Bertolt Brecht’s poetry captured a world torn apart by war and depression.
By Noah Isenberg
November 15, 2017
Although far better known internationally as a playwright than as a poet, Bertolt Brecht had a supreme gift for language. He applied much of the same plucky, rebellious spirit to his poems that he did to his world-class theater productions of the late Weimar years, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht began publishing his poetry as a teen, around the same time that Germany was gearing up for the First World War.
By the 1930s, his work had taken on a decidedly anti-Nazi bent. In 1937, while exiled in Svendborg, Denmark, Brecht produced a cycle of unrhymed epigrams that he called Deutsche Kriegsfibel (German War Primer), which he published in the Moscow-based German monthly Das Wort and later included in his Svendborg Poems. Brecht’s frequent collaborator from his Weimar years, the composer Hanns Eisler—who, in American exile, would furnish the score for the anti-Nazi Hollywood film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), co-written by Brecht and directed by fellow European transplant Fritz Lang—soon adapted the epigrams into an operatic composition titled Against War.
These same epigrams also served as a blueprint for Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer), a series of 85 poems—in this case, rhymed quatrains—that he juxtaposed with evocative photos drawn from the Swedish and American illustrated press (clippings of Hitler and his henchmen, images of wounded soldiers and refugees, landscapes of bombed-out cities and battlefronts). Brecht assembled his photo-epigrams while living in California in the mid-1940s, and he first published them in a truncated German edition in 1955 in East Berlin, where he and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, had returned in 1949.
Verso has now published a complete English-language version of these poems, translated by the late Brecht scholar John Willett with the help of the American poet Naomi Replansky and Brecht’s son Stefan.
Born in the Bavarian town of Augsburg in 1898, Brecht first attained political consciousness during the Great War, when he began to rail with intense fervor against the corrosive forces of German bourgeois society. In 1917, he moved to Munich to study medicine, serving as an orderly in a Bavarian military hospital during the final year of the war, and quickly found his way to the theater.
His first plays, Baal and Drums in the Night, were composed in Munich in the immediate wake of the war. They were also written against the backdrop of the bloody revolutionary upheaval that accompanied the founding of the Weimar Republic. During these years, Brecht counted among his close friends and collaborators the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch, the anarchic Bavarian cabaret performer Karl Valentin, and the politically minded dramatist Erwin Piscator.
Leaving Bavaria for Berlin in 1924, Brecht continued his labors as a playwright and poet, working at different points with Piscator, Kurt Weill, and Max Reinhardt. In 1932, he collaborated with the Bulgarian-born communist filmmaker Slatan Dudow, providing the script for Kuhle Wampe (released in English with the subtitle Who Owns the World?), an anti-fascist talkie with much the same didacticism of his earlier Lehrstücke (literally, “learning plays”), bold experiments in agitprop theater.
After Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933, there was clearly no room for Brecht in Germany. He fled first to Svendborg, where he had the freedom—and the distance—to reflect upon the world as it seemingly burst apart before his very eyes, and then eventually, by way of Finland and Russia, to the United States.
Brecht wrote the defiant epigrams gathered in War Primer throughout these years. It was a time when he harbored an increasing awareness of language’s inability to adequately capture the horrors of fascism and war spreading across Europe. In the spring of 1939, just months before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he wrote a poem titled “Bad Time for Poetry,” in which he mused, almost in anticipation of Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum on writing poetry after Auschwitz, “In my poetry a rhyme / Would seem to be almost insolent.”
He nonetheless pushed ahead in crafting his quatrains—for a brief time, it appeared that was all he could write—beginning in 1939 and finishing the bulk of them in Southern California in late July 1941. Brecht’s fellow German émigré Hannah Arendt, long an admirer of his work, once praised him for his startlingly apt, lapidary definition of the refugee as “a messenger of ill tidings.” War Primer is nothing if not a refugee’s undertaking, a “literary report on my years in exile,” as Brecht himself once characterized it in his journal.
From the very first page, in a quatrain set against a photo of Hitler gesticulating maniacally in front of a dark swastika, Brecht set out to expose the odious lies and false promises propagated in the name of National Socialism. “Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep,” he wrote, assuming the voice of the Führer, “I know the way Fate has prescribed for us / That narrow way towards a precipice. / Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.”
In a somewhat later photo-epigram that showed Hitler seated at a table at a time of extreme scarcity with a plate full of sumptuous food, Brecht ended his poem with the following two lines: “World conquest. That is all I want. From you / I have but one request: give me your sons.” More than a mere leitmotif, an underlying theme of unnecessary sacrifice and intense savagery inflicted upon the innocent—those often unnamed casualties of war—permeates the text and images.
The cover of the Verso edition features a photo taken in Russia sometime in the summer of 1943, on the battlefield of Orel: It shows a German corporal seated with his hands gripping his head in a gesture of absolute grief and despair. The following quatrain accompanies the photo inside the book: “I’m left to sit here holding my poor head: / Now the Misleader’s fleeing from his troubles. / The cock that chokes on all the corn he’s fed: / They’ll go up in bubbles.” Scraps of artillery and other war detritus left behind on the front fill out the center of the frame, the torso of a dead soldier cut off by the photo’s edge, the ominous gray sky and barren field evoking an atmosphere later rendered on the bleak canvases of Anselm Kiefer. The unknown German publication from which the photo comes has given it an ominous caption: “Das Ende…”
For many years, Brecht had been impressed by the anti-fascist photomontages of John Heartfield, and he was clearly aware of Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (1929), the Dada artist’s collaboration with the writer Kurt Tucholsky, a biting political satire that employed a similar text-image technique. Brecht himself had utilized the concept of montage as a key principle of his “epic theatre,” which also incorporated political slogans, placards, film projection, and other interruptions to puncture the dramatic illusion, all of it aimed at eliciting a critical and politically engaged response on the part of the audience. Likewise, in War Primer, the inherent tension between the newspaper photos and his epigrams is an opportunity to produce a similar “alienation effect” in the reader.
Brecht occasionally had the opportunity to try out his poems on an audience. Just months after Brecht arrived in California and settled in Santa Monica, the actor Fritz Kortner—one of the many formerly famous Weimar stars languishing in Hollywood—gave a reading of some of the early epigrams at a Jewish club in Los Angeles. In 1943, during a three-month stay by the writer in New York City, a “Brecht Evening” was held at the New School, organized by an anti-fascist writers’ group and featuring readings of his poems by the actors Peter Lorre and Elisabeth Bergner, with a piano accompaniment by Paul Dessau.
Brecht soon published three of his epigrams in the Austro-American Tribune, including one with a photo of nearly a dozen seemingly sleepwalking, utterly dejected German Army recruits on the Russian front. “These are our children,” the text read. “Stunned and bloody-faced / Out of a frozen Panzer see them come. / Even the vicious wolf must have a place / To hide in. Warm them, they are getting numb.”
One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Brecht wrote the majority of the poems in War Primer while exiled in the United States—a place that he’d once admired from afar during his Weimar years but that proved difficult for him to embrace. Unlike quite a few of his compatriots, who were enamored of the ocean breezes and lush vegetation, Brecht was no fan of Southern California. “Almost nowhere has my life ever been harder than here in this mausoleum of easy going,” he wrote in his journal soon after his arrival, rendering the expression in English. “I feel as if I had been exiled from our era,” he observed a little later, “this is Tahiti in the form of a big city.” In a letter to Korsch, he lamented: “My intellectual isolation here is horrendous; compared to Hollywood, Svendborg was a metropolis.”
These harsh sentiments weren’t kept from his War Primer. In one photo-epigram, a poem set against a Life magazine photo of Jane Wyman wearing an “R.A.F. blue” dress, Brecht ruminates on the bizarre, almost surreal world in which he found himself living as an “enemy alien”: “A breast curves through her military cut / Her parts are hung with old war decorations: / It’s Hollywood v. Hitler. Here we’ve got / Semen for blood, and pus for perspiration.”
Although Hollywood was a safe haven for many refugees during the war, in Brecht’s jaundiced eye it suffered from its own version of spiritual delusion and mendacity. As he wrote in a poem composed soon after his arrival in Southern California: “Every day to earn my daily bread / I go to the market, where lies are bought / Hopefully / I take my place among the sellers.”
Despite their origins as a commentary on World War II, and perhaps more obliquely on Brecht’s unhappy life in Californian exile, the poems transcend their original context. This is certainly true of the volume as a whole, but for me two of the photo-epigrams particularly stand out in this vein. The first is a poem that Brecht wrote in response to a photo in Life of a Jewish mother and her child, who had survived a shipwreck while en route to Palestine (the image bears the caption “Refugees Without Refuge”): “And many of us drowned just off the beaches. / The long night passed, the sky began to clear. / If they but knew, we said, they’d come and seek us. / That they did know, we still were unaware.”
The second is a poem that Brecht wrote after learning of a US soldier who saved a black man from a lynch mob in downtown Detroit in the summer of 1943. The photo shows the man hunched over, looking as if he’d been kicked in the gut, being escorted by a soldier in uniform, a whistle in his mouth and a look of determination in his eye. Brecht, who had hoped to stage an all-black production of The Threepenny Opera, writes in the accompanying poem: “Outside the City Hall, beaten and bloody / A GI rescued me. He was my friend / And showed more courage there than anybody / At Kiska or Bataan or the Ardennes.”
Indeed, much as we may wish it otherwise, these wars aren’t quite over yet. And that is precisely what makes War Primer so remarkably timely. Brecht may continue to be remembered today for his acclaimed plays, several of which are still taught at colleges and performed on stages across the globe. But this long-neglected, little-known volume of photo-epigrams deserves a new audience. As the author writes in his final poem, which is set against a photo of young university students in Germany after the war: “Never forget that men like you got hurt / So you might sit there, not the other lot. / And now don’t hide your head and don’t desert / But learn to learn, and try to learn for what.”
Late in life, Brecht is said to have considered compiling a Friedensfibel (Peace Primer), and this final poem might have offered him a potential beginning for that elusive project. He died in East Berlin in 1956, before he got the chance to finish it, or even to begin it in earnest. But one wonders how such a project might have looked and, especially today, whether there even would have been sufficient material from which to draw.