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16 February 2022

How the Stasi poets tried to win the Cold War

Philip Oltermann’s The Stasi Poetry Circle reveals how the GDR taught its spies to use verse as an ideological weapon.

By Adam Kirsch

One of the ironies of the Cold War was that the communist world, which repressed and jailed its writers, seemed to value literature much more highly than the West, where writers were free but neglected. In the Soviet Union the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were published in huge subsidised editions, even as living writers such as Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel were imprisoned and murdered. Both things could be taken as signs of communism’s belief in the power of the written word. After all, the October revolutionaries were writers themselves; before Lenin and Trotsky ruled Russia, they had spent years propagandising for Bolshevism in newspapers and books.

In The Stasi Poetry Circle, Philip Oltermann, the Guardian’s Berlin bureau chief, shows what happened when the communist obsession with literature came to Germany, a country whose reverence for Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers) amounted to an ideology of its own. Unlike most historians of literature, however, Oltermann doesn’t view the subject from the top down. The most famous names in East German letters, like Christa Wolf or Anna Seghers, are barely mentioned here.

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Instead, he tells the stories of complete unknowns such as Annegret Gollin. In 1979 an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, reported that he had found a notebook in his daughter’s bedroom containing a few handwritten poems by Gollin, one of her former schoolmates. Worried about the poems’ ideological tendency, the informant, code-named Christel, copied out one for his handlers. The 23-year-old Gollin was already known to the police as a “tramper”, a kind of East German hippie, and a few weeks later she was arrested. The Stasi interrogated her no less than 36 times about the meaning of her poems, which had never been published, or even read by more than a few people. Gollin was ordered to stop writing and released on a suspended sentence, but the next year she was rearrested after she confronted the Stasi agent assigned to tail her and spat in his face. She ended up serving 20 months in prison.

Oltermann’s focus on figures such as Gollin can be seen as an ironic tribute to communist literary ideals. The party’s fondest dream was that the masterpieces of the future would come from the neglected voices of ordinary people like her. Yet the dictatorship of the proletariat turned out to be so invasive and paranoid that it saw any genuinely creative writing as criminal. The life of East Germany is best documented not in the propagandistic, one-dimensional novels and poems approved by the Socialist Unity Party (SED), but in the secret reports accumulated by its hundreds of thousands of spies and informers. These archives, now open to researchers in the unified Germany, allowed Oltermann to trace the obscure lives of his subjects in remarkable detail.

The seed of the book was planted when Oltermann purchased a collection of German poetry with the unlikely title We About Us: Anthology of the Working Circle of Writing Chekists. The original Cheka was the secret police agency created in Russia after the October Revolution by the ruthless Feliks Dzerzhinsky. It would morph over the years into the GPU and the KGB, but “Cheka” remained a word to conjure with, evoking revolutionary heroism or mass terror depending on whether you sympathised with its agents or its victims.

The Chekists in We About Us, published in 1984 to mark the 35th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, were college-age recruits in the Feliks Dzerzhinsky regiment of the Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. Poetry might seem like an unlikely pursuit for a secret policeman in training, but the East German state believed deeply in the power of literature as an ideological weapon. These poets enrolled in a workshop led by Uwe Berger, a writer and editor who taught that: “Poetry had to rouse emotion and boost the hunger for victory in class warfare.” He told the students, in Oltermann’s words, that poems should be “like marching songs: distractions from the everyday hardship of military life that also focused the mind on the ideological goal on the horizon”. 

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Oltermann shows that this view of literature was in the DNA of the German Democratic Republic. Among the founders of the state was the communist writer and activist Johannes R Becher, who spent the Second World War in exile in the USSR and was repatriated by the Soviets in 1945. Becher believed that the GDR should be a Literaturgesellschaft, a “literature society”, and he helped create new literary institutions, eventually serving as culture minister. Even Erich Honecker, the repressive apparatchik who led East Germany from 1971 until the fall of the regime in 1989, boasted that it was a “country of readers”, while West Germany was a mere “bestseller country”.

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Yet it was Honecker who expelled the dissident poet and singer Wolf Biermann in 1976, stripping him of his citizenship while he was on tour in West Germany. If literature was a weapon, it was the state’s responsibility to make sure that it was in the right hands and pointed the right way – at the West, not at the Party. Thus Uwe Berger’s responsibilities weren’t limited to teaching creative writing. More importantly, he used the students’ poems to track their ideological development and filed regular assessments to their Stasi superiors.

Berger’s refusal to join the SED himself seemed to make him all the more eager to serve as its enforcer. When a young officer in the workshop wrote a poem about a kite “sailing into freedom”, Berger reported that “the kite was what poets called a metaphor, and that the poem was a covert call for East German army personnel to cross over to the West”. A student named Alexander Ruika presented a more difficult case, since Berger recognised that he was a genuinely gifted writer. Still, Ruika had to be carefully monitored because he displayed anti-social tendencies, appearing “morose, reserved and melancholy” and, worst of all, “ambivalent”.

These are, of course, the poet’s classic traits: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness,/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness,” Wordsworth wrote. But there is nothing ideology finds more threatening than such intense inwardness, which bespeaks a self beyond the grasp of indoctrination. In his memoir, Berger quoted a criticism he once received from a co-worker for talking about his interior world: “If you are a decent human being, then there’s no world inside you other than the world you can see from the outside.” This idea appeals to the zealously right-minded even today, but it is fatal to literature, both writing and reading it. The Stasi Poetry Circle shows in dramatically human terms why, under fanatically ideological regimes, the best writers are inevitably dissidents.

Adam Kirsch’s most recent book is “The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century” (WW Norton)

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War