A few months ago, I took a tour of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin. The last time I was there was in January 1990 to see demonstrators storming the compound. Most of the members of the German band I was with this time weren’t born when the wall came down. Beside me, however, was a man who I assume was in his sixties. I watched him as he watched the guide, his eyes narrowing with each explanation of their techniques. Was he, I wondered, a former state security agent? Was he one of hundreds of thousands of informants? Was he a victim?
I remembered that nagging uncertainty while reading The poetic circle of the Stasi, Philip Oltermann’s captivating portrait of the era through a bizarre lens. Unknown to most people, certainly to me (I was a correspondent during the agony of communist East Germany), one of the weapons she sought to deploy against the capitalist enemy was poetry.
The Working Circle of Writing Chekists – the shorthand nickname for the Soviet secret police – met at the headquarters of the elite guard once a week to discuss the sonnet. On one side of the heavily reinforced seminar room was a portrait of Communist Party leader Erich Honecker, on the other Vladimir Lenin.
As the German Democratic Republic was formed out of Nazism and the division of Europe, it was decreed that literature would be a central pillar of the new state. “Now we must also scale and seize the heights of culture,” said Walter Ulbricht, the first leader of the Socialist Unity party. The workers were required to perfect themselves by going to the opera or the theater, according to a distribution of tickets by factory. A decree stipulates that large companies have an internal library. A target is even set (90% of the adult population) for reading Goethe and Pushkin. Poetry was integral to the notion of socialist self-improvement.
The author came across this little-known aspect of life in the GDR mentioned briefly in an article in Der Spiegel magazine in 2006. He avoids both mockery and Ostalgia, the tendency of some in the East (usually those who have made it out of the system quite well) to look back wistfully. He seeks to make the difference between the first years and the later ones. The fledgling GDR, he suggests, had not yet been emptied of its color or its aspirations. Instead, he was “brimming with utopian hope, feverish creative ambition, and sometimes absurdly idealistic expectations”.
Half a dozen dramatic characters, the main role is played by a man called Uwe Berger, the supervisor of the Working Circle. Berger apparently produced 20 volumes of poetry, essays, and novels in as many years. He was the most published poet of Neues Deutschland, the party daily, in addition to being a member of the board of directors of the writers’ union and vice-president of the cultural association founded under the name of “intellectual parliament”.
He reserved his most prolific output, however, for denouncing other poets. He used flowery language to denounce critical writers as “opposition gangs” who “struggle for hegemony” in order to carry out “frontal assaults”. The question writers should be asking, Berger presumptively told the writers’ union, is, “Does the poem serve the truth or not?”
Did any of the poems serve poetry? The following, written by a man named Björn Vogel, the second oldest member of the poetic circle, has a certain Stasi swagger as he attempts to imbue the work of the omniscient agent with glamor:
Between night and morning
A radio call
Phones are ringing, tickers are chatting.
Tired yawns, but excited concentration.
The protagonists have complex motives and mixed results. I will reveal just one: a rebellious teenager named Annegret Gollin, pulled from the streets by the Stasi in broad daylight and interrogated 36 times about her modest poetic output. She ended up becoming a tourist guide in Angela Merkel’s chancellery.
One of the paradoxes of the GDR is that artists were often among the first to fall victim to the Stasi. And yet, in 1989, they and others who considered themselves genuine socialists were the most hostile to reunification. They wanted to reform their existing state.
At the end of this gripping tale, one can sense the author’s frustration as he struggles today to persuade his characters to think about their own stories. Some of the poets are dead; some refuse to meet; others tell half-truths.
Which brings me back to the man I sat next to at Stasi HQ. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him which one he was. Maybe it was better to leave it that way.
The poetic circle of the Stasi: The creative writing class that tried to win the Cold War by Philippe Olterman, Faber & Faber £14.99, 224 pages
John Kampfner is the author of ‘Why the Germans Do Better‘ (Atlantic)
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