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.

Continue reading...


Bad Relations by Cressida Connolly review – deaths in the family

Spanning three generations, from the battlefields of Crimea to a Cornish farm in the 1970s, this nov...

Read More >

Circus of Dreams by John Walsh review – a 1980s literary love-in

The former Sunday Times journalist can’t contain his self-satisfaction in a humorous, passionate ac...

Read More >

Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier review – memoir of a driven autograph hunter

Andrusier’s book puts a singular spin on the cult of celebrity and its allure for a suburban boy in...

Read More >

The Broken House by Horst Krüger review – the book that broke the silence

The rediscovery of Krüger’s fearless memoir, first published in 1966, reveals painful truths about ...

Read More >

Henry 'Chips' Channon: The Diaries 1918-38 review – priceless interwar gossip

Editor Simon Heffer brings us the first, sensationally unexpurgated volume of the musings of the Chi...

Read More >

Ghost Town by Jeff Young review – a book of beauty and longing

The lecturer and playwright revisits the Liverpool streets of his youth in this Costa prize-shortlis...

Read More >