The Stasi Poetry Circle: The Creative Writing Class that Tried to Win the Cold War
Faber & Faber
At first glance, the premise seems outrageous: the East German secret police are organizing a writing group for their officers and agents to write and critique poetry? The Stasi secret police were one of the most despised state agencies in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), exercising close surveillance in the professional and private lives of citizens seen as hostile to state ideology . Rummaging through these startling stories for her book, The poetic circle of the StasiGerman-born British journalist Philip Oltermann spent six years tracking down the files as well as members of what was called the “Working Circle of Writing Chekists”, active from 1981 to 1989.
One of the creative writing enthusiasts was Johannes Becher, a German poet who lived in exile during the Nazi regime, then returned to East Germany and was appointed Minister of Culture. Becher was a strong proponent of the idea that creative writing could have a positive impact on shaping the social conditions of the GDR, and his influence was significant during the formative years of the new nation. His initial call to create a literate and creative population included libraries, with on-site librarians, in factories across the country to encourage workers to read sanctioned poems and novels. Oltermann notes that when the Writing Chekists were first formed, members of the ministry were encouraged to “submit poems, short stories, song lyrics or short anecdotes that express their ‘love of country, optimism and their joie de vivre, as well as friendship with the Soviet Union.
Oltermann’s research was aided by the Stasi Archives Act, established in 1991 in reunified Germany, which allows Germans and foreigners to view files the Stasi kept about them. Often through coercion, the Stasi notoriously enlisted citizens to serve as informants, ordering people to spy on their spouses, parents, neighbors, teachers and others. As such, a person’s Stasi record can reveal devastating acts of treason.
Oltermann tells the story of receiving the Stasi dossier for Uwe Berger, who was the head of the Stasi poetry circle. Berger was perhaps more effective as an informant than as a poet. Beginning in 1970, Berger regularly filed reports on people he observed on the street, people he knew well, and significantly, he pointed out authors whose writing did not adhere to the ideology. of the GDR. As a manuscript reviewer for Aufbau, his publishing house, Berger had access to books being considered for publication. He filed reports with Aufbau, and then with the Stasi if he had concerns about an author’s political standing. Writing his memoirs after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berger claimed that his role as an informant quickly became boring and after a few years he asked to be relieved of this role. He claims the Stasi granted his request but assigned him to lead the Stasi poetry circle rather than serve as a spy.
Although Berger was the leader of the Stasi Poetry Circle, Oltermann’s criticism of Berger’s poetry does not describe him as a writer inclined to use the techniques of poetry. Craftsmanship and socialism can co-exist, but they did not in Berger’s work. Oltermann notes that Berger used plain language and avoided metaphor, even moving away from overly descriptive language. If this was Berger’s idea of poetry, how did it serve to inspire and critique Stasi members who were part of the poetry circle?
As his object of study, Oltermann mixes poetry and politics in his writing. The chapters are called “Lessons”, each chapter having a title and definition related to the writing: character, dissonance and broken rhyme among them. The titles correspond to the content of the chapter, as in Lesson 8: Heroic Poetry, which tells the story of Alexander Ruika, a skillful young poet whose membership in the circle was marked by a writing that did not easily adhere to desire. to use verse as an uplifting, transforming force for an oppressed population.
Oltermann is a character in his own story, although his first-person narrative appears sporadically and suddenly. An example is in his discussion of Ruika’s experience of being directed by the Stasi to serve as an informant. Oltermann reports that Ruika’s service ends, and then the author looks at Ruika’s poems, not having a sense of change in place. A more cohesive presence of the narrator guiding readers through his research might have created a stronger feeling of pathos. The poetic circle of the Stasi is otherwise well-structured and a timely reminder of the importance of art as part of or in opposition to state ideology.