandaged her hands and legs, and that was the first time she noticed her blood or felt any pain. The blood was on her face and in her hair.
"But they really hadn't seen me. No-one had even seen me." She came so close. Meanwhile, in the West, the neon shone and overhead fireworks destroyed themselves in the air.
Miriam was returned to Leipzig in the back of a van. The Stasi officer questioning her told her they had contacted her parents, who no longer wanted anything to do with her.
The interrogation of Miriam Weber, aged 16, took place every night, for ten nights, during the six hours between 10pm and 4am. Lights went out in the cell at 8pm, and she slept for two hours before being taken to the interrogation room. She was returned to her cell two hours before the lights went on again at 6am. She was not permitted to sleep during the day. A guard watched through the peephole, and banged on the door if she nodded off.
"Once in a while I'd look at the eye in the peephole as he was hitting the door and I'd think, 'Why don't you just piss off for a change?' and keep dozing. Then the guard would come in, shake me, and take the mattress off the bench so there'd be nothing left to sit on. They really made sure that I didn't sleep. I cannot explain how kaput it makes you feel." Afterwards, I looked it up. Sleep deprivation can mimic the symptoms of starvation, particularly in children - victims become disoriented and cold. They lose their sense of time, becoming locked in an interminable present. Sleep deprivation also causes a number of neurological dysfunctions, which become more extreme the longer it continues. In the end, your waking hours take on the logic of a dream, where odd things are connected, and you are just angry, angry, angry with the world that will not let you rest.
For the Stasi it was beyond comprehension that a 16-year-old with no tools, no training and no help could crawl across their "Anti-Fascist Protective Measure" on her hands and knees. Involuntarily revealing his admiration, the guard who first took her to the interrogation room wanted to know what sports clubs she was in. She wasn't in any.
But the main point of the questioning, night after night, was to extract the name of the underground escape organisation that had helped her. They wanted the names of members, physical descriptions. Whose scheme was it to go on New Year's Eve, when the night was full of noise? How did she know to go to the Bornholmer garden plots if she had never been to Berlin before? Who had taught her to climb barbed wire? And, most insistently, who told her how to get past the dogs?
"They just could not fathom how I'd got past that dog," she says. "Poor dog."
They were not above spite. Miriam was told that even if she had made it over she would have been sent back because she was underage. She protested. "There's no way the westerners would have sent me back here," she told the interrogating officers. "They won't because I am a refugee from political persecution by you people, which all started when I put up leaflets." Miriam puts her chin out, imitating a cheeky kid who still thinks there is a safety net to catch her.
There was one main interrogator, whom she calls Major Fleischer, but sometimes there were two of them. They both had moustaches and bristly, short haircuts, wearing grey uniforms done up tightly. The younger one was so stiff he could have had a baking tray stuffed down his coat. Major Fleischer had hair in his ears. Sometimes he pretended to be her friend, "like a good uncle". At other times he was threatening. "There are other ways we could do this, you know," he would tell her. Her answers remained the same. "I got a tram from Leipzig, I bought a map at the station, I climbed over with a ladder, I went under on my belly, and then I made a run for it."
Ten times twenty-four hours in which you hardly sleep. Ten times twenty-four hours in which you are hardly awake. Ten days is time enough to die, to be born, to fall in love and to go mad. Ten days is a very long time.
What does the human spirit do after ten days without sleep, and ten days of isolation tempered only by nocturnal threat sessions? The answer is, it dreams up a solution.
On the eleventh night, Miriam gave them what they wanted. "I thought, 'You people want an underground escape organisation? Well, I'll give you one then'."
Fleischer had won. "There, then," he said. "That wasn't so bad now, was it? Why didn't you tell us earlier and save yourself all this trouble?" They let her sleep for a fortnight, and gave her one book each week. She read the first one in a day, then started memorising the pages, walking up and down in the cell with the book to her chest.
"In retrospect, it's funny," Miriam says. "But at the time it was pure, unalloyed frustration. I cooked them up a story I would not have believed myself, even then. It was utterly absurd. But they were so wild about getting an escape organisation that they swallowed it. All I wanted to do was sleep."
Auerbach's Cellar is a famous Leipzig institution. It is an underground bar and restaurant with oak bench tables in long alcoves under a curved roof. The walls and ceilings are covered with dark, painted scenes from Goethe's Faust; Faust meeting Mephistopheles, Faust betraying Margarethe, Faust in despair. Goethe used to drink here. It is a good place to meet the devil.
What follows is the story Miriam told the Stasi.
It all began when she was going to meet a friend in Auerbach's Cellar and eat goose-fat rolls. Her friend did not appear, so she sat down at one of the long tables by herself, and started on the food. The place was full; it was nearly Christmas. Four men came and asked if they could share the table. They sat down to eat. Miriam listened to them talk. One of them had a Berlin accent in which gut is pronounced "yut" and ich as "icke".
Miriam is enjoying herself at this point. She looks at me and her face is bright. She is imagining herself at16 and it makes her happy.
"So I said to the man -- the one who looked like the leader, 'Are you from Berlin?' He said, 'Yes.' 'How is it going in Berlin then?' I said." Miriam's eyes widen and she looks like the cartoon boy again.
"'Where do you live in Berlin, then?'
"'Is, uh, is that near the Wall?'
"'Actually, it is... You're not thinking of making a run for it are you?'
"'Yes, I am.'
"'Well, you can't just front up to the Wall and expect to find a spot to climb over! Come with me and I'll give you a tip'."
Miriam said okay. So, her story goes, the five of them left and jumped in a cab. They travelled in a southerly direction, but she wasn't sure where because it was already dark. They went to an apartment on the second - or was it the third - storey of a building? Hard to remember exactly. There was no nameplate on the door, so unfortunately she couldn't say whose place it was. The stranger and his accomplices produced a map of Berlin, and showed her the spot to get over. Then they called another taxi, dropped her back at Auerbach's Cellar and she caught the tram home.
Miriam is laughing. She looks at me as if to say, "Have you everheard such a ridiculous story? Can you believe they swallowed it?" I look back, confused. I try to rearrange my face. What is so improbable about someone offering handy hints on wall-jumping? I feel I am about to have something basic explained to me. My head is cocked like a dog's watching TV; it can't make out what's happening, but it sure is interesting.
Miriam explains, gently, that in the German Democratic Republic it was inconceivable that a person would ask a stranger, a total stranger, whether they lived near the border. It was also inconceivable that the stranger would ask you whether you were thinking of escaping. And it was more inconceivable still that they would then proffer handy escape tips on the spot. Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or other of you could be one of "them". Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence. Miriam could have been denounced by the man for having asked a question about the border and admitting she was thinking of going over, and she could have denounced him in turn for offering to show her how. Underground escape organisations existed in the GDR, but you needed an intermediary to communicate with them. It would never happen so blithely over goose-fat rolls and beer.
Fleischer wanted a name.
"'That I couldn't tell you'," she says she told him. 'I didn't hear them call each other by any name.
"'What did he look like, the leader?'
"'Well, he was about so tall'." She puts her hand in the air above her head. "'And strong looking, well-built, you know'." She is smiling, enjoying her fantasy of a man. "I told him that he was totally bald. Oh, and he had remarkably small feet."
I am laughing myself now, enjoying the child's-eye detail.
"Yep, there you have it. It was pretty much the chrome dome with the remarkably small feet! What's more, I told Fleischer I had the impression he was a regular at Auerbach's Cellar." She laughs too, pulling on a cigarette as she adjusts herself in her chair. Miriam had thought it all through - no matter how many small-footed bald men they found for a line-up, she would fail to recognise any of them.
Two weeks passed before her next interrogation. She was summoned to Fleischer. He had both hands on the table as if restraining himself from throwing it. "'My people'," she says he bellowed, "'have gone and got themselves a case of frostbite on your account. How dare you tell such tales! What could have possessed you to make up such a story?'
"'I wanted to sleep'."
Fleischer said her conduct amounted to deception of the ministry, which was a criminal offence. She would be up for an even longer sentence. And it was going to be bad enough for her, considering she could have started a war.
Miriam thought he must be crazy. Had she jumped over the last railing, he continued, the East German soldiers would have shot at her from behind, and the West Germans would have shot back. She could have been responsible for the outbreak of civil war. Then he softened. She says, "He said, 'But for your sake I will take this little episode out of your file. Never let it be said we didn't give you a fair go'."
Later, Miriam realised he had been protecting himself. Had she been asked in court why she invented such a story, she would have said "because they wouldn't let me sleep". Even in the GDR, sleep deprivation amounted to torture, and torture, at least of minors, was not official policy.
As it was, the judge sentenced her to one-and-a-half years in the women's prison at Hoheneck. And at the end of the three-day trial, he said to her, "Juvenile accused number 725, you realise you could have started the Third World War?"
They were all crazy. And they were locking her up.
Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, is published by Granta.