Review: The rhymes of others

Roxanne Escobales talks to the author who discovered a nest of Cold War secret service poets in East Germany

The World Today
3 minute READ

Roxanne Escobales

Former Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

Philip Oltermann

Berlin bureau chief, The Guardian

The Stasi Poetry Circle 
Philip Oltermann, Faber, £14.99

In his book, Philip Oltermann uncovers poems written by members of the East German secret police in the 1980s as part of a literary project designed to put culture on the same footing as politics. Oltermann tells how he tracked down former Stasi members to explore an uneasy union of art and politics.

You discovered by chance that members of the Stasi had written poetry. Where did your literary journey begin?

I first read about it in an article in the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, in 2006 about the film, The Lives of Others. It mentioned in passing a real story that illustrated how East Germany’s secret police were obsessed with literature and about a group in the Stasi called the Kreisarbeitsgemeinschaft Schreibende Tschekisten, the Working Circle of Writing Chekists. It felt like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

I found a reprint of an anthology that was produced by this circle called We About Us. I then went into the reading room of the Stasi archives and found quite a lot of poetry that wasn’t published. There were four anthologies produced by this circle, but also quite a lot of poems that weren’t included in the anthologies. I managed to track down some poems written by some of these people that weren’t published and weren’t in the Stasi archive. A lot of the poems in this booklet deal with life in the Stasi, which often was quite mundane, so they were about quite unglamorous tasks: guarding buildings, military drills or filing. Literally, there are poems about filing reports. 

The communists steering the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic believed poetry mirrored the class struggle. What was this power they saw in poetry? 

As someone who grew up in West Germany, I hadn’t realized just what an important role literature played in the self-image of East Germany – and particularly poetry and how much ideological thinking went into the poetic form. 

There was this poet Johannes Becher who was in exile during the Second World War but came back at the end of the war and was made culture minister. He wrote the lyrics for the national anthem and built up all sorts of new magazines and literary institutions and so on. 

One of his ideas was that what had been symptomatic of the cruelty and barbarism of Nazi Germany was the crackdown on culture and how little they valued culture. So, he wanted to help build a state that put literature right at the heart of people’s lives and in which literature would have an equal standing with politics. 

He considered the sonnet the finest form of poetry, and he had a very particular Marxist spin on it – that by its very form, the sonnet was political. His idea was that every sonnet has a three-step structure, which mirrors the rhythm of dialectical materialism – essentially, the underlying philosophy of the Soviet Union articulated by Hegel and picked up on by Marx that history follows a rhythm of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. 

So, Becher was East German cultural thinking at its most utopian. There was a parallel tradition that was at odds with this utopian idea, which was best articulated by another poet, Friedrich Wolf, who was also given a political role. Wolf wrote a famous poem called Art is a Weapon, in which he said that of course poetry was subservient to our politics. It is a weapon. It is something that we have to use in the class struggle. 

Essentially, he relegated art to propaganda, or maybe poetry could be a marching song, could rouse the emotions, intensify people’s beliefs in a system. Wolf, even though he had a slightly more cynical take on the role poetry should play, was arguably more influential, particularly in the Stasi because this slogan ‘art is a weapon’ crops up again and again. You find it in the internal manuals. 

His son, Markus Wolf, famously becomes the best-known spy master in East Germany.

The Stasi modelled itself on the original Soviet secret police, the Cheka, shown by the use of  ‘chekists’ in the poetry circle’s name. What does that tell us about what is happening now in Europe with Russia and Germany’s shift in foreign policy?

Yes, in this poetry you really see how intense the relationship with Russia was. One of the interesting questions is what was the origin story that East Germany told itself? In a way that was a negative story of anti-fascism, but a lot of it was directed at Russia as the great liberator. 

A lot of these poems are, in a way, love songs about Russia. There is a weird inferiority complex with adoring descriptions of the Russian landscape or Russian cities or Russian war monuments. 

One of the most interesting poems is a well-crafted verse about a war monument to the Red Riders outside the city of Lviv. Even in the Stasi, there was a sort of generational conflict in the 1980s where the younger generation would be rolling their eyes when the older guys were turning to Russia once again. 

A good illustration of this generational tension concerns the poet who was brought in to teach the Stasi poetry circle. Uwe Berger not only ended up spying on the spies who were writing poems in the circle, but was a prolific informant for the Stasi on East Germany’s literary scene. 

He writes a novel, but it is essentially a very old-fashioned idea of Russian superiority and a young female editor at the publishing house says: ‘We can’t do this any more. We’ve got to move on.’ He complains, gets very huffy, writes a report to the Stasi about her, and the book gets published. 

What does that tell us about East Germany, about Germany and Russia now? I mean, I think it is something that from outside Germany is often underestimated, about just how deeply felt the complex feelings towards Russia are. 

Often, it is a real guilt, but it was also culturally solidified into a feeling that ‘we owe Russia something’. In the end it wasn’t purely an East German thing – it was also mirrored in the West. 

One of the interesting titbits I found when researching the book was that most of these meetings between the Stasi poetry circle were in a paramilitary compound, in East Berlin, in Adlershof. Just outside, on the other side of the road, was a scientific research centre where Angela Merkel was working at the time downstairs in the lab. So, all these major geopolitical protagonists were walking around in parallel to each other.