Philip Oltermann’s account of how the Stasi decided to use poems as a means of fighting capitalism is fascinating, strange and troubling
The folk singer Woody Guthrie famously scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. Such dramatic sloganeering is the privilege of youth and a grand illusion; with age comes acceptance that music – art in general – carries no serious threat. Or does it? In the 1980s, the Stasi, East Germany’s much-feared secret police, decided that the best way to fight the creep of capitalism was not with bombs and rockets but with a stealth weapon of unstable potential: poetry.
Philip Oltermann’s engrossing The Stasi Poetry Circle recounts a history so outlandish and unlikely that you feel it must be true. The author was inspired to investigate after running his own poetry group for pensioners at a day centre in London’s King’s Cross . How had a brutal spy agency alighted on poetry, “this vaguest of disciplines”, as a tool for training its employees? His research brings him into contact with soldiers and border guards who attended monthly meetings of “writing Chekists” at the Adlershof compound, a place so secret it didn’t even feature on a map of Berlin. Here, they would mull over the finer points of verse while bearing in mind the writer Friedrich Wolf’s stern credo: “The material of our age lies in front of us, hard as iron. Poets are working to forge it into a weapon. The worker has to pick up this weapon.” You can almost hear the sound of pens being chewed.
Overseeing this inky mission was the circle’s leader, Uwe Berger, who, after some searching, believed he had found his star student. Alexander Ruika was a recruit who had followed his colonel father into the Guards Regiment, an elite training ground for Stasi recruits. What separated Ruika from his fellow versifiers was his use of figurative language, the “mastery of metaphor” that Aristotle believed was the mark of genius. Oltermann traces his early successes – a string of awards, publication in prestigious literary magazines – but also hears a dissenting voice in his poems that suggests Ruika was not a model Chekist but “the Hamlet of the Stasi poetry circle”, a soul at war with himself. His ambivalence becomes almost a test case in this account – how to reconcile the free fluidities of poetry with the ideological constrictions of communism. Be prepared for a sting in the tale.
Berger implied that his work as an informant came to an end once he took over the poetry circle at Adlershof
Contradiction also animates the story of Berger, the man at the centre of the web. A mediocre poet who won vast acclaim, he had refused to join the Socialist Unity party and yet had accumulated significant influence within the state. A total of 620,000 informers were listed on the Stasi’s books between 1950 and 1989, their role to report on dodgy tendencies and opinions among the populace. The GDR was, in effect, a nation of curtain-twitchers. Berger had been approached to join them as an “informal collaborator” and apparently took to the work with alacrity, turning out a steady flow of lies, half-truths and obfuscations. In 1982, he was rewarded by the Stasi with a silver “brotherhood in arms” medal for his efforts, though in a memoir he wrote after the Berlin Wall came down he makes no mention of it or of his reports. He implied that his work as an informant came to an end once he took over the poetry circle at Adlershof, whereas we now know this posting marked a sinister new chapter in his snitching career.
Oltermann’s intention is to understand not merely the mind of the spy but the spied-upon, with a sympathy that makes the book close kin of the German film The Lives of Others. He adduces the Kafkaesque example of Annegret Gollin, a writer arrested and sentenced to prison “on the basis of a single poem that was never published”. An adventurous, independent-minded young woman who liked dancing and hitchhiking – a “tramper” in the suspicious terminology of the Stasi – Gollin was a rebel spirit who felt estranged from the party and the counterculture. Having moved to Zwickau aged 23, she joined two poetry circles where her nonconformist views were soon noted; she was eventually shopped to the Stasi and interrogated over the exact meaning of a poem, Concretia, about the proliferation of concrete high-rises. As Oltermann observes, it was as if she had been caught “building homemade explosives” rather than writing a few lines of verse. After several interviews in which she had to explain her work, Gollin was sentenced to 20 months in prison for “public vilification of an organ of the state”. Her son was packed off to a children’s home.
Reading these stories of bureaucratic paranoia inclines you to wonder if the Stasi’s poetry programme wasn’t merely a willed distraction from the reality on its doorstep. After all, how could a nation right on the fault line of the east-west nuclear war zone possibly lose sleep over the smallholdings of poetic endeavour? And yet spying took a stranglehold on East Germany. As the population shrank the numbers of people employed by the Stasi multiplied; in the 1960s, it doubled in size and doubled again in the 1970s. Later, Oltermann focuses upon the career of poet-novelist Gert Neumann, whose books were so cryptic that nobody in the culture ministry could properly understand them: he was “a locksmith by trade and he wrote like one”. Nonetheless he was subjected to close surveillance and harassment that essentially amounted to gaslighting. When the Stasi felt that even this wasn’t enough it recruited his mother to spy on him. (Film idea: The Lives of Mothers.) How Neumann’s story intersects with that of Alexander Ruika is one of the happier episodes in this grippingly well-written book.
• The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply