The Poets Who Did Not Know It(s)
East Germany's Live Poets Society
NEWS ALERT: Some of you may have noticed that the Substack Formerly Known As Secret Worlds is now called Spionage. Why the change of name? Well, I liked Secret Worlds but it was too vague and didn’t tell you what this Substack’s really about. The subject matter of Spionage, on the other hand, is readily apparent—and has the bonus of a subtly sinister, interwar, Central European vibe.
I did actually drop a hint about a potential change in an earlier post about Mata Hari, entitled (of course) Spionage, in which I mused that I thought the title of the 1929 German book I’d cited sounded so cool I ought to have named the Substack after it.
Well, now I have. Anyway, on with this week’s edition . . .
The Working Chekists
It is a fact, as the late Douglas Adams reminded us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that the third-worst poetry in the universe is that of the Vogons, the second-worst, of the Azgoths of Kria, and the very worst is, or was, by Paula Jennings of 37 Wasp Villas, Greenbridge, Essex, who, along with all her works, was vaporized during the (spoilerz) destruction of Earth by said Vogons.
The poetry produced during the Cold War, however, by a select group of the East German secret police would perhaps knock the Vogons, maybe even the Azgoths, off their pedestal.
And here we come to the little-known story of the Working Circle of Writing Chekists (fondly named after the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Bolshevik-era secret police).
The Poetry Circle
In the spring of 1982, a mediocre hack with a fondness for black turtlenecks and heavy My-Name-Is-Michael-Caine glasses by the name of Uwe Berger convened a 15-strong gathering of budding poets.
They met at the House of Culture, located within the Berlin headquarters of the elite Guards Regiment, where such promising young fellows were talentspotted for potential induction into the Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi.
It was a high honor to be selected for such a role, as well as a comparatively luxurious one: Stasi men enjoyed their own hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods cordoned off from the hoi polloi whose class interests they were devoted to furthering.
The group would meet once a month, Berger told them, and attendees would undergo rigorous tutorials in iambic pentameter, rhyming schemes, and sonnet construction. The preferred house-style, judging by the selected meter and stress on ABAB rhyme, was traditional, but mastering the sonnet was considered especially important, for its dialectically pleasing thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure usefully mirrored the Marxist vision of historical progress.
Berger, like 620,000 of his fellow East Germans, was a curtain-twitching informer for the Stasi, his students’ employer. They probably didn’t know that he kept himself busy betraying all of them.
Mind you, he had form. Ever since 1969, when he began work as a snitch and his career, not uncoincidentally, took off, Berger had betrayed pretty much everyone, particularly those more gifted than himself, with whom he’d come into contact.
When the authorities went through the Stasi files after the end of the Cold War they found that Berger had enthusiastically submitted thousands of pages of reports. Those peers and colleagues he named had subsequently been gaslit, pressured, demoted, and kyboshed by the Stasi to clear the path for Berger’s garlanded ascension to plum cultural posts.
As such, he was perfect for the role the brass now wanted him to play. The Poetry Circle was, in fact, partly a sting operation to catch out potentially “unsafe” Stasi men by encouraging them to express themselves through art.
Berger made sure to report to his masters any hint of ambiguity, imagination, or ambivalence that had crept into his mentees’ works, as well as any daring instances of allegory or metaphor—in short, all of the stuff that makes poetry poetry was verboten.
What worried the Party bosses was that Stasi men might hide subversive messages amid figurative expressions or encrypt deeper truths within their allusions. Take, for instance, one student’s inadvertently amusing but rather clever love poem:
“I just want you to be mine, all mine
and hope never to be nationalized”
What else could those lines indicate but a disturbing scepticism towards the merits of collective ownership?
In that respect, the Poetry Circle was a symptom of a creeping sense of unease within the late-stage Stasi that it was losing control over the population, even its own men. It was a very real case of the watchers needing to be watched for subliminal or incipient signs of political deviance.
The result, unsurprisingly, was the ruthless crushing of any talent—and yes, there was some within the Poetry Circle—and the exaltation of blandness and mundanity as “genius” to adhere to Party precepts.
In this regard, my favorite piece of appalling Stasi poetry appeared in Berger’s anthology of students’ work titled, Man, Soldier, Communist: Poetry and Prose by Writing Chekists.
In “Letter of Recruitment,” such lines as the following possess all the sublime beauty of a schoolchild’s “Roses are red/Violets are blue” composition:
“We are Dzerzhinsky’s men
To us our mission is clear
Ready to rise once again
Ready to fight with no fear.”
Sadly, the scheduled publication date of Man, Soldier, Communist coincided with the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989, and it never appeared in print.
Aterwards, the ghastly Berger transformed himself into a literary artiste and went on to have a moderately successful career, until a newspaper reporter exposed the extent of his Stasi reports in 2006. For someone who wrote scores of books, he died unheralded in 2014 and is otherwise forgotten.
Art As A Weapon
Now, Berger may have been an ascetic and a fanatic whose outfits made him look like a mid-’70s Belgian sociology lecturer, but the Poetry Circle itself was only part of a larger, long-term scheme to weaponize art and employ it against the West as a soft-power way of purchasing cultural influence.
I discussed in an earlier issue of Secret Worlds the KGB’s decision to invent a truly Soviet James Bond to combat the pernicious sway of Ian Fleming’s creation. Well, the East Germans had their own version of beating the capitalists: They would be more cultured than the decadent pigs drowning themselves in consumerism on the other side of the Wall.
From the 1950s onwards, the GDR heavily subsidised writers and playwrights, rewarding them with free apartments, low taxes, and government posts in exchange for introducing their art to the masses. Not bad work, if you could get it, aside from the inevitable informing that came with it.
Nevertheless, by the early 1970s the campaign was stuttering. A survey worryingly found that “only” 35 percent of East German adults were reading Pushkin and Goethe on a regular basis (or so they said). A figure of 90 percent within five years was ruled as the goal, and to encourage proletarians to read more Improving Literature their managers were ordered to open onsite libraries in every factory.
To supply those libraries, production quotas of new books were raised, in a manner akin to the Kremlin’s regulation of Ukrainian tractor manufacturing, by 4-5 percent per year. Within two decades, accordingly, the number of East German books being published each year had tripled, despite a declining population.
If East Germany could not compete against the West German economy, then at least it could claim it was the true heir of the Enlightenment—unlike the cultural black hole of the United States and its Euro-lackeys.
This effort explains, among other things, Berger’s metronomic publication rate, as well as illuminates the grander intent of the Poetry Circle.
There were surely easier ways to flush out potentially subversive secret policemen than going through the rigmarole of running a writing club, but the Stasi always counted itself as the vanguard of the cultural campaign. And so it raised itself into the literary Pantheon—at least until the world came tumbling down in 1989.
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Further Reading: P. Oltermann, The Stasi Poetry Circle: The Creative Writing Class That Tried to Win the Cold War (Faber & Faber, 2020); J. Gieseke, The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990 (Berghahn Books, 2015).