JFolksinger Woody Guthrie scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. Such dramatic slogans are the privilege of youth and a great illusion; with age comes the acceptance that music – art in general – poses no serious threat. Or does it? In the 1980s, the Stasi, East Germany’s much-dreaded secret police, decided that the best way to fight the drift of capitalism was not with bombs and rockets but with a stealth weapon at the unstable potential: poetry.
The Captivating by Philip Oltermann The poetic circle of the Stasi tells a story so far-fetched and unlikely it feels like it must be true. The author was inspired to investigate after running his own poetry group for pensioners at a day center in London’s King’s Cross. How did a brutal spy agency land on poetry, “that most vague discipline”, as a training tool for its employees? His research brought him into contact with soldiers and border guards who attended the monthly meetings of “Chekist writers” inside the walls of Adlershof, a place so secret that it didn’t even appear on a map of Berlin. Here they meditated on the subtleties of poetry, keeping in mind the austere creed of the writer Friedrich Wolf: “The matter of our times lies before us, hard as iron. The poets work to make a weapon of it. The worker must pick up this weapon. You can almost hear the sound of chewing pens.
Overseeing this ink mission was the circle’s leader, Uwe Berger, who, after some research, believed he had found his star pupil. Alexander Ruika was a rookie who had followed his colonel father into the Guards Regiment, an elite training ground for Stasi recruits. What separated Ruika from his fellow versifiers was his use of figurative language, the “mastery of metaphor” which Aristotle believed to be the mark of genius. Oltermann traces his early successes – a string of awards, publications in prestigious literary journals – but also hears a dissenting voice in his poems that suggests Ruika was not a Chekist role model but “the Hamlet of the Stasi poetic circle”. , a soul at war with itself. His ambivalence almost becomes a test in this narrative – how to reconcile the free fluidities of poetry with the ideological constraints of communism. Get ready for a sting in the tale.
Contradiction also animates the story of Berger, the man at the center of the web. A mediocre and widely acclaimed poet, he had refused to join the Socialist Unity Party and yet had accumulated significant influence within the state. A total of 620,000 informants were listed in the Stasi books between 1950 and 1989, their role being to point out questionable tendencies and opinions in the population. The GDR was, indeed, a nation of curtain twitchers. Berger had been approached to join them as an “informal collaborator” and apparently got down to business with alacrity, producing a steady stream of lies, half-truths and obfuscations. In 1982 he was rewarded by the Stasi with a silver ‘brotherhood in arms’ medal for his efforts, although in a memoir he wrote after the fall of the Berlin Wall he did not. make no mention of his reports. He hinted that his work as an informant ended once he took over the poetry circle at Adlershof, when we now know that assignment marked a grim new chapter in his career as a whistleblower.
Oltermann’s intention is to understand not just the mind of the spy but that of the spied on, with a sympathy that makes the book a close relative of German film. The lives of others. He cites the Kafkaesque example of Annegret Gollin, a writer arrested and sentenced to prison “on the basis of a single poem that was never published”. An adventurous, independent-minded young woman who loved to dance and hitchhike – a “vagabond” in dubious Stasi terminology – Gollin was a rebellious spirit who felt alienated from the party. and the counterculture. Having moved to Zwickau at the age of 23, she joined two poetry circles where her nonconformist views were soon noted; she was eventually sent to the Stasi and interrogated about the exact meaning of a poem, Concretia, about the proliferation of concrete skyscrapers. As Oltermann observes, it was as if she had been caught “building homemade explosives” rather than writing a few verses. After several interviews during which she had to explain her work, Gollin was sentenced to 20 months in prison for “public denigration of a state organ”. Her son was taken to a children’s home.
Reading these tales of bureaucratic paranoia makes you wonder if the Stasi’s poetry program wasn’t just a willful distraction from reality on its doorstep. After all, how could a nation located right on the fault line of the East-West nuclear war zone lose sleep over the small holdings of poetic endeavor? And yet, espionage has taken hold of East Germany. As the population shrank, the number of people employed by the Stasi multiplied; in the 1960s it doubled in size and doubled again in the 1970s. Later Oltermann focused on the career of poet-novelist Gert Neumann, whose books were so enigmatic that no one at the Ministry of Culture could really understand them: he was “a locksmith by trade and he wrote as such”. Nonetheless, he was subjected to close surveillance and harassment that essentially amounted to gaslighting. When the Stasi felt that even that wasn’t enough, they recruited her mother to spy on her. (Movie Idea: The Lives of Mothers.) How Neumann’s story intersects with Alexander Ruika’s is one of the happiest episodes in this gripping and well-written book.