The full title of Oltermann’s latest book – The Stasi Poetry Circle: How a creative poetry class tried to win the Cold War – is surely a joke. The Stasi, who modelled themselves on the Cheka, the Russian secret police, getting in touch with their finer emotions? But no, there was much “ideological fervour, borne of a will to distance itself wholly from Germany’s Nazi past”, and a genuine feeling that “a country could learn from its immediate history and build a new state around its literary heritage. The promise that high literacy will necessarily bring out the best in us”. And so Uwe Berger was tasked with turning Stasi recruits into East German bards. At the Adlershof, a compound so secret it never featured on maps of Berlin!
The book is itself structured around poetry, as if Oltermann is inviting us to participate in this workshop ourselves. Following the first introductory chapter, or lesson, there are eleven more named after types of poetry or figures of speech. Starting with the sonnet and ending with the epitaph. In these Oltermann weaves the history of the GDR with the stories and treatment of its poets. Not all of them Circle of Writing Chekists in GDR-speak and not all talented. The irony is that Uwe Berger, the tutor, much lauded in GDR times, was a mediocre poet at best. Yet he could recognise talent when it crossed his path. And it did in the form of Alexander Ruika. The poems that Oltermann has unearthed (and translated) demonstrate this in abundance. Yet Ruika, recipient of multiple awards, suddenly drops from view. Why? Might it be something to do with the nickname Oltermann uses: The “Hamlet of the Stasi Poetry Circle” was always doubting, mentally resisting … He wasn’t the only one full of contradiction. Berger, never a party member because of the shadow of the Nazi party, was nevertheless an enthusiastic informer. He wrote literally thousands of reports …
Which brings me back to those promises and hopes that led to the forming of the Stasi Poetry Circle, in particular “the promise that politics could be trusted to respect culture as an equal … instead of co-opting it for its own ends”: that was a promise just made to be broken. At first the young recruits poured out their love poetry, much to Berger’s frustration. Subject matter eventually became more aligned to socialist aims, but then the poems were censored. No, the official word was appraised by committee for – dare I say? – political correctness before other eyes saw them. Eventually full-scale authoritarian paranoia kicked it. Oltermann includes the history of Annegret Grollin, a civilian non-conformist, who was imprisoned and her son put in care, because of just one unpublished poem.
So much for the noble aspiration of literature bringing out the best in us. But the subject has inspired something fine from Oltermann’s pen. The Stasi Poetry Circle is an enlightening journey through the well-known history of the GDR, shedding light on hitherto unknown angles.
The penultimate lesson, Broke Rhyme, describes the storming of the Berlin Stasi Headquarters on 15 January 1990, from the viewpoint of a Stasi officer inside the building. The Stasi eventually ceased operating on 30 June 1990. And that you might think was that. To which I can only say …..stay tuned.
The Stasi Poetry Circle is published by Faber and Faber, established in London in 1929. Since then, they have established a stellar literary reputation and a list which includes 13 Nobel Laureates and six Booker-prize winners. How? Read their history here. It’s fascinating.