All That She Is31 August 2012
Few people were surprised when Anna Funder won this year’s Miles Franklin Award for her new novel about anti-Nazi activists in the 1920s and 30s, All That I Am. Demonstrating a passion for challenging political literature, All That I Am joins her Samuel Johnson Prize winning nonfiction work about psychological terror in East Germany, Stasiland.
From her teenage years Funder’s interest in Germany has intensified, through a love of the language, the food, and authors like Thomas Mann and Günter Grass. She completed an honours degree in German at the University of Melbourne then relocated to Berlin. “It’s a culture that I’m very familiar with, so in a way, it’s accidental that these books are set in Germany,” she says on the phone from New York. “Had I studied Chinese I probably would have written about China and never have been able to travel there again. So in a way, it’s quite lucky.”
In Berlin, Funder learnt of the horrific repression the Stasi secret police inflicted upon East Germans before the wall fell. She felt this chapter of German history had not yet been sufficiently explored, and began interviewing ex-Stasi men and their victims to produce Stasiland, a chilling piece of literary journalism.
She says her status as an outsider was invaluable in gaining an inside grasp of what happened behind the Iron Curtain. “I was writing Stasiland when I was in my late twenties. To be a young woman interviewing those men was very interesting. I think they told me a lot more than they would have perhaps a West German, and certainly than they would have an older man”.
These experiences influenced the way she constructed the book. “I would have written Stasiland as a work of fiction except that it was not appropriate to fictionalise those lives at that time, when the people that I was writing about were real and they were rubbing elbows with their former interrogators and prison officers.”
Throughout Stasiland Funder evokes a depressingly grey atmosphere. Perhaps replicating the murky morals of Stasi men, Funder explains “East Germany was literally grey because there was no advertising, limited street lighting and limited paint”. Questioned on whether she appreciates the morbid, Funder laughs. She thinks dark aesthetics highlight bravery and fortitude in people, and that these qualities can still be brought forth in such places of gloom.
With her new novel All That I Am, it seems Funder has enjoyed the move to fiction. “I think I have more leeway in fiction. I was much freer to imagine what it was like to be so brave and what it was like to be so afraid”. However, the two books do share similar traits. “I’ve written one book which is at one level an extremely deeply thought out analysis and critique of a left-wing regime. At another very basic level, All That I Am is an account of the disastrous effects, in advance, of a right-wing regime”.
As with Stasiland, All That I Am seeks to convey to a wider audience a little known episode of German history. Activists were deeply shaken by World War I and envisaged a German society that would never again make the mistake of going to war. Their methods were almost guerrilla in nature—such as unplugging microphones during Hitler’s radio broadcasts, and secretly distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets.
Yet the odds were stacked against them. The left-wing splinter groups to which they belonged were deeply divided by mistrust and did not fully comprehend the threat Hitler posed.They were given no support and were persecuted by the Gestapo many years before World War II while seeking refuge in Britain.
To this was added the passivity of the German public’s reaction to Nazism. It is the tragedy of this apathy that Funder so expertly conveys. However, she is wary of persistent stereotypes—such as Germans being submissive to authority. Her two books are quick to challenge this notion, documenting the courage of ‘ordinary’ Germans prepared to act on their conscience and stand up to oppressive regimes. Another is the language being ‘ugly’. “It does sound quite guttural but I love it. If you hear it spoken by a kid or a young woman it can be incredibly beautiful”.
However, the most widespread and serious stereotype is the assumption that all Germans were Nazis, or, in the post-war years, communists. Funder asserts, “Not all Germans were Nazis and not all Germans were communists. One of my interests is in how people become bystanders and how we are implicated in the governments of the countries that we belong to, whether we want to be or not”.
An ugly repercussion of this prejudice has been the anti-German rhetoric from disgruntled Greeks during this year’s European debt crisis. Having visited Greece this year, Funder was shocked. “I’m surprised by how retrograde and how unoriginal the adoption of the symbols and languages of Nazi Germany has been.”
This attitude highlights the larger issue of how European countries are perceived after their involvement in twentieth century conflicts. “These battles for how the winners and losers come out in their own imagination, and in the world’s imagination, go on for many years after any conflagration. It takes a very long time for the dust to settle and for some realistic evaluation of what went on to occur.”
“Central Europe is at the heart of our culture,” Funder continues. “Why it resonates so deeply is because we are shocked that this could happen in such a technologically and intellectually advanced culture. That’s deeply shocking and that’s different from other wars.”
There are lessons to learn from this bloodstained episode of European history. Funder definitely sees parallels in the political activities of the refugees in All That I Am to those in contemporary Australia. “Asylum seekers in Australia do engage in political activity and it mostly exists in the form of suicide and self-immolation. I think that we will reflect on that in years to come and be ashamed.”