In the rush of events that so characterize the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it is easy to lose sight of some of the giants of the last one. I submit that one of them is Bertolt Brecht.
I was acquainted, in passing, with his play, The Three Penny Opera, but had no idea that he wrote several volumes of poetry. And I knew nothing of his life and radical politics.
Brecht is better known for his many plays. A partial list includes Mother Courage and her Children, The Threepenny Opera, Life of Galileo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Szechwan.
This review will focus on several poems, out of hundreds, that spoke to me and illustrate the passion of his political beliefs.
Born Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht in 1898 Germany, he came from a middle class, religious household. As he reached adolescence, Brecht was in increasing conflict with his very religious mother. This clash with an authoritarian church may have fed his later ardent support for the underdog.
Brecht served at the tail end of WWI as a hospital orderly and chafed under the restrictions his duties placed on his writing. From a young age, he guarded his time and took his art quite seriously.
More pivotal than the war for Brecht was the failed German Revolution of 1918-1919. The working class movement was split and the writer supported the Communists. He never wavered in his defense of the Soviet Union. He wrote “Epitaph 1919” about the leader of the German insurrection, Rosa Luxemburg.
Red Rosa now has vanished too,
Where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life is about
And so the rich have rubbed her out.
The themes of opposition to war and sympathy for the working class and its burdens dominate Brecht’s poetry. In “Lullabies” he is a mother speaking of her husband, dead in the war, and her determination to keep her son safe. She addresses her son,
My son, you must listen to your mother when she tells you
It’ll be worse than the plague, the life you’ve got in store.
But don’t think I brought you into the world so painfully
To lie down under it and meekly ask for more.
What you don’t have, don’t ever abandon
What they don’t give you, get yourself and keep.
I, your mother, haven’t borne and fed you
To see you crawl one night under a railway arch to sleep.
The poem ends with words exhorting her son to “stay close to your own people/So your power, like the dust, will spread to every place.”
Saddled with reparations to the Allied -powers that won WWI, Germany was hard hit by the Great Depression. With a fractured left wing and the disastrous Stalin-directed policy of the Communist Party refusing to ally with the reformist German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the fight against Hitler, the stage was set for his rise. Brecht marked the dictator’s coming with a satirical song, “Hitler Chorale.”
Now thank we all our God
For sending Hitler to us;
From Germany’s fair land
To clear away the rubbish…
In the end, the poet concludes
After long years he’s found you
You’ve reached your goal at last.
The butcher’s arms are round you
He holds you to him fast.
In his poem “When the Fascists Kept Getting Stronger” Brecht talks about fighting back against the right wing.
When the fascists kept getting stronger in Germany
And even workers were joining them in growing masses
We said to ourselves: We fought the wrong way.
All through our red Berlin the Nazis strutted, in fours and fives
In their new uniforms, murdering
So we said to the comrades of the SPD:
Are we to stand by while they murder our comrades?
The SPD was slow to react to increasing attacks against workers.
In a poem titled “To The Fighters in the Concentration Camps,” the poet speaks of the steadfastness of the workers and concludes with,
So you are
Beaten down but
Along with all those incorrigibly fighting
Unteachably set on the truth
Now and forever the true
Leaders of Germany.
A word should be said about Brecht’s style of poetry. It is spare and plain spoken, without the flowery language and complex metaphors of other styles, but it packs a punch. It is as if the poet is saying, “Look at the thing in its essence, without pretense, and confront the truth.” Simplicity often belies deep meaning.
As the situation deteriorated in Germany just prior to WWII, Brecht was threatened with arrest and forced to leave Germany. He ended up in Hollywood, USA. He was there as the post-war McCarthy witch-hunt began, and in 1947 was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC led the charge against anyone deemed a communist or communist sympathizer, determined to root them out of government and American society.
Brecht told his American friends that as a non-citizen, he felt he had no choice but to appear before the committee. But he claimed not to know whether anyone was a member of the Communist Party, HUAC’s obsession. He treated committee members to many an ironic non-answer.
He returned to East Germany and was active in the theater until his death at age 56. His poem “I Need No Gravestone” is brief and to the point:
I need no gravestone, but
If you need one for me
I would like it to bear these words:
He made suggestions. We
Carried them out.
Such an inscription would
Honor us all.
Author contact: FSnews@socialism.com.