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The extraordinary true story of the Stasi’s poetry club: Stasiland and The Lives of Others crossed with Dead Poets Society.
‘A magnificent book . . . at once touching, exquisite, devastating and extraordinary.’
PHILIPPE SANDS, author of East West Street and The Ratline
‘A vivid, funny, and imperturbable portrait of Soviet Russia’s most loyal satellite.’
Berlin, 1982. Morale is at rock bottom in East Germany as the spectre of an all-out nuclear war looms. The Ministry for State Security is hunting for creative new weapons in the war against the class enemy – and their solution is stranger than fiction. Rather than guns, tanks, or bombs, the Stasi develop a programme to fight capitalism through rhyme and verse, winning the culture war through poetry – and the result is the most bizarre book club in history.
Consisting of a small group of spies, soldiers and border guards – some WW2 veterans, others schoolboy recruits – the ‘Working Group of Writing Chekists’ met monthly until the Wall fell. In a classroom adorned with portraits of Lenin, they wrote their own poetry and were taught verse, metre, and rhetoric by East German poet Uwe Berger.
The regime hoped that poetry would sharpen the Stasi’s ‘party sword’ by affirming the spies’ belief in the words of Marx and Lenin, as well as strengthening the socialist faith of their comrades. But as the agents became steeped in poetry, revelling in its imaginative ambiguity, the result was the opposite. Rather than entrenching State ideology, they began to question it – and following a radical role reversal, the GDR’s secret weapon dramatically backfired.
Weaving unseen archival material and exclusive interviews with surviving members, Philip Oltermann reveals the incredible hidden story of a unique experiment: weaponising poetry for politics. Both a gripping true story and a parable about creativity in a surveillance state, this is history writing at its finest.
‘Grippingly well-written’ Anthony Quinn, Observer
‘Oltermann’s own prose is fast-moving and lucid, with a enjoyably pulpy, hardboiled quality’ Telegraph
A magnificent book. I could not put it down. It is at once touching, exquisite, devastating and extraordinary — it's a wonderful narrative, with impeccable detective work, and beautifully written. It manages to be understated and thrilling, a kind of literary page turner. I loved it. It deserves to be very widely read and then turned into a movie.
Oltermann's chipper, nightmarish The Stasi Poetry Circle outlines he workings of totalitarianism with a plot worthy of Monty Python. The clarity secret policemen crave does battle with their own evasiveness — a.k.a. the lauded poetic virtue of ambiguity. Evil has seldom been more banal. A vivid, funny, and imperturbable portrait of Soviet Russia's most loyal satellite.
[A] remarkable story . . . A terrific piece of reporting, full of lively writing, gentle humour and delicate literary criticism.
It sounds like a movie script but somehow it’s true . . . Warm, vivid and touching . . . Less The Lives of Others and more The Death of Stalin . . . A brilliantly told tale.
Gripping and highly readable . . . Brilliant . . . What makes this book so fascinating is the lives of its characters, not their literary remains.
Engrossing . . . A history so outlandish and unlikely that you feel it must be true . . . [A] grippingly well-written book.
Philip Oltermann grew up in Schleswig-Holstein and studied English and German literature at Oxford University and University College London. As a journalist he has written for Granta, the London Review of Books and the Guardian, for whom he is the Berlin Bureau Chief. He is the author of Keeping Up with the Germans (2012) and tweets at @philipoltermann. He now…Read More
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