The best books about life under the Stasi

The Books I Picked & Why

In Times of Fading Light

By Eugen Ruge

Book cover of In Times of Fading Light

Why this book?

In Times of Fading Light is a masterful five-decade family saga that melds the personal and the political to create a fascinating portrait of East Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Intelligent, fearless, and full of dark humor, it is both an ingeniously structured page-turner, moving back and forward in time, and a literary tour de force. Eugen Ruge was a 35-year-old playwright when the Wall fell, and In Times of Fading Light, published in 2011, was his first novel. It provides a rich understanding of how people lived and loved in East Germany that scotches both nostalgia for the old East and Western clichés. Shining a bright light into the darker corners of family dynamics, it is also a tale with universal resonance. 

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They Divided the Sky: A Novel

By Christa Wolf, Luise Von Flotow

Book cover of They Divided the Sky: A Novel

Why this book?

They Divided the Sky, which is set in 1960-61 and was published in 1963, offers a rare first-hand insight into the period leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961. As one of East Germany’s leading writers, Christa Wolf enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom of expression, and this novel wrestles openly with the central question that afflicted many East Germans of whether to stay in the East or defect to the “decadent” West. Written in flashbacks, They Divided the Sky transports us to that highly charged time, offering an evocative portrait of the socialist project in East Germany when it was still fresh and meaningful for many East Germans, including Wolf. 

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Kairos: Roman

By Jenny Erpenbeck

Book cover of Kairos: Roman

Why this book?

Kairos is the story of an affair between a late-middle-aged man and a young woman set in the dying days of the German Democratic Republic. The disappearing nation is almost incidental to the main plot, which charts the peaks and troughs of an unequal and sometimes abusive relationship. For me, this light touch says everything about what it was like to live in East Germany. People were mainly just getting on with their lives, as they do everywhere. The book’s closing chapters explore emotions that were too often overlooked in the rush towards reunification: the dismay and disorientation that afflicted many East Germans, especially older ones, as their institutions were dismantled and they became foreigners in their own land. 

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The Architects

By Stefan Heym

Book cover of The Architects

Why this book?

Set in 1955-56, The Architects by German-Jewish author Stefan Heym is a rare find. It delivers a stark portrait of East Germany in the period around Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin, which Heym lived through. The author uses the politics of architecture to expose hypocrisy and personal jealousy in the new “anti-Fascist” German state. At the heart of the book is a devastating personal betrayal that gives the lie to communist claims of moral superiority. Written in the 1960s’, The Architects is a searing critique of the New Germany by a convinced socialist. This helps explain why Heym wrote it in English and did not publish it until 2000, a year before his death, in his own German translation.

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Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

By Anna Funder

Book cover of Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Why this book?

Stasiland is a gripping non-fiction account of personal histories from the former East Germany told retrospectively. We live alongside Australian writer Anna Funder amidst fast-changing 1990s Berlin as she meets Stasi men and those who resisted them. We learn of their struggles in East German times and beyond through her outsider’s eye. Some may balk at the book’s personal tone, but for me, Funder pulls it off. I found this first-person blend of memoir and journalistic investigation to be utterly irresistible. 

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