In Review

The Stasi Poetry Circle review: a ‘hilarious, page-turning yarn’

This is a ‘fast-moving’ account of Stasi spies by journalist Philip Oltermann

“It sounds like a movie script,” said Laura Hackett in The Sunday Times: the story of a group of Stasi spies “who spent their days interrogating suspects and their evenings penning sonnets”. But it’s true. In East Germany, art was seen as a means of socialist self-improvement and a weapon in the fight against capitalism. Every factory in the German Democratic Republic had its own library, and every industry its own “circle of writing workers”. So perhaps it was inevitable that the secret police got in on the act, forming the Writing Chekists in 1982.

In the journalist Philip Oltermann’s hands, the story makes for a “hilarious, page-turning yarn”. The group leader Uwe Berger, a mediocre poet, demanded that his group produce propaganda without ambiguity. “Precise research through/ Accurately filed matter / Information/ To the comrades”, ran one poetical effort. But some themes proved dangerously resistant to ideology. “An egotist/ in love I am/ want you to be mine/ just mine/ and hope never/ to be nationalised”, declared another.

This “fast-moving and lucid” account shows that the poetry circle was also “a way for the Stasi to spy on itself”, said Tristram Fane Saunders in The Daily Telegraph. Berger regularly filed critical reports on his fellow Writing Chekists as a way of settling grudges and advancing his career.

Members were sometimes left crying after being berated for the dross they produced, said Oliver Moody in The Times. But at least one, Alexander Ruika, was “brilliant”, and Oltermann’s book is partly a “moving story” about poetry’s “irrepressible richness”.

In describing the group’s “petty rivalries, monstrous paranoia and small pleasures”, it also offers a unique perspective on the GDR itself – an Orwellian surveillance state whose “rigidity” and “obtuse deafness” led to its own downfall.

Faber 201pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99

Stasi book cover
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

Recommended

Roti King Battersea: a masterful Malaysian eatery
The menu at Roti King in Battersea is ‘glorious’
In Review

Roti King Battersea: a masterful Malaysian eatery

Six of the best headphones
Man wearing headphones sitting on roof
The wish list

Six of the best headphones

Mercure Gloucester, Bowden Hall Hotel: an impressive country house
Mercure Gloucester, Bowden Hall Hotel in Gloucestershire
In Review

Mercure Gloucester, Bowden Hall Hotel: an impressive country house

A weekend in Dublin
The Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffey at Temple Bar in Dublin
The big trip

A weekend in Dublin

Popular articles

The mysterious Russian oligarch deaths
Vladimir Putin has previously deployed ‘extreme measures’ to crush opposition
Why we’re talking about . . .

The mysterious Russian oligarch deaths

Is Vladimir Putin seriously ill?
Vladimir Putin
Why we’re talking about . . .

Is Vladimir Putin seriously ill?

Nato vs. Russia: who would win?
Nato troops
In Depth

Nato vs. Russia: who would win?

The Week Footer Banner