Some time in the tense winter of 1983, when Nato forces rehearsed a nuclear endgame to the Cold War so realistic that Soviet counter-intelligence briefly suspected it to be a cover for a real attack, a Stasi officer read out a stream-of-consciousness poem to a fellow intelligence operatives inside a heavily fortified compound in East Berlin.
“Match reports state visits plague of locusts”, the poem starts breathlessly, with flagrant disregard for punctuation. “Computer production readers letters TV listings”. Then a chill runs down the spine: “Lightning triggered the firing of three American rockets from their missile silos.” A line break to indicate a sigh of relief. They are only “meteorological rockets”, which won’t sow death and destruction but merely harvest information about wind and the weather.
Written by a second lieutenant in the Stasi’s central information service, these experimental lyrics still lie in a cache of poems at the Stasi Records Archive in Berlin, subsumed into the German federal archives last year. The folders full of typewritten verse – some written in jaunty rhyming couplets, others in tense vers libre – bear testimony to one of the most bizarre experiments of the socialist German Democratic Republic, when one of the most fearsome secret police forces in European history tried to weaponise the vaguest of literary disciplines, the “art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing”, as Edmund Burke once wrote.
From spring 1982 until winter 1989, a group of Stasi majors, propaganda officers and border guards gathered once every four weeks, from 4pm until 6pm, at the House of Culture inside the premises of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment, the Ministry of State Security’s paramilitary wing, in Berlin’s Adlershof district. Under the tutelage of the professional poet Uwe Berger, they learnt about about iambic pentameter, cross-rhyming schemes and Petrarchan sonnets.
The exact purpose of the “Working Circle of Writing Chekists” was not spelt out to its participants. Creative writing classes at the workplace were a common feature of East German life, in keeping with the regime’s pronounced intention to steel the brain and hand of its workers with equal vigour. In fact, “lyrical evenings” were sporadically held at the Stasi’s administrative branch in Berlin as early as the 1960s.
Yet the intelligence agency’s decision to professionalise their lyrical praxis in the early 1980s did not only coincided with a nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, but also an escalating culture war within East Germany’s own borders.
Censorship of books written in the GDR had been tightened in the wake of protests against the state’s treatment of expatriated singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976. In July 1979, Culture Minister Hans-Joachim Hoffmann visited the Stasi headquarters on Normannenstrasse to focus the snoops’ minds on the threat posed by poets, “these people with whom we have for the last three years been living in an open feud.” “Linie XX/7”, the state security department dealing with cultural activity, was boosted at the start of the 1980s, growing to around 170 full-time employees.
One intended function of the Stasi’s poetry circle seemed to have been to train its operatives in getting into the mysterious minds of dissident poets. A 1980 paper by the Ministry for State Security’s own thinktank, the Chair for Scientific Communism, had claimed that art and culture were especially prone to “covert and subliminal assaults”, because their practitioners employed covert techniques such as “allegories, metaphors, fables, alienation effects”.
At least one young soldier who attended the circle while completing his three-year military service at the Adlershof compound was afterwards recruited as a special operative with a mission to infiltrate East Germany’s literary scene. His file states that the informant was available for service around the clock – “in his free time, during the day, at night” – to create a “who is who” profile of aspiring young authors in Berlin and Leipzig, as well as making close observations of public readings by writers suspected of dissident tendencies. To the Stasi’s frustration, he proved an unreliable narrator, flip-flopping between loyalty to the socialist state and wanting to become a successful writer himself.
In fact, events at the monthly poetry meet-up inside the Felix Dzerzhinsky compound didn’t always reflect the Socialist Unity Party’s unwavering ideological line, but ended up voicing the same doubts that citizens were harbouring elsewhere in the Soviet satellite state.
Fear of nuclear armageddon wasn’t always gnomically expressed as in the stream-of-consciousness poem about meteorological rockets. In June 1984, a junior officer within the Stasi’s propaganda unit, called Gerd Knauer, presented the circle with a 52-page poem called The Bang, which starts with a noise as loud “as a thunderclap”.
Knauer poured forth feelings he wasn’t usually allowed to express to his comrades. Across two full pages, he described “the fear / that everything might end”, “fear / of the explosions”, “fear that something - by mistake – / will not go to plan”.
In one of the epic poem’s stanzas, its narrator Odysseus flees into an ivory tower where great philosophers live, seeking spiritual guidance in this hour of need. But Plato, Hegel and Kant all remain silent. Only a man with a bushy beard rises from his seat with an apologetic look on his face:
Karl Marx tries to make a plea
Looks Odysseus in the face
Says gravely: They’re doing it because of me
But they put their faith in the wrong place.
The attempt to weaponise verse for a Cold War culture war backfired so spectacularly that the poet who had been brought in to teach verse to the spies started spying on the Stasi men as they began to write like real poets. “The question of guilt is not answered unambiguously,” Uwe Berger noted in one report to his superiors.
The Writing Chekist Knauer, he said, implied that "Marx has invented social revolution and is therefore to blame for the imminent annihilation of mankind," a thesis that amounted to nothing but "idealism and acceptance of surrender".
The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann is published by Faber.