Embracing the butcher? Brecht and Stalinism

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh looked at German writer Bertolt Brecht and his unhappy relationship with Stalinism in Issue 6 (March 2000).

When Bertolt Brecht became a Marxist in the late 1920s, he was already an established artist. The fact that he embraced Marxism helped cut off what seemed like a certain route to popular acclaim and financial success. But more importantly it helped him to an understanding of the world people lived in, and to show them, on the stage and in his poems, how they lived and how they could live.

But Brecht’s political involvement was complicated by the fact that his commitment to Marxism took the form—not surprisingly—of an adher­ence to the politics of the Communist Party. By sheer coincidence, this adherence commenced as Stalin finally consolidated his counter-revolution in Russia, and ended with his death just as Stalin’s heirs were repudiating his worst excesses. His support was never unqualified, however: Brecht’s relationship with Stalinism was destined to be a rocky one.

Unlike many a middle-class intellectual who fellow-travelled with the Communists at the time, Brecht didn’t suddenly see the light and, falling over with admiration for the way the trains ran on time in Moscow, rush to burn incense at the altar of Uncle Joe. As he later commented, he took something of a “cold route” to Communism. He made a serious independ­ent study of Marxism before committing to it.

In 1926, wanting to understand the workings of international commerce for a play he was writing, he went straight to the source: he took Book One of Capital on holiday to study. He read all the Marxist literature he could lay his hands on over the next couple of years, and attended lectures by the independent Marxist sociologist Fritz Sternberg.

He dipped his toe in the water with contributions to a Communist satirical paper, but didn’t commit himself to the Party until 1929, after witnessing the police open fire on a banned May Day demonstration. Even then he didn’t actually join the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). This could be down to the party’s belief that they could get more capital out of intellectuals if they remained formally outside, as sympathisers; or Brecht may just have declined to join. But the result was that he became a Communist to all intents and purposes, but could maintain something of a distance from Party policy when it suited.

Brecht’s first avowedly Communist play is The Measure (1930, written with Elisabeth Hauptmann). Four Party members come from Moscow to China, where they efface their individual features in order to become anonymous agitators, prepared to do whatever is necessary:

He who fights for Communism
Has of all virtues only one:
That he fights for Communism.

The youngest of them works with a group of coolies, and encourages them to demand better working conditions. But he is caught, and the agita­tors are run out of town. When he asks is it not right to help the oppressed, he is told that he shouldn’t have jeopardised the party’s propaganda work. He is instructed to form an alliance with a merchant against the English imperialists, to get arms. But he is disgusted by the merchant’s contempt for his coolies and walks out without arms. Again he is berated by his comrades:

What baseness would you not commit, to
Wipe out baseness?…
Who are you?
Sink in filth
Embrace the butcher…

Working amongst the unemployed, the young agitator cannot fulfil the Party policy of holding back their demonstrations: “I can see with my two eyes that misery cannot wait.” He is told that it is the Party’s eyes that matter, not his:

The individual can be annihilated
But the Party cannot be annihilated

“I see oppression”, he protests. “I’m for the cause of freedom!” “Silence!” his comrades reply: “This is treason!” The agitators are exposed and have to flee the country.

They decide that they can neither bring their young comrade with them, nor leave him behind to get caught. The only solution is to shoot him and throw his body into a lime pit. The errant agitator consents to his execu­tion, “In the interests of Communism”. The Control Chorus, to whom the story is related, approve of their action.

It is no accident that Brecht wrote a play on the theme of Communist Party discipline just after accepting that discipline (albeit with reserva­tions) himself. Like anyone who thinks before throwing in their lot with a political organisation, he had his doubts about the restrictions this would impose on him. His reaction in The Measure seems to be a casting aside of these doubts, however, rather than a resolution of them.

He was concerned that unpleasant things would have to be done to change the world, that bitter pills would have to be swallowed. Of course, they do: the only thing is to maintain a healthy individual scepticism, to judge each unpleasantness on its own merits, to read the label before swallowing the pill. Instead, Brecht’s attitude here is to dismiss such scepticism as a bourgeois prejudice, to abdicate individual conscience to the Party conscience, to do as you’re told.

Communist Party reaction to The Measure was unfavourable. It was pointed out, quite rightly, that Lenin never believed in holding aloof from premature, spontaneous struggles, but in playing a part in them. One KPD theoretician wisely noted that “The conflict between reason and emotion is a basic experience of the bourgeois intellectual who is about to join the revolutionary proletariat.” They were most concerned, however, to make clear that those who strayed from the party line were not killed, but expelled (which was a fate worse than death anyhow). It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that Brecht had let their cat out of the bag, had put his finger on an almost masochistic mind-set existing on the left. In the light of the Moscow show trials a few years later, when leading Communists would confess all sorts of guilt and plead for the sternest punishments, The Measure can be seen as one of the first theatrical tragedies to deal with the political tragedy that was Stalinism.

The Party was happier with his 1932 adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel The Mother. A similar problem is presented in a less austere way when a sympathiser complains to the central character: “I heard your aim was to fight for freedom, but in the process you set up in your party the very worst kind of slavery. Some freedom! Nothing but orders and com­pulsion!” She replies:

It’s the same with freedom as it is with your money, Nikolai Ivanovitch. Since I’ve only been giving you a little pocket money, you’re able to buy a lot more. By spending less money for a while, you can then spend more money. You can’t argue with that.

But of course you can argue with that. Thinking for yourself is one of those precious commodities that can only be preserved by not rationing it. This conception—that socialists wait to be given the right to think every now and again, as a treat, and that the paternal dispensers of freedom are only doing this for their own good—fits in well with the Stalinist under­standing of political organisation, because freedom isn’t the aim of such organisation. The sympathiser throws in the towel: “I shall give up arguing with you. You’re a terrible tyrant.” “Yes, well,” she replies, “we have to be, don’t we.”

At the same time, however, Brecht continued to take his own counsel. He progressed from one non-Stalinist Marxist, Sternberg, to an even better one. Karl Korsch had been expelled from the KPD (although not thrown in a lime pit) in 1926, but had continued to work on rediscovering and develop­ing the critical heart of Marxist theory. Brecht attended his lectures and engaged in lengthy private discussion with him. They agreed to disagree on Stalinism, but Brecht later told his friend, “I regard you as my teacher”.

Brecht also took great pleasure in puncturing the arrogance of the KPD. In one of his cryptic Keuner Stories, for instance: “‘I have noticed,’ said Herr K, ‘that we have scared many people away from our teachings by the fact that we know all the answers. Could we not, in the interests of propa­ganda, draw up a list of questions which we see as completely unsolved?’”

Brecht managed to escape Germany the day after the Reichstag fire con­solidated the Nazis’ rule. Exile was never going to go down well with an artist whose work had always been completely collaborative. But the politi­cal moorings that should have helped sustain him weren’t as strong as they could have been. Two months into his exile, he writes: “up until now the existence of the party seems to have impaired rather than fostered cohesion among the refugees; they’re waiting for directives, party lines, arbitrations etc”.

He did his fair share of work with anti-fascist committees, congresses, and appeals. But when he told a writers’ congress in Paris in 1935 that fascism could only be effectively fought by fighting capitalism, his speech went unreported in the Communist press: the line had changed, and talk of socialism was now to be toned down to attract the middle class into a popular front.

His cultural activity with the Communists fared no better. He was nominal editor of a literary journal published in Moscow from 1936; but his attempts to develop unorthodox artistic approaches against the Stalinist prescription of ‘socialist realism’ came up against a brick wall. A Communist agitprop company staged The Mother in New York, but insisted on adapting it politically and theatrically to the party line.

Brecht lived in Switzerland, then Scandinavia, and finally the United States. Spending his exile in Russia never seemed an option. He visited the country in 1935, but when asked why he didn’t settle there, smiled and said, “I couldn’t get enough sugar for my tea and coffee.” It was just as well: many of his friends who had moved to Russia found themselves marginalised artistically and politically, and eventually ‘disappeared’ in the purges. In his journal he reflected on the fate of his friends, and of Russian society: “literature and art seem to be in the shit, political theory to have gone to the dogs, there’s a kind of bureaucratically favoured thin bloodless proletarian humanism”.

In a work that remained unpublished during his lifetime, he criticised “The absence of freedom of thought and freedom of combination, the false professions, the arbitrary administrative measures… it was not the members who elected the secretaries but the secretaries who elected the members… When mistakes were made the people who criticised them were punished”. Revolutionary leadership shouldn’t be administrative, should have an ethical dimension, and demand proof instead of faith.

He confided his doubts to his friend Walter Benjamin (another un­orthodox Marxist) during 1938. “Personal government rules in Russia”, he told him. “Only blockheads can deny that, of course.… In Russia a dictatorship over the proletariat rules.” The reason was that “You can’t have a socialist economy in one country.” This had its cultural reflection: “It’s interpreted as malice if Stalin’s name doesn’t turn up in a poem.” “He is following the Russian developments”, wrote Benjamin in his diary,

and also Trotsky’s writings. They prove that there exists a suspicion; a justified suspicion that promotes a sceptical view of Russian affairs. Such scepticism is in the spirit of the [Marxist] classics. Should it prove correct one day, then the regime will have to be fought—and openly, indeed. But “unfortunately or thank God, whichever you prefer”, this suspicion is not yet certain.

Brecht still saw Russia as more progressive than the West, as a political entity that should be defended—especially with war around the corner. So while he privately criticised Stalinism in his journal, in his poems, in conversation with his closest friends, publicly he came out in support of it. He even made a statement in support of the Moscow trials (while refusing to join in the more slavish eulogies).

In Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan (written in the late thirties) the good Shen Te can only survive in this world by adopting the mean, calculating persona of Shui Ta now and again. All of us, at one time or another, have had to keep quiet, bite our lip, go along with things to avoid the wrath of the boss, the union bureaucrat, the party hack, or what­ever. There are times when you have to bend rather than break. But for Brecht to come out in support of Stalin’s Russia—particularly when he was well aware of the sort of crimes it was committing—went beyond the limits of compromise.

Brecht’s attempts to gain a foothold in the US film and theatre world proved unsuccessful, and the rise of McCarthyism would have put paid to his American career, such as it was. So Brecht returned to Europe, as half of the continent and half of his own land came into Stalin’s orbit.

But he was in no hurry to take up residence in the Russian-controlled sector of Germany, where socialism was busy being constructed, according to its rulers. He moved to Switzerland and stayed there a year before going to East Berlin. A journalist who asked for his impressions of the city after fifteen years received the cautious reply: “Before I say anything, I want to see what it is like”. The bosses of the East German Communist party (the Socialist Unity Party, or SED) threw an official reception in his honour: he sat through the speeches and when it came his turn to reply he stood up, looked around, shook hands with the officials on either side of him, sat down again, and started eating his soup.

He hedged his bets as far as he could. He gave the copyright on his works to a West German publisher, giving him some financial and pro­fessional independence from the East. Physical independence he gained by applying for an Austrian passport and thus freedom to travel outside the Eastern bloc.

The East German authorities were keen to show off their cultural acquisition: Bertolt Brecht, the famous playwright, had sided with them. And they were prepared to give him certain privileges in return: a country house, for example, the offer of an official car. He took the house, but preferred to stay in the gardener’s cottage. The car he turned down for an old banger he bought himself; and any porters who opened the car door for him were bemused to see him stubbornly get out the passenger side. But above all he was given the opportunity to establish the Berliner Ensemble, a company with which he could put on plays in his own way.

It was a far cry from the frustrating life of an émigré playwright without actors, the life he had known since Hitler came to power. Another of the Keuner Stories says a lot: “Herr K preferred city B to city A. ‘…In city A I was asked to the table; but in city B I was asked into the kitchen.’”

But he still had no control over the menu. In 1951 the authorities tried to stop a production of his The Trial of Lucullus (1939): an anti-war play was not appropriate while their allies were in the middle of the Korean war. They managed to limit the audience to SED members, but many of these had no interest and sold their tickets, often to West Berliners. The audience applauded, but the Communist papers condemned. Brecht was summoned to an eight-hour audience with Party chiefs, after which he enquired (tongue ever so slightly in cheek): “Where else in the world can you find a government that shows such interest in, and pays such attention to, artists?” He made a few changes which amounted to little, and stayed away from the premiere of the new version. Then he published the original version and gave permission for it to be performed in West Germany.

To keep the government happy, he wrote Herrnburg Report, a poor propaganda piece condemning the Bonn government’s arrest of West German Communists crossing to a youth festival in the East. The Party was happy enough, but curtailed the play’s run: it wasn’t long before they were introducing far more draconian travel restrictions of their own. No wonder his play The Days of the Commune (1948) was banned until after his death: even a fictionalised version of the workers of Paris taking power eighty years earlier frightened the Stalinists. Brecht wrote few plays after returning to Germany, concentrating instead on producing his earlier work or that of other playwrights.

The tensions inherent in Brecht’s stand were stretched to breaking point by the events of 1953. March brought the good news of Stalin’s death, and paeans of praise from everyone who was anyone in the Stalinist world. But Brecht’s ‘tribute’ was cleverly ambiguous: “When they heard that Stalin was dead, it must have stopped the heartbeats of the oppressed in five continents… But the intellectual and material weapons he created are still there, and there is the teaching to create anew.”

He tried to take advantage of the slight thaw that followed, and his own reputation in the West as something of a dissident, to get a permanent theatre for his company. “You have probably heard that the wildest rumours have been circulating in West Germany about friction between the government of the German Democratic Republic and myself”, he wrote teasingly to an SED leader. “If the Berliner Ensemble, which is known far beyond the borders of Germany, were to take over the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, my solidarity with our republic would be evident to all.”

This letter was written on 15 June, as a building workers’ strike was causing big trouble for the government. Two days later, it had grown into a general strike across the cities of East Germany, demanding not only the withdrawal of plans for increased productivity, but free elections and democracy. For a short time the regime tottered, before Russian tanks crushed the revolt. The government was forced to roll back on the worst aspects of the productivity plan.

The uprising left Brecht with a stark choice: to side with the Communist party, or with the workers. He wrote to the party secretary:

History will pay its respects to the patience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
The great debate with the masses about the tempo of socialist con­struction will have the effect of testing and safeguarding the achieve­ments of socialism.
At this moment I feel it necessary to assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

This was calculated to be another delicate piece of fence-sitting: history might pay its respects to the SED, but he refrained from paying his own; popular involvement in economic planning was needed; and his expression of solidarity was a formal and bare one. But for once the Party was cleverer than Brecht: only the final sentence was published, without Brecht’s quali­fications. Brecht carried a copy of the full letter around with him, helplessly showing it to anyone who would look, but the damage was done: he was portrayed as an uncritical supporter of Stalinism against popular revolt.

This portrayal was not an altogether unjust one. For all its reservations, his message did come down clearly on the side of the government. And he did accept and repeat the official lies about the rising—that legitimate grievances were exploited by fascist elements and Western governments. He believed that the German people were still fascist at heart, and that free elections would only result in Nazis getting in.

But as usual he expressed private misgivings. A poem that he circulated amongst friends commented on the remark of a Communist hack during the rioting that the people had lost the government’s confidence:

…Would it not be
Simpler, then, for the government to
Dissolve the people and
Elect another?

He wrote nothing in his diary for months, before admitting there that “the 17 June has alienated the whole of existence”. Another poem was stronger still:

Last night in a dream I saw fingers, pointing at me
As at a leper. They were toil-worn and
They were broken.

You don’t know! I cried
Guiltily.

The Berliner Ensemble got its theatre. The gap opened by 17 June was widened by artists, including Brecht. The state, he wrote, should “refrain from administrative interference in matters of artistic production and style. Criticism should be left to the public.” He led the attack on the State Arts Commission, a bastion of Stalinist philistinism, and got it abolished. He played a part in winning greater freedom—on the back of a revolt he had opposed.

He continued to harbour private opposition to Stalinism. One poem referred to Stalin as “Honoured Murderer of the People”. He sympathised with those trying to reform the SED, and was under constant surveillance by the secret police. But publicly he remained, as always, loyal but awkward—right up to his death in 1956. The bureaucracy were preparing for a pompous funeral with plenty of speechifying opportunities, but Brecht, it turned out, had specified a quiet funeral: no speeches, no lying in state. He had told a friend to write him an honest obituary: “Don’t write that you admire me! Write that I was an uncomfortable person, and that I intend to remain so after my death. Even then there are certain possibilities.”

One of Brecht’s greatest plays is Life of Galilei, written in 1938-9, revised in 1947 and again in 1954. Galileo, on the verge of proving that the earth moves round the sun, moves to Florence to become court mathematician. The court is run by obscurantist monks, but he will at least have the oppor­tunity to pursue his researches. He writes to the grand duke that he longs to be “closer to you, the rising sun that will illuminate this epoch”, but wonders if his letter is grovelling enough: “A man like me can only get a halfway decent job by crawling on his belly.”

Galileo’s further discoveries come up against the Vatican’s ban. “The whole of Europe wants to know your opinion”, his pupil Andrea Sarti tells him; “your reputation is so wide, you can’t just keep silent.” “Rome has allowed me to get a wide reputation because I’ve kept silent”, he replies. He later writes to the cardinal to approve of his condemnation of Venice’s rebellious ropemakers. “By the depth of my repentance”, he tells Andrea, “I have earned enough goodwill from my superiors to enable me to engage in scientific studies to a modest extent under clerical supervision.”

Galileo manages to write his Discorsi, the work that will revolutionise science, and Andrea smuggles it abroad. He had thought that Galileo betrayed science to save his own skin—but now he realises that he was surrendering so that he could carry on his research, the work that no one else could do. Scientific progress is more important to humanity than individual martyrdom.

Did Brecht do the same? Did he accept Stalinism, work for it, support it even as it suppressed workers fighting for freedom, all so that he could continue to work, to provide humanity with the art that no one else would have produced?

In the play Brecht makes Galileo disagree with Andrea:

I had as a scientist an unparalleled chance. In my day astronomy reached the marketplace. In these circumstances the steadfastness of one man could have made a big impact. If I had resisted, the natural scientists could have developed something like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath, the pledge to use their knowledge only for the good of humanity! As it is the best we can hope for is a race of ingenious dwarves that can be hired for anything. Besides, I have come to the conclusion, Sarti, that I was never in any real danger. For a couple of years I was as strong as the authorities. And I handed over my knowledge to the powerful to use, to not use, to misuse, whatever suited their purposes.

Brecht could not but have thought long and hard on these words as the play was being presented by the Berliner Ensemble the year before his death. After all, he had sold himself too cheaply. As a director he had the opportunity to produce his best work in East Germany; but he had proved in exile that he could write outstanding plays and poems without state patronage—something that proved difficult when he eventually received such patronage. His Marxism had helped him produce some of the century’s most insightful art; but his commitment to Stalinism, lukewarm and all as it was, obscured that vision. He had spent the best half of his life on the side of the oppressed; but in 1953 had stained that record by turning his back on them. When Galileo recants before the Inquisition his pupil Andrea laments: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” “No,” replies Galileo. “Unhappy the land that has need of heroes.”

Poems of Hitler and his war

These poems by Bertolt Brecht were published in Issue 26 (November 2006).

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht, socialist poet and playwright. As a contribution to the commemoration, we publish some of Brecht’s poems, translated into English for the first time. ‘The song of the painter Hitler’ was written in 1933 and published the following year in the collection Lieder Gedichte Chöre with a musical arrangement by Hanns Eisler. The ironic reference to Hitler’s past as a painter is a common theme of Brecht’s poetry. The other poems were written in 1938 and belong to his ‘German War Primer’. The first two were published in the collection Svendborger Gedichte that year, while the other two remained unpublished during Brecht’s lifetime.

The song of the painter Hitler

1
The painter Hitler said:
Let me at it, dear people, for you!
And he took a fresh tub of whitewash
And painted Germany’s house anew.
Germany’s whole house anew.

2
The painter Hitler said:
It doesn’t take long to rebuild!
And the holes and the cracks and the faults
Can all just with paint be filled.
The whole shit with paint is filled.

3
Oh, painter Hitler
A mason is what you should be!
When the rain hits the whitewash on your house
The dirt is there again for all to see.
The whole shithouse is there to see.

4
The painter Hitler never studied colour
It never really gave him a kick
And even as he was let at it
On everything he laid it on thick.
On all Germany he laid it on thick.

Those at the top
Are meeting in a room.
A man on the street
Abandons all hope.

The governments sign
Non-aggression pacts.
Little man
Write your will.

When the war begins
Maybe your brother will change
So that you don’t recognise his face
But you should stay the same.

You will go to the war, not
As you would go to a slaughterhouse, but
As you would to a serious job. You
Will be forgotten by everyone.
But you should forget nothing.

Brandy will be poured down your throat
Like everyone else.
But you should stay sober.

The painter says:
The more artillery that is produced
The longer peace will last.

So that must mean:
The more grains that are planted
The less wheat will grow.
The more cattle that are slaughtered
The less meat there will be.
The more snow that melts on the mountains
The shallower the streams will be.

The young people sit crouched over the books
Why do they learn?
No book explains
How you get water
When you are hanging from barbed wire.