At first glance, the premise seems outrageous: the East German secret police organizes a writing group for its 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), conducting close surveillance in the professional and private lives of citizens thought to be antagonistsic toward state ideology. Digging into these surprising stories for his book, The Stasi Poetry Circle, German-born British journalist Philip Oltermann spent six years tracking down files as well as members of what was known as the “Working Circle of Writing Chekists”, which was active from 1981 to 1989.
One of the enthusiasts for creative writing was Johannes Becher, a German poet who lived in exile during the Nazi regime and then returned to East Germany and was named culture minister. Becher was a vocal 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 original call to create a literate, creatively-engaged citizenry included libraries, with onsite librarians, in factories across the nation to encourage workers to read sanctioned poems and novels. Oltermann notes that when the Writing Chekists first formed, members of the Ministry were encouraged to “submit poems, short stories, song lyrics, or short anecdotes that gave expression to their ‘love of the homeland, optimism and joie de vivre, as well as friendship with the Soviet Union.’”
Oltermann’s research was aided by the Stasi Records Law, established in 1991 in reunified Germany, that allows Germans and foreigners to view the files that the Stasi kept about them. Often through coercion, the Stasi notoriously enlisted citizens to serve as informants, directing people to spy on their spouses, parents, neighbors, teachers, and others. As such, a person’s Stasi file might reveal devastating acts of betrayal.
Oltermann tells the story of being given the Stasi file for Uwe Berger, who was the leader 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 in the streets, people he knew well, and significantly, he reported authors whose writing did not adhere to GDR ideology. As a manuscript reviewer for Aufbau, his publishing house, Berger had access to books under consideration for publication. He filed reports to Aufbau, and then to the Stasi if he had concerns about an author’s political stance. Writing his memoir after the Berlin Wall came down, Berger claimed that his role as an informant quickly became tiresome and after a few years, he asked to be relieved of the role. He claims the Stasi granted his request but tasked him with leading the Stasi Poetry Circle rather than serving as a spy.
Although Berger was the leader of the Stasi Poetry Circle, Oltermann’s critique of Berger’s poetry does not paint him as a writer inclined to use the techniques of poetry. Craft and socialism can coexist, but they did not in Berger’s work. Oltermann notes that Berger used plain language and avoided metaphor, even straying from overly descriptive language. If this was Berger’s idea of poetry, how did he serve to inspire and critique members of the Stasi who were part of the poetry circle?
Like his object of study, Oltermann blends poetry and politics in his writing. Chapters are called “Lessons”, with each chapter bearing a title and definition related to writing: persona, dissonance, and broken rhyme among them. The titles correspond to the chapter content, as in Lesson 8: Heroic Poetry, which tells the story of Alexander Ruika, a skilled young poet whose membership in the circle was marked by writing that did not readily adhere to the desire to use verse as an uplifting, transformation force for a downtrodden populace.
Oltermann is a character in his own history, although his first-person narrative appears sporadically and suddenly. One instance 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, then the author is looking over Ruika’s poems, without a sense of the shift in place. A more consistent presence of the narrator leading readers through his research could have created a stronger sense of pathos. The Stasi Poetry Circle is otherwise well structured and is a timely reminder of the importance of art as part of, or antithetical to, state ideology.