Jhis book sounds like an offbeat fiction, to be put next to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or A Brief History of Tractors in Ukrainian. And it starts like a novel, as a young border guard named Jürgen Polinske stands outside the Adlershof military complex in East Berlin dreaming of ice cream. But Polinske is a real person on her way to attend a poetry workshop. And it’s the true story of how the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, established a creative writing program to teach their spies the art of verse.
Its origins were not sinister but idealistic. The newly created GDR’s Minister of Culture, Johannes Becher, dreamed of a model society in which poetry, “the very definition of all that is good and beautiful, of a more meaningful and humane way of life” , would have a central place. In Nazi Germany, books had been burned and authors persecuted. In the GDR, the authors received generous help from the state – care packages, food stamps, government positions and a reduced rate of income tax. Reading was strongly encouraged: between 1950 and 1989, the number of books published each year tripled even as the population decreased. And the workers were encouraged to write as well as to read (“Pick up the pen, comrade!”). For Becher, one form of verse in particular was crucial to the establishment of the new utopia: the sonnet. In its dialectical structure – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – it reflected the Marxist vision of historical progress.
If some of those who joined the circle had literary aspirations, Uwe Berger, the manager, with his big glasses and his turtleneck sweater, quickly disillusioned them. Although not a party member, he toed an old-fashioned party line, encouraging heroic propaganda verses that glorified the Soviet Union and vilified the capitalist enemy. Good ideology, bad metaphors was his principle; it was more important to be a communist than an artist. Poetry, he said, should “elicit emotion and stimulate the thirst for victory in the class struggle”.
Berger was also a snitch – one of 620,000 informants on the Stasi books. When he was not scolding his friends and neighbors (“alcoholic”, “a bit senile”, “unstable”), he smelled counter-revolutionary tendencies in the workshop he ran. As the institutionalized paranoia of the Stasi grew in the 1980s, Berger became more vigilant. The ambiguity worried him. What was the poet hiding? Could he be an insurgent in the making?
Berger died in 2014, but Oltermann, who is the Guardian’s Berlin bureau chief, reunited with several of the men who attended his workshops, including Alexander Ruika, whose poetic talent impressed but also alarmed Berger, and whose the potential for dissent was ruled out. when he too was recruited as an informant. Ruika was tasked with gathering intelligence on Gert Neumann, a locksmith by trade, whose fiction and poetry were “like locked rooms with missing keys” – so cryptic that no critic could decipher them, and so alarming to the Stasi that they also recruited Neumann’s mother and his wife to spy on him. Thirty years later, Oltermann brings the two men together, in a sort of exercise in truth and reconciliation around a meal.
While her poetry workshops were male-dominated, the Stasi also kept a close eye on any female poets suspected of subversion. They had been watching Annegret Gollin since she was a teenager, as her smoking, drinking and love of nightclubs made her a troublemaker. And after their attention was drawn to a puzzling unpublished poem she had written on the concrete, they threw themselves on her in a cobbled square, put her in the back of a car and made a raided his apartment, where other incriminating notebooks were found. In the months following her arrest, the Stasi interrogated her 36 times. The concrete poem was judged to show signs of corrupt Western influence. For her decadent tendencies, she spent 20 months in prison, while her young son was placed in a children’s home.
By 1984, morale within the Stasi was suffering. The Wall could not prevent Western influence. There were stirrings of a peace movement among the young people. Even the military preferred Eric Clapton and Steven Spielberg to local music and movies. But East Germany’s rulers were old, and the country was slower to accept glasnost than the rest of the Soviet bloc. At least the ending was bloodless: while Nazi Germany flared up, in the GDR “there were no burnt bodies, only pulped files.”
The Stasi’s troubled relationship with poetry makes for a bizarre, tragicomic tale, and Oltermann tells it extremely well. It’s easy to scoff at the crudeness of the Soviet approach to artistic practice. But as the author points out, the CIA has also used culture as a political weapon by funding artists like Jackson Pollock. And of course, the Cold War was best fought that way – not with nuclear bombs but as a battle between Abstract Expressionism and Socialist Realism.