BOOKS / Postcard from Berlin: Scanning the border lines: Poetry was the secret weapon of the East German guards on the Berlin Wall. Frederick Baker investigates

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The Independent Culture
The border guards who used to man the Berlin Wall, staring from their watchtowers with binoculars for eyes, did not often make one think of poetry. The sight of the wall and its associated deathstrip seemed more likely to send the muse plumetting. The East German government, however, used everything: art, photography and even poetry to provide their border guards with psychological support at the hottest part of the Iron Curtain.

Books of poetry were published by the military as part of a political officer's armoury for ensuring that the elite troops on duty saw the miles of concrete and barbed wire not as a prison, but as an 'anti-fascist protection wall'.

In the West the wall mostly inspired spy novelists. For the espionage writers the wall was just one more tableau for their characters to play out the great game of super power rivalry. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carre compares the border demarcation line at the American crossing Checkpoint Charlie to the base line of a tennis court.

For Hagen Koch, the former Stasi cartographer who drew that very same line, the border was not a game but the front line in a class war worthy of verse.

He told me that the military preferred writers to be insiders. 'The attitude was that, if someone came from the outside like Brecht or Johannes R Becher, they could waffle intelligently, but they don't know the realities of the job.' To overcome this handicap potential writers were invited to the barracks and the frontier fortifications to gain first- hand experience of a border guard's everyday life. According to Koch, who later worked as a cultural (or political) officer: 'I could use all the books. Especially with the young, when they where at school or in the first days of their service, I gave them a book to tell them what it was all about. However, the poetry didn't work on its own, it was only one piece of a mosaic.'

The border guards were adopted by a spectrum of cultural institutions ranging from the State Opera, the Weimar Music academy and the writers' union. Chatting to me in Potsdam, Norbert Weise, a former political officer in a border guard regiment on the outskirts of Berlin recalled that: 'A great deal of money was invested in the political work. There were various media: radio, film, TV and a whole series of books which were regularly published. There was fiction, poetry and belle-lettriste literature, all made available free of charge.'

As a military historian, Volker Koop has a professional interest in the border poetry: 'A central working group issued the appeal 'Reach for your pens, buddies'. Since 1977 the members of this working group have published over 500 poems, short stories and satirical texts. The ministries for national defence and culture had little interest in the promotion of art as such. As with everything in the former GDR, the arts in all their varied forms were meant to serve the political will of the leadership.'

An orgy of Orwellian newspeak, the poetry provided bite-size mission statements for soldiers under the psychological stress of living and working a lie. They were fighting an enemy who never attacked, and protecting a people who didn't want to be protected. Poems such as 'Over there stands a man with a gun,' for instance, were clearly meant to dispel these doubts; it warns against any fraternal feelings towards the West Berliners. 'What is a brother? Cain slew Abel' the poem notes.

Volker Koop said: 'If it was too quiet at the border, provocative actions were sometimes simply invented just to keep the men motivated.' In 'The swamp has bewildering lights' the very colourfulness of the West Berlin skyline and the heavy graffiti on the Western face of the wall, is turned into something threatening. It is aimed at men who spent hours sitting in watchtowers with wonderful views of West Berlin - hours in which vigilance could easily turn to dangerous curiosity.

Another strategy was to mythologise the border guards murdered on the wall.

Regardless of the irony that many were deserters, shot by their own comrades, the 25 became a canon of martyrs who gladly died for what one of the poems called a 'hammer, compasses and a garland of corn, the fatherland's lucky symbol'. On the anniversaries of their deaths, poems were read at the graves of these men; their martyrdom was one of the only tangible proofs that the wall was needed against the West and not their own people.

However some poems had a recreational purpose, as Norbert Wiese explained: 'Not all of the troops could go on holiday and so you had to think of something to tempt them out of bed and into the social club. So record evenings were organised and a lot was made of love poems.'

If there is merit in this body of political dogma dressed as verse, then it is that when the big crisis point came, one can happily say that of the bellicose lessons they sought to impart, 'No one got through'. The relatives of those who were not lucky enough to survive crossing the deathstrip will surely read poems such as 'Unforgotten' with the same sentiments as its author, only from the other side of the divide.

'Walking the Wall' a Late Show Production about the border guard poets, is on BBC2 tonight, 8.00-9.30 Unforgotten Unforgotten are those murdered on this border.

Chiselled in stone, their names live on, imprinted on the memory, the images live on.

We stand, where they fell, What they loved, we love more deeply.

What they hated, we hate more strongly.

Wherefore they died, we now live.

Unforgotten - are the murdered.

Unforgotten the murderers] (Photograph omitted)

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