This book sounds like a quirky piece of fiction, to set beside The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. And it begins like a novel, as a young border guard called Jürgen Polinske stands outside the Adlershof military compound in East Berlin dreaming of ice-cream. But Polinske is a real person on his way to attend a poetry workshop. And this is the true story of how the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, established a creative writing programme to teach its spies the art of verse.
Its origins weren’t sinister but idealistic. The culture minister of the newly created GDR, Johannes Becher, dreamed of a model society in which poetry, “the very definition of everything good and beautiful, of a more meaningful, humane form of living”, would have a central place. In Nazi Germany books had been burned and authors persecuted. In the GDR, authors received generous help from the state – care packages, food vouchers, posts in government and a reduced income tax rate. Reading was heavily promoted: between 1950 and 1989, the number of books published each year tripled even as the population declined. And manual workers were encouraged to write as well as read (“Pick up the quill, comrade!”). To Becher, one verse form in particular was crucial to the establishment of the new utopia: the sonnet. In its dialectical structure – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – it mirrored the Marxist view of historical progress.
If some of those who joined the circle had literary aspirations, Uwe Berger, the man in charge, with his heavy glasses and turtleneck sweater, swiftly disenchanted them. Though not a party member, he enforced an old-school party line, encouraging propagandist heroic verse that glorified the Soviet Union and vilified the capitalist enemy. Ideology good, metaphors bad was his principle; it was more important to be a communist than an artist. Poetry, he said, should “rouse emotion and boost the hunger for victory in class warfare”.
Berger was also a snitch – one of the 620,000 informers on the Stasi’s books. When he wasn’t grassing on friends and neighbours (“an alcoholic”, “a bit senile”, “unstable”), he was sniffing out counter-revolutionary tendencies in the workshop he ran. As the Stasi’s institutionalised paranoia increased in the 1980s, so Berger became more vigilant. Ambiguity worried him. What was the poet hiding? Could he be an insurrectionist in the making?
Berger died in 2014, but Oltermann, who is the Guardian’s Berlin bureau chief, has tracked down several of the men who attended his workshops, among them Alexander Ruika, whose poetic talent impressed but also alarmed Berger, and whose potential for dissidence was headed off 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 keys gone missing” – so cryptic no critic could decipher them, and so alarming to the Stasi that they also recruited Neumann’s mother and wife to spy on him. Thirty years on, Oltermann brings the two men together, in a kind of truth and reconciliation exercise over a meal.
Though its poetry workshops were dominated by men, the Stasi also kept a close eye on any female poet suspected of subversion. They’d been watching Annegret Gollin since she was a teenager, because her smoking, drinking and love of discos marked her out as a troublemaker. And after their attention was drawn to a puzzling unpublished poem she’d written about concrete, they pounced on her in a cobbled square, bundled her into the back of a car, and raided her flat, where further incriminating notebooks were found. In the months after her arrest, the Stasi interrogated her 36 times. The concrete poem was judged to show signs of corrupting western influence. For her decadent tendencies, she spent 20 months in prison, while her small son was placed in a children’s home.
By 1984 morale within the Stasi was suffering. The Wall couldn’t keep out western influence. There were stirrings of a peace movement among the young. Even the military preferred Eric Clapton and Steven Spielberg to homegrown music and films. But the leaders of East Germany were old and the country was slower to accept glasnost than the rest of the Soviet bloc. At least the end was bloodless: whereas Nazi Germany went up in flames, in the GDR “there were no burnt bodies, only pulped files”.
The Stasi’s troubled relationship with poetry makes a bizarre, tragi-comic story, and Oltermann tells it extremely well. It’s easy to mock the crassness of the Soviet approach to artistic practice. But as the author points out, the CIA also used culture as a political weapon by funding artists such as Jackson Pollock. And of course it was better for the cold war to be fought that way – not with nuclear bombs but as a battle between abstract expressionism and socialist realism.
• The Stasi Poetry Circle: The Creative Writing Class That Tried to Win the Cold War is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.