#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE STASI POETRY CIRCLE by Philip Oltermann

I do hope this remarkable book is made into a film. It has touches of The Lives of Others mingled with Goodbye Lenin and Wings of Desire – those atmospheric and quietly chilling films about Cold War Berlin and Germany – yet this story is completely true, and definitely stranger than fiction. 

The Stasi Poetry Circle is a meticulously researched, witty and engagingly written work of non-fiction by German-born author and journalist, Philip Oltermann, who is also the Guardian’s chief Berlin correspondent. This is investigative and original journalism at its best, for not only did Oltermann spend five years tracking down and interviewing the surviving Stasi poets, he also revisited the scenes of their (literary) crimes, trawled through hundreds of Stasi files, read and translated reams of poetry from German, and, as an English literature graduate who knows his pentameters from his palinodes, he was able to analyse it all on our behalf. 

The book describes the forty-year cultural history of the German Democratic Republic, a context that is invaluable for laying the intellectual groundwork for its literature. I studied the literature of East Germany at university and later, as a BBC journalist, met several of the GDR’s top writers, such as Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym and Ulrich Plenzdorf. I also interviewed a few of its spies – most memorably of all, the spymaster Markus Wolf, who was himself also a writer as well as being the son of Friedrich Wolf, one of the main architects of East Germany’s cultural policy. That history was known to me, but Oltermann’s book taught me so much I didn’t know. I had certainly never heard of the titular – and utterly bizarre – group of spies, soldiers and border guards who met secretly once a month from 1982-1989 in the Adlershof, a secure military compound, to read and write poetry. Its members, Stasi employees of all ages, were collectively known as the ‘Working Group of Writing Chekists’, ‘Chekists’ being the abbreviation for the Soviet secret police. They published regular anthologies, starting with Wir Über Uns (‘We About Us’) in 1984. 

The group’s leader was Uwe Berger, a totally unremarkable writer who was nonetheless widely published in the GDR. Berger proclaimed that ‘a good poet tells the truth and nothing but the truth’, and his mission was that poetry should ‘rouse emotion and boost the hunger for victory in class warfare.’ Culture and literature were central pillars of socialism, integrated into the East German notion of state-building, and the early decades of the GDR were indeed full of utopian hopes and ideals. Erich Honecker himself described the GDR as ‘a nation of readers’, in which there was no distinction between workers and intellectuals, and where writers’ circles met in factories. As Oltermann discovers, by the end of 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, there were still about 300 such writers’ groups. Understandably, as he comments drily, the Stasi didn’t want to be left out. That they spied on other writers was widely known, but that they ran their own creative writing group was not. In 1982, with the Cold War at its height, this most loyal Soviet satellite needed every weapon at its disposal – including poetry.

You could argue that the best poetry is subversive, imaginative and revealing of our innermost thoughts – the very opposite of thought control and state paranoia. Which is why the Stasi poetry circle was doomed from the outset. As interviewee Jürgen Polinske recalls to Oltermann, the first poetry workshop he attended at the Adlershof in 1982 had started off promising. He was a young border guard at the time, had written some poetry in his youth, and wanted to develop his skills: ‘I had artistic ambitions, and I thought I could learn something from the real poets who ran the workshop.’ He was disappointed – lyricism, metaphors, love poetry, ambiguity, and flourishes of fantasy were discouraged. There were fifteen regular poets under the tutelage of poet-in-chief Uwe Berger, and they covered the gamut, from stanzas to heroic poetry. Polinske’s poetry was, like much of what Oltermann read during his research, technically accomplished but nothing more, rarely scaling the heroic heights of inspirational political propaganda longed for by Berger and the Stasi:

Come

Let us talk

Set your world to right

Come

Let’s have a chat

About my latest plight

Come

If you are down in the dumps.

Or this, from Berger himself:

Good it is to tell the people: this is right,

And thus you must act! Better still to let them

Recognise themselves what is right, so they desire 

To play their part in the transformation …

Some talent did emerge. Alexander Ruika, a promising teenage poet, was inspired initially by freethinking socialist writers like Wolf Biermann, who defected to the West. Ruika was hounded by the Stasi and eventually recruited in 1984, with a mission to inspire other writers – a role he was obviously ambivalent about:

Away with the masks

The world of humans no longer a hunting ground

Admit you are yourself

Accept yourself

And your neighbour too.

Berger himself began to spy on his own poets, untrusting even of those he had groomed. In the closing years of the East German state, the Stasi were increasingly paranoid and hyperactive. Nothing could save the GDR from implosion and failure – especially not poetry. The young Annegret Gollin, one of the few female Stasi poetry recruits, was arrested, imprisoned and interrogated on the basis of one unpublished fifteen-line poem about a concrete housing block. ‘Concretia’ is reprinted in full in The Stasi Poetry Circle. I perused it several times, reading the lines and then reading between them, but discovered nothing subversive. I would urge you to read it for yourself. Read the whole book. It’s marvellous. The Chekist writers’ final anthology was planned for December 1989. The manuscript still exists. But by then the Wall had fallen, the Circle was broken, and it was too late. Unless, of course, Philip Oltermann plans to publish a follow-up anthology …

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

THE STASI POETRY CIRCLE

By Philip Oltermann

Published by Faber (2022)

March 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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