The inner lives of others — The Stasi Poetry Circle: The Creative Writing Class that Tried to Win the Cold War by Philip Oltermann review

How soul-seeking secret agents looked to sonnets for ideological salvation in the literary circles of the German Democratic Republic.
The stormed Stasi headquarters, 1990. Credit: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia.
The stormed Stasi headquarters, 1990. Credit: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia.
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The sonnet (literally, a ‘little song’) is a form of poetry that most people associate with expressions of romantic love. Its 14-line structure and strict rhyme pattern appealed to such writers as William Shakespeare, John Keats and John Milton. We don’t, however, tend to associate such passionate poetry with the agents of a ruthless secret police organisation. Yet, East Germany’s Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi, perhaps the most extensive security apparatus the world has ever seen, encouraged its members to bare their inner souls through rhyme and verse. 

The Stasi’s ‘Working Circle of Writing Chekists’ was formed in 1962, a year after the Berlin Wall cemented the divide between East and West Germany. It was a small group consisting of agents, border guards, members of the Stasi’s armed watch regiment and new recruits. They met once a month to read, write and discuss poetry – both material the members themselves had written as well as the works of others. 

If the thought of secret police agents reading sonnets to one another seems too strange to be true, pick up a copy of Philip Oltermann’s delightful book, The Stasi Poetry Circle. The reader is taken behind the Iron Curtain, into a seemingly bizarre world of ideological warfare, misguided idealism and escalating paranoia. 

Oltermann retraces his own steps. During an early midlife crisis, he reconnected with his old love for literature and poetry. Volunteering at a day-centre for the elderly in London, where he led a literary circle, the German-born journalist was reminded of something he had read about years earlier: a poetry group of an altogether different kind. He began to investigate and uncovered a truly remarkable story.

Rather than approaching the idea of a ‘red poets society’ with ridicule, the author was evidently intrigued by the people and concepts involved and tried to understand them. Starting with one of the group’s anthologies, a little red book called We About Us, a copy of which he managed to acquire, he began to track down former spy poets, as well as documents in archives that could give an insight into their mindset. 

As The Stasi Poetry Circle cleverly interweaves fascinating detective work in the present with the glimpses into the past it reveals, Oltermann takes the time to explain ideas, places and the historical context, without ever losing momentum.

The German Democratic Republic must seem an unlikely place for the creative arts to flourish – at least from an outside point of view. Countless books and films, from John le Carré’s output to The Lives of Others, have created an image of a grey, soulless place whose political leadership followed an ideology solely based on control and coercion. While such assertions are not entirely baseless, the truth is, as so often, more complicated. 

In 1945, many Germans really believed in the idea of building a better society on the ashes of the old. The communists entrusted with this process in the East by the Soviet victors of the Second World War had languished in exile or in Nazi prisons for years. They really believed a new society needed a new soul. Literature seemed a suitable way into the hearts and minds of the population. Writers were therefore classed as key workers, even in the darkest days of rationing. They received better rations of food and care packages, the same privileges afforded to other important ‘rebuilders’ of Germany, such as roofers, miners and bricklayers.

Johannes R. Becher was one such poet who sought to re-educate his compatriots. Upon returning from Soviet exile after the war, he became a leading member of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) as well as the country’s culture minister. He believed that the ‘sonnet had a role to play in building socialism’. As Oltermann explains, he argued that the three-part structure of an idea (thesis), the contradiction of that idea (anthesis) and the solution of this conflict (synthesis) mirrored the transition from a bourgeois system to communism. People of all walks of life should therefore be encouraged to read, write and express themselves lyrically.

To that end, the rigid links between literacy and social background had to be broken. The GDR wanted the worker to write and the writer to work. Becher’s vision became a reality after his death in 1958. In April 1959, the SED held a conference with leading authors and the result was the so-called Bitterfeld Path, which aimed to bridge the divide between the intelligentsia and the working classes. Writers were placed in factories or coal mines and ran ‘circles of writing workers’ under the motto ‘Pick up the quill comrade!’ Within a few years, each branch of industry had its own writing circle. There were eventually 300 of them. 

These were by no means a political initiative forced upon unwilling subjects, but genuine places of creativity and inspiration. Some of the most talented GDR writers started their careers this way. Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel Divided Heaven, which became a bestseller on both sides of the Berlin Wall and dealt critically with the environment in the GDR, was born out of her experiences during a placement at a train wagon manufacturer, where she had led the literary circle. 

The government wanted to decodify high culture and make it accessible for everyone. Theatres and opera houses handed out tickets to factories and universities. In 1973, a decree prescribed that larger factories must have a library with 500-1,000 books, complete with an in-house librarian. If the company had 5,000-10,000 employees, some 18,000 to 30,000 books had to be stocked. The little GDR printed six to nine books per head every year on average – a figure only rivalled by the Soviet Union and Japan at the time. And the culture of reading paid off. A 1990 study showed that the average reading comprehension of East German eighth graders was significantly higher than that of their West German counterparts. Oltermann puts it well when he muses that the GDR had a ‘quasi-religious relationship with the written word’.

Naturally, the Stasi did not want to miss out on the reading frenzy and began to think about setting up its own group of ‘Writing Chekists’ from 1960; Oltermann traces its fascinating output, from the silly to the serious. 

There are unexpected light moments in the book that highlight the human facets of some of the Stasi agents. One of the literary circle’s early coordinators, Rolf-Dieter Mehlis, a handsome, 38-year-old member of the Guards Regiment with slicked back hair, had a penchant for light and humorous poetry. He saw the group as a creative place ‘where you could let it all hang out’. Unsurprisingly, the men in their late teens who were the Stasi’s freshest recruits took him by his word and used the circle to pen love poetry of varying quality. Oltermann provides some choice examples, including the musings of one young recruit who described how the kiss of a young maiden had promoted him beyond his military rank, to ‘a lance corporal of love’. Naturally, this was followed by his wish to be elevated to ‘at least a general’ next. 

But such frivolity was soon frowned upon. Under the first formal leader of the circle, Uwe Berger, its members were taught structured writing techniques and exposed to literature by socialist writers such as Berthold Brecht. As the Aufbau publishing house of the GDR began to reprint the books the Nazis had burnt, so Berger’s charges read and discussed them. The group’s work became more political and more serious. The GDR’s leader from 1971, Erich Honecker, proudly announced that he ran a ‘country of readers’ as opposed to the ‘bestseller country’ on the other side of the border.

But granting an entire nation access to a high degree of literacy and critical thinking techniques meant that the government found it increasingly difficult to control what people read, thought and wrote. Even the Stasi agents in the literary circle began to pen dark, brooding and critical work that discussed the political, social and economic situation in the GDR. They watched more and more Western films from the Stasi’s own collection. Their disaffection with the realities of the 1980s was deep and genuine. 

As Oltermann points out, ‘East Germany had always believed in the romantic idea of socialism with more heart and soul than the rest of the bloc’. Socialist Germans saw their republic as a way to ‘distance themselves wholly from Germany’s brutal Nazi past’. Writers like Christa Wolf, who struggled throughout her career to reconcile her socialist ideals with the ‘actually existing socialism’ around her, exemplify this. In the same way, Oltermann’s exploration of the Stasi Poetry Circle is a brilliantly written case study of the condition of East Germany itself.

The Stasi Poetry Circle: The Creative Writing Class that Tried to Win the Cold War by Philip Oltermann, Faber & Faber, pp 224, £14.99

Katja Hoyer

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and journalist. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Katja writes for The Washington Post, The Spectator, Die Welt and other newspapers on current political affairs in Germany and Europe. She is the author of the bestselling Blood and Iron - The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.

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