In the early 1960s, the East German secret police—commonly known as the Stasi—gathered some of its staff to compose and share their poetry. The group called themselves the Writing Circle of Chekists, borrowing the word “cheka” from their fellow spies in Russia, and they met once a month for almost three decades. But what exactly was their goal? That was a question that Philip Oltermann, a German-born writer for The Guardian, set out to answer after his curiosity was piqued by learning of an anthology the Circle published in 1984. He searched what remains of the Stasi's archives and interviewed several alumni of the Circle still living in Germany, and the result is this short, entertaining book. More a collection of vignettes than an in-depth study, The Stasi Poetry Circle offers an unusual glimpse of the relationship between communist totalitarianism and the poetic impulses of its victims and their victimizers. The Stasi established a creative writing workshop for several reasons. They begin with a professional propagandist named Johannes Becher, who served as culture minister for East Germany and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953. Becher thought there was a natural affinity between poetry and the fundamental claims of communist theory. According to Hegelian/Marxist dialectics, history and culture unfold through a process typically referred to as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis,” in which a social or cultural institution generates its opposite force. Then the two merge into […] London: Faber, 2022. 210 pp. $15.63 (paperback)
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