London: Faber, 2022.
210 pp. $15.63 (paperback)
Sometime in the early 1960s, the East German secret police—commonly known as the Stasi—convened some of its staff to compose and share their own poetry. The group called themselves the Writing Circle of Chekists, borrowing the word “cheka” from their fellow spies in Russia, and they met once a month for almost three decades. But what exactly was their goal? That was a question that Philip Oltermann, a German-born writer for The Guardian, set out to answer after his curiosity was piqued by learning of an anthology the Circle published in 1984. He searched what remains of the Stasi’s archives and interviewed several alumni of the Circle still living in Germany, and the result is this short, entertaining book. More a collection of vignettes than an in-depth study, The Stasi Poetry Circle offers an unusual glimpse of the relationship between communist totalitarianism and the poetic impulses of both its victims and their victimizers.
The Stasi established a creative writing workshop for several reasons, and they begin with a professional propagandist named Johannes Becher, who served as culture minister for East Germany and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953. Becher thought that there was a natural affinity between poetry and the fundamental claims of communist theory. According to Hegelian/Marxist dialectics, history and culture unfold through a process typically referred to as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis,” in which a social or cultural institution generates its own opposite force, and then the two merge into a new cultural institution. Becher thought this paralleled the structure of a sonnet: a short poem (typically fourteen lines) in which the writer begins with one idea, then juxtaposes a second, and then reconciles them in a concluding rhyme. From this seeming parallel grew Becher’s scheme to use literature to revive Germany in the wake of World War II and usher in a culture of socialism.
Becher persuaded East Germany’s leaders to organize a program that, as Oltermann puts it, would “bridge the divide between the working classes and the intelligentsia” by forcing writers to work in factories and recruiting factory workers to write (31). Becher thought this would help generate adequately socialist literature that would raise the consciousness of the working class. The scheme eventually grew beyond the factories, to such proportions that by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 (an event the Germans call Mauerfall), there were some three hundred “writing circles” operated by members of various trades across the country. Every industry from teachers to railroad car builders had its own resident authors.
Partly as an outgrowth of that program, the Stasi put together a group of its own employees to produce propaganda verse. . . .
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1. E. E. Cummings, “Jehovah buried,Satan dead,” in Complete Poems 1904–1962, ed. George J. Firmage (New York: Liveright, rev. ed., 1991), 438.
2. Plato, The Republic in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, vol. 3, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), 322.