Poetry and despotism do not mix. Except, it seems, in communist East Germany. There, according to Philip Oltermann’s gripping and highly readable new book, The Stasi Poetry Circle, poetry was seen as a secret weapon. The Stasi (the nickname for the Ministry for State Security) cultivated a creative writing workshop, officially known as the Working Circle of Writing Chekists – the last term borrowed from their Soviet counterparts, known originally as the Cheka.
Oltermann, Berlin correspondent for The Guardian, chanced on an article about this most sinister-sounding of literary coteries in the German magazine Der Spiegel. After reading some of its published work, he decided to track down surviving members of the group. His own slim book is the result of his investigation into this almost forgotten cultural hinterland of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The Stasi poetry circle emerged around 1960 as part of a communist plan to bring culture to the workers under the slogan ‘Pick up the quill, comrade!’ It met once a month at the House of Culture in the Adlershof compound, headquarters of the GDR’s elite fighting force, the Guards Regiment. The members included not only spies but also soldiers