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12Feb

The Stasi Poetry Circle review – East Germany’s unsettling war with words

Philip Oltermann’s account of how the Stasi decided to use poems as a means of fighting capitalism is fascinating, strange and troubling

The folk singer Woody Guthrie famously scrawled “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar. Such dramatic sloganeering is the privilege of youth and a grand illusion; with age comes acceptance that music – art in general – carries no serious threat. Or does it? In the 1980s, the Stasi, East Germany’s much-feared secret police, decided that the best way to fight the creep of capitalism was not with bombs and rockets but with a stealth weapon of unstable potential: poetry.

Philip Oltermann’s engrossing The Stasi Poetry Circle recounts a history so outlandish and unlikely that you feel it must be true. The author was inspired to investigate after running his own poetry group for pensioners at a day centre in London’s King’s Cross . How had a brutal spy agency alighted on poetry, “this vaguest of disciplines”, as a tool for training its employees? His research brings him into contact with soldiers and border guards who attended monthly meetings of “writing Chekists” at the Adlershof compound, a place so secret it didn’t even feature on a map of Berlin. Here, they would mull over the finer points of verse while bearing in mind the writer Friedrich Wolf’s stern credo: “The material of our age lies in front of us, hard as iron. Poets are working to forge it into a weapon. The worker has to pick up this weapon.” You can almost hear the sound of pens being chewed.

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