The 75th anniversary of the first performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera occurred recently. Over the past few years there have been several major critical biographies of Brecht, and studies of his relationship with his female artistic collaborators.
There is no question that Brecht was one of the two or three most influential playwrights of the 20th century, and his artistic influence has been generally progressive. Nevertheless, his work includes a hard Stalinist aspect, which, for instance in the 1970s, made a kind of romantic Stalinism acceptable to some intellectuals and students.
The play Ruth Fischer discusses below is better known in English as The Measures Taken, and is still in print in the comprehensive Methuen library of Brecht plays.
Fischer’s book, Stalin and German Communism, is of great historical interest, particularly to people who may have followed the discussion of the notion of Zinovievism on the Marxmail list.
Fischer was a witness to the complex and contradictory development of German Communism, the Comintern and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from the early 1920s through to the total Stalinisation at the end of the 1920s. Her book is obviously a primary source for discussion of the phenomenon of Zinovievism, taken up more recently by Louis Proyect and others. (See The Comintern and the German Communist Party.)
The book’s obvious weakness is that it is written, to some extent, in self-justification, and by the time Fischer wrote it her experiences had shifted her to a literate anti-communism. The experiences of Fischer and others like her, however, must be considered in their historical context. A very large number of German Communists perished at the hands of Stalin or Hitler.
For instance, Heinz Neumann, one of the protagonists in Fischer’s book, was killed in the Soviet Union. His wife, Marguerite Buber-Neumann, the niece of the well-known philosopher Martin Buber, was first imprisoned in Stalin’s gulag and then handed over to Hitler along with 300 other opposition German socialists and communists as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1940.
Marguerite Buber survived Dachau concentration camp and lived to write a rather sobering autobiography, including her experiences under two dictators. It gives pause for thought that the 300 German Communists (at least the non-Jewish ones among them) handed over to Hitler turned out to be the lucky ones. They were locked up in non-extermination camps such as Dachau. The Nazis didn’t have a policy of total extermination of “Aryan” Communists, just their locking up and so-called Nazi re-education.
By way of contrast, the hundreds of thousands of Russian Communists and the thousands of non-Russian Communists had an enormously high rate of execution and death from privation. The survival rate of German Communists in Hitler’s camps was higher, which is a macabre and sobering fact.
Another member of this group was Arthur Koestler’s Austrian Communist scientist relative, Alex Weissberg, who was arrested and imprisoned in 1936 in the USSR and only released after a very widely publicised campaign by Koestler in 1952.
The shift of surviving German Communists such as Ruth Fischer to the right in the post-war period has to be considered against the disastrous backdrop of the time.
August 10, 2003
Bert Brecht, the minstrel of the GPU
The changed character of the party can be illustrated well in the works of the one gifted poet the German Communists ever had, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht joined the party only in 1930, and his poetry glorifying it was written during the years of the depression; he had never known, he had never participated in, he had not been drawn to Communism in its original form. On the contrary, the young Brecht, the son of an Augsburg paper mill owner, was indifferent, if not hostile, to German Communism as long as it was a fighting and democratically organised body; during the civil war he was a disinterested outsider. He joined the party without previous links to it, with little knowledge of it. His works are the reflection of the transitional period and its finished product, the Stalinist party.1
Brecht was among the young poets who, profoundly shaken by the war and its results in Germany, reacted with negativism; he was one of the poets of Germany’s social disintegration. Discarding realism for avant-garde forms, he attempted to express in his early works the horror and destruction of the time of troubles. His first play, Drums in the Night, is a bitter satire on the Weimar Republic. A soldier, long believed dead, comes home unexpected, unwanted, to find his sweetheart in the arms of a black marketeer. The Spartakus revolt and Rosa Luxembourg are mentioned, but only as backdrops, to give colour. The soldier, undecided between Bett and Barrikade, choses the bed with the blue canopy and ignores politics.
In a series of works following this, Brecht expressed his nihilism in various and bizarre forms. For him, there are no forms of society, past or present or future, no values, no goods; his message is: there is nothing. In another play, Brecht takes us to Mahogany, one of his imaginary towns, this one situated somewhere in the western hemisphere — a centre of brutal, noisy pleasure business, of drinking and gambling and love-making. Johnny, the Alaskan woodcutter, comes here and spends his hard-earned money. In the final scene he discovers not only that pleasures are empty, but there is nothing to which a man can hold — “da is nichts, woran man sich halten kann”. The climax of this period came with Brecht’s best-known work, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Beggar’s Opera), which shows thieves and prostitutes as the only people of worth. To the accompaniment of Kurt Weill’s music, this became Germany’s first depression hit. Its climactic line, “Erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral” (“First we stuff ourselves and then we think of morals”), became a folk saying.
From this overall negation, from this cynical withdrawal from all values, from this bitter empty nihilism, Brecht collapsed into the polar opposite, the adoration of the discipline and the hierarchical order of the German Communist Party. Hypnotised by its totalitarian and terrorist features, he became the most original poet the party ever possessed. The avant garde critic of society became the minstrel of indoctrination, the medium for transferring party philosophy to the crowd. In this period he calls his works didactic plays or school operas. The German edition includes portions of a discussion on the school opera, Der Neinsager (The No-Sayer), by students of the Karl Marx School of Berlin-Neukolln, a progressive high school so named by its Social Democratic directors (Bertolt Brecht, Versuche 11-12, Berlin, 1931, IV, 308ff).
Brecht’s plays were produced with a minimum of props, as abstractly as possible. On a bare stage, with no naturalistic scenery to distract the audience, one symbolic object is pushed into the foreground, almost a member of the cast. They were written to be put on in the open air, in a meeting hall, in a barracks. Frequently the small cast is supplemented by a Greek chorus, symbolising the masses, who comment on the deeds and misdeeds of the actors. The themes are parables, often adaptations of ancient or medieval plots to a modern environment. They are repeated like drumbeats — the sacrifice of the individual to the collective, the substitutability of any individual for another, the non-viability of individual morality with respect to the collective, the necessity and inflexibility of the hierarchical order, the inevitability and the strange beauty of terror. Brecht taught that the individual has not only to sacrifice himself for the cause but also to sacrifice the cause to the higher insight of the hierarchy. Brecht developed a technique of his own, based on the epic drama; events are not reproduced at the time of their happening, but are reported on later, often by flashbacks in the form of plays within the play. In his forms and sometimes in his themes, he shows the conscious influence of Shakespeare; the typical Shakespearian soliloquy summing up the moral of the play is often transferred in Brecht to the chorus. Brecht is fascinated by Chinese philosophy and presents Marx and Lenin as the Classical Teachers, the Wise Old Men.
One of the few didactic plays of Brecht was Man is Man, the theme of which is that the individual is futile and replaceable. In a prologue, a single actor appears and announces that Bert Brecht is of the opinion that things happen thus. The scene opens on a group of soldiers in Calcutta; by some misadventure, one of them disappears, but is replaced immediately; there is no change in the collective. “Es ist ganz egal auf wen die Sonne shien” (“It doesn’t matter at all on whom the sun shone”). An incident in 1947 Germany reads like the synopsis of this earlier Brecht play. In Potsdam, 12 German prisoners of war are escorted by a Russian soldier, to be shipped to an unknown destination. At the Stadtbahn station the detachment passes a crowd of people hurrying home from work. One middle-aged, ill-clad woman suddenly throws herself on one of the German prisoners; it is her husband, returned from the dead. The Russian guard allows the reunited pair to depart together, followed by
the amazed stare of the 11 and the civilians. A young civilian in the crowd, with a briefcase under his arm, is singled out of the crowd. “You come with us,” the guard says. Again the little detachment numbers 12, and it marches off as though nothing had happened. (Reported by John Scott, Time, New York, April 21, 1947, p 32.) Those who had been in concentration camps remembered the technique. As Brecht writes in his epilogue, “This was to be demonstrated: QED.”
The one didactic play of this series by Brecht that best digests all the terroristic features into a mirror of the totalitarian party and its elite guard, the NKVD, is The Measures Taken, written under the impact of the defeat of Chinese Communism (Die Massahme, in Bertolt Brecht, Gessammelte Werke, II, 329-359, 1938, Malik-Verlag Publishing Company, London). The accompanying music was written by Hanns Eisler, whose brother, Gerhart, had been sent to China at the end of 1929 to liquidate the opposition to the Russian Politburo. The play, a parable on the annihilation of the party opposition, is a preview of the Moscow trials. With a sensitivity to Stalinist methods that denotes his genius, Brecht was able to write in 1931 a play about the show trials his master would produce five years later.
Four Agitators report to a Controlchorus concerning their mission to Mukden. We see the Controlchorus in the background, and in the foreground the Agitators act out the incidents of their mission. Many passages are set to music, and the others are recitative interludes. The play begins:
- Controlchorus: Step forward. Your work has been blest. In this land also the Revolution is on the march, and the ranks of the fighters have been formed here too. We are in agreement with you.The Four Agitators: Stop. We have to say something. We announce the death of one comrade.
Controlchorus: Who killed him?
The Four Agitators: We killed him. We shot him and threw him in a lime pit.
Controlchorus: What had he done, that you shot him?
The Four Agitators: Often he did the right thing, but sometimes the wrong, but in the end he endangered the movement. He wanted to do the Right but he did the Wrong. We seek your judgement.
Controlchorus: Show how it happened, and why, and you will hear our judgement.
The Four Agitators: We will accept your judgement.
In the first of a series of flashbacks, this one called, The Principles of the Classics (Marx and Lenin) the Three Agitators report how they stopped at the last party house at the border to get a guide into China, and there meet The Young Comrade.
- Three Agitators: We come from Moscow.The Young Comrade: We have waited for you.
Three Agitators: Why?
The Young Comrade: We are stalled. There are disorder and want here, little bread and much fighting. Many have courage, but few can read.
The Young Comrade asks whether they have brought with them locomotives and tractors and machineguns and ammunition. On the contrary, they failed to even bring a letter from the Central Committee to tell them what to do.
- Three Agitators: It is thus. We bring nothing for you. But over the border to Mukden we bring the Chinese workers the Principles of the Classics and of the Propagandists: the ABCs of Communism; to the ignorant, knowledge of their situation; to the oppressed, class consciousness; and to the class conscious, the experience of the Revolution. From you, however, we have to get an automobile and someone to guide us.
After this first scene the Controlchorus sings a song: In Praise of the USSR.
In the second scene, called The Extinguishing, the Four Agitators are ready to enter China, but they must first extinguish their faces.
- Director of the Party House: You shall go over the border as Chinese. You must not be seen.Two Agitators: We are not seen.
Director of the Party House: If one of you is wounded, he must not be found.
Two Agitators: He is not found.
Director of the Party House: You are ready to die and to hide the dead?
Two Agitators: Yes.
Director of the Party House: Then you no longer are yourselves. No longer are you Karl Schmitt of Berlin. You are no longer Anna Kyersk of Kazan, and you no longer are Peter Savich of Moscow. You are all without name or mother, blank leaflets on which the revolution writes its orders.
The Director gives them masks, which they put on their faces.
- Controlchorus: Who fights for Communism must be able to fight and not to fight, to say the truth and not to say the truth, to render and to deny a service, to keep a promise and to break a promise, to go into danger and to avoid danger, to be known and to be unknown. Who fights for Communism has of all the virtues only one: that he fights for Communism.
The first episode in China is entitled The Stone. The Agitators first go downtown, to stir up the coolies. The Young Comrade is admonished not “to fall into the trap of pity”. The coolies are pulling a boat up the river, and they slip and fall in the mud. The Young Comrade, becoming one of them, helps by placing a heavy stone in the mire so that they do not slip. Three times The Young Comrade places the stone, and then cries out for better shoes for the coolies. Having thus exposed himself, he is seized by the overseer, and the Agitators have to depart.
The next episode is called The Small and the Great Injustice.
- The Four Agitators: We fonded the first cells in the factories, educated the first militants, established a Party school, and taught them to put out illegal literature.
The Young Comrade is assigned to distribute leaflets before the factory gates, but without exposing himself. He is instructed to avoid conflict with the authorities under all circumstances. When a policeman beats a worker, however, The Young Comrade interferes and even cries for help. Again he and the Agitators have to flee.
His supreme test, in the episode entitled, What is a Man After All? concerns his attitude towards the business world.
- The Four Agitators: We fought daily with the old unions, with hopelessness, and with submission. We taught the workers to transform the fight for better wages into a fight for power. Taught them the use of weapons and the art of demonstration. then we heard that the businessmen were wrangling over custom duties with the British who rule the town. To utilise this conflict among the rulers for the sake of the ruled, we sent The Young Comrade to the wealthiest of the businessmen with a letter. In it was written: “Arm the coolies.” We instructed The Young Comrade, act so that you get the weapons. We will show you how it happened.One Agitator: I am the Businessman. I wait for a letter from the coolie union about common action against the British.
The Young Comrade: Here is the letter of the coolie union.
The Businessman: I invite you to eat with me.
The Young Comrade: It is an honour for me to be permitted to eat with you.
The Businessman points to the common interest of the coolie union and himself; both are clever; both live off the coolies. The Young Comrade remembers his instructions and agrees. Until the dinner arrives, the Businessman sings his favourite tune, The Song of the Commodity:
- There is rice down the river,
Up the river people need rice.
If we store the rice
They will pay more for it.
Those who tow the rice-boats
Will get even less of it.
Then for me the rice will be even cheaper.
Do I know what a rice is?
Do I know who knows that!
I know not what a rice is!
I know only its price …
Do I know what a man is?
Do I know who knows that!
I know not what a man is!
I know only his price.
Outraged, The Young Comrade refuses to continue eating with the Businessman.
- The Young Comrade: (getting up) I cannot eat with you.The Four Agitators: He said that. And not ironic laughter, nor any pressure could induce him to eat with the one he despised. And the Businessman threw him out. And the coolies got no arms.
Here the play is interrupted by a discussion of Communist tactics.
- Controlchorus: But is it not right to cherish honour above all else?The Four Agitators: No.
Controlchorus: Long since we ceased listening to you as judges and began to learn.
Then the Controlchorus sings the song, Change the World, It Needs It:
- What vileness would you not commit to
Could you change the world, for what
would you be too good?
Who are you?
Sink into the mud,
embrace the butcher, but
change the world, it needs it.
The last scene is called The Betrayal.
- The Four Agitators: In these weeks the persecutions increased beyond measure. We had only a hidden room for the typesetter and the pamphlets. One morning large hunger revolts broke out in the town and there was news of unrest in the countryside.
The Young Comrade discusses with the Agitators whether the time is ripe for an uprising. He revolts against the party, which wants to postpone the action until a better moment.
- Three Agitators: You go to the unemployed and convince them that they must go ahead alone. We demand that of you in the name of the Party.The Young Comrade: But
who is the Party? Is it sitting in a house with the telephone? Are its ideas secret, its decisions unknown? Who is it?
The Controlchorus sings In Praise of the Party:
- One man has two eyes
The party has 1000 eyes.
The Party overlooks seven states
One man sees one city.
One man has his hour
But the party has many hours.
One man can die
But the party cannot be killed.
For it is the avant garde of the masses
And leads their fight.
With the methods of the Classics
Ladled out of
The knowledge of reality.
The Young Comrade, who has already torn up the Scriptures of the Classics, cries:
- That no longer has any bearing. At the moment of the fight, I reject all that was yesterday valid and do only what is human. My heart beats for the Revolution.
He takes off his mask, and cries:
- We have come to help you. We come from Moscow.
He tears the mask in pieces.
- The Four Agitators: We saw him. In the dusk we saw his naked face, human, open, guileless. He had torn up the mask. He kept on crying out in the open street. We knocked him down, picked up his unconscious body, and hurried out of the town.
The climax is called The Punitive Measure.
- Three Agitators: We decided:
he had to disappear, and totally.
For we had to return to our work
and we could not take him with us nor leave him there
so we had to shoot him and throw him in the lime pit
for the lime will burn him up.Controlchorus: There was no other way?
Three Agitators: With time getting short we found no other way.
For five minutes, with pursuers at our heels,
we deliberated over a better possibility.
Terrible it is, to kill,
but not only others but ourselves we kill when it
But we cannot, we said,
permit ourselves not to kill. Only on our
unbending will to change the world can we base
First Agitator: We will ask him if he agrees, for he was a brave fighter.
Second Agitator: But even if he does not agree with us, he must disappear, disappear totally.
Three Agitators: So we ask you, do you agree?
The Young Comrade: Yes, I see that I have always acted incorrectly. Now it would be better if I were not.
Three Agitators: Yes. Do you want to do it alone?
The Young Comrade: Help me.
Three Agitators: Lean your head against our arm, close your eyes.
The Young Comrade: For Communism …
Three Agitators: Then we shot him and threw him into the lime pit, and when the lime had absorbed him we returned to our work.
Controlchorus: Your work has been blest.
You have propagated
the Principles of the Classics
the ABCs of Communism.
And the Revolution is on the march here too
and here too have the ranks of the fighters been formed.
We are in agreement.
In its language, in the symbols it uses, this didactic play, Die Massnahme, is characteristic of the Comintern. The defeat in China and the subsequent purge are used in Germany to indoctrinate the party in docility to Moscow and passivity to the Nazis. In avant garde abstractions, Brecht achieves the transfiguration and beatification of the Stalinist Party. The audacious use of the Controlchorus symbolises the intervention of the GPU in Party life and the voluntary acceptance of its hierarchical discipline. Stalin’s reorganised Comintern is presented in the figure of the naive Communist, who submits himself to final judgement by the representatives from Moscow. On every Russian border, there are Party houses, with Moscow missionaries en route to every country, under a mask, to life which is the supreme crime. Under the mask they manipulate the native movements, which may be sacrificed to a union with The Businessman when the fight against the British, against the West, makes this advisable. In a simple and very German way, Brecht is able to present the German Communist Party, stripped of every revolutionary impetus of its early years, with no trace of a life of its own, a docile instrument in the hands of the Russian hierarchs.
1. Brecht left Germany in 1933. After travelling about Europe, he settled down during the Hitler era in Svendborg, Denmark. When the Nazis invaded the country in 1940, he left, going finally to Santa Monica, California, where with his old friend, Hanns Eisler, he formed the nucleus of a Communist literary and artistic group. Another member of this group was Leon Feuchtwanger, who learned the reason for the Moscow trials in a personal interview with Stalin. During the anti-Nazi decade in the United States, this group — Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann, among others — all of them linked to German Communism, represented for many Americans the anti-Fascist German. Brecht presented himself to the American public by his dramatisation of Gorky’s The Mother, which is unadorned Communist propaganda; with music by Hanns Eisler, it was played in 1932 in Berlin and in 1935 in New York. Brecht has never broken his allegiance to Moscow, but since his poetry is not unconditionally endorsed by Russian party critics, he prefers to remain in America as long as possible. The two other German party poets, Erich Weinert and Johannes R. Becher, both far inferior to Brecht as artists, went to Moscow in 1933 and got important party assignments, Weinert, for example, in the leadership of the Free German Committee with Paulus and Seydlitz. Becher was among the first to return, and has since become a leading figure in Germany’s re-education.
Since the end of the war, Brecht has been played widely in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary — wherever Communism is dominant. The most original of the German Communist poets, he may have a measurable influence on the postwar youth, who prefer his avant garde forms to the banal eulogies made in Moscow.
From Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the State Party. Harvard University Press, 1948