Recalling Bertolt Brecht

Nazi Germany, Saffron India

Javed Malick

In 1938, German playwright and theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht talked about the Nazi regime in a conversation with his friend, the philosopher Walter Benjamin: “We must neglect nothing in our struggle against that lot. What they are planning is nothing small, make no mistake about it. They are planning for thirty thousand years ahead. Colossal things. Colossal crimes. They stop at nothing. They are out to destroy everything… That is why we too must think of everything.”

Brecht was talking about his decision to include a set of poems for children in a collection related to fascism and war.

In a year that marks Brecht’s 125th birth anniversary, his words carry a greater sense of immediacy for people in India, more than ever before, such are the striking parallels between the Germany of the 1920s-30s and present-day India. For, Indians too are facing a situation where the forces of majoritarianism are trying to destroy everything that has so far held this nation together and given it its distinct pluralistic identity.

Therefore, to reflect on the life and times of the German theatre practitioner, whose theory and practice of theatre marked one of the most radical interventions in the 20th century, is not just appropriate but necessary.

Beginning in the turbulent climate of the post-World War I years, Brecht grew to artistic and political maturity during the 1920s when Germany was being pulled in opposite directions by two powerful forces: fascism and socialism. The success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia had given a powerful impetus to Germany’s leftwing movement. There was a massive mobilisation of workers, soldiers, and intellectuals, culminating in the short-lived uprising of 1919 led by the Spartacus Party, the precursor of the German Communist Party. Although the uprising failed and its leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered, the influence of socialist ideas continued to resonate powerfully throughout the Weimar period (1919-1933).

However, alongside the widespread influence of leftwing politics, the period also witnessed the rise of fascism. During the 1920s, Hitler, who was a political non-entity until then, suddenly acquired prominence and became a serious threat to democracy in Germany. Under his leadership the Nazi Party grew from a minuscule group of frustrated war veterans to a force of massive proportion.

This phenomenal growth of Nazi influence and its support base coincided with the period of grave economic crisis unleashed by the stock market crash of 1929. It was mainly the working class and the lower middle class that bore the brunt of the crisis which had produced an enormous body of the unemployed. The Social Democratic government tried to contain the wave of strikes and proletarian agitations through repressive measures. In 1929, it passed the Law in Defence of the Republic, helping the erosion of democratic rights and the Constitution, which paved the way for fascism.

Using the plank of extreme nationalism and rabid anti-Semitic and anti-Communist diatribe, Hitler’s National Socialist Party, or the Nazi Party, sought (and succeeded, to a large extent) in deflecting attention from the real economic issues. The entire Nazi politics was based on exploitation and glorification of racial prejudice and hatred.

Throughout the 1920s, theatre was an immensely popular form of propaganda. Even the fascists were using it. As one critic has observed, although “the cultural efforts of the fascists demonstrated their tendency towards cheap imitation, lack of fantasy, and frighteningly low intellectual level, they provided easy answers. Sophisticated methods were not needed to blame the Jews, communists, workers, or International Capital and Bolshevism for the crisis.”

Theatre was also a favoured medium of left-wing writers and groups. Besides Erwin Piscator and Ernst Toller, and groups like Volksbuhne, The Red Megaphone, and the Blue Blouse, there were a myriad other amateur agit-prop troupes which performed to combat fascist propaganda, to counter its politics of hatred and terror, and to focus people’s attention on the economic issues. These troupes would travel to the countryside, housing estates, and factories to expose the anti-people nature of Nazi politics and to mobilise support for socialist revolution.

It was during this period that Brecht grew politically more conscious and involved. He had from the very beginning possessed a deep and almost natural concern for ordinary people and their daily struggles for existence. In the new climate, he had no hesitation in committing himself wholeheartedly to the fight against fascism. He wrote:
In the earthquakes to come,
I very much hope
I shall keep my cigar alight

Brecht was attracted to socialist politics during this period and made a systematic study of Marxism. In one of his first plays, Drums in the Night, which he had written while living in Munich during the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, he touched rather unfavourably on the theme of the Spartacist uprising. His hero was a soldier, who on returning from the war, learns that his girl is engaged to someone else. He participates, albeit drunkenly and from the fringes, in the workers’ revolution.

At this stage, Brecht’s own awareness of the socialist movement was, like that of the hero of Drums, largely from outside of it. The play, therefore, reflected a lack of sympathy for the workers’ revolt. Looking back at it a couple of years before his death, he found the play ideologically objectionable. He felt that he had trivialised a major social revolt by treating it as a mere backdrop for his drunken hero’s actions.

Towards ‘epic theatre’
In developing the theory of what he called “epic theatre” he has proposed a distinct view of culture: that is, culture as an instrument of social change. “It is precisely theatre, art and culture which have to form an “ideological superstructure” for a solid, practical rearrangement of our age’s way of life,” he wrote in 1927.

His new plays–Man is Man, Threepenny Opera, Happy End, The Mother, and St Joan of the Stockyards – fully reflected this awareness and sought to encourage such thinking as would be oriented towards a radical reordering of social conditions. St. Joan of the Stockyards was Brecht’s response to the economic depression that had overtaken the capitalist world. Its scenes recall the business cycle through prosperity, overproduction, crisis, stagnation, and finally, the regeneration of the cycle.

This kind of writing, which subverted the Nazi thinking by foregrounding the economic question, was anathema to the National Socialists. In a more direct response to Hitler, in 1931, Brecht had begun a political allegory, Roundheads and Peakheads, satirising the Nazi scapegoat policy. Set in an imaginary country, Yahoo, with a majority of Roundheads and a minority of Peakheads, the play tries to substitute racial doctrines with the realities of class struggle.

The primacy of the economic or class question, over and above race, religion or morality, is the recurrent motif of Brecht’s drama. It was there in his poetry of the late 1920s and the early 1930s too. In a ballad called Song of the S. A. Man, for example, he makes an ordinary Brownshirt realise the mistake of joining the Nazi militia because the man presented to him by the fascists as his enemy is actually his “brother in hunger.”

Brecht was living at a time when insecurity and fear dominated the environment. :He was not only living in dangerous times but as a left-wing writer ranged against the Nazis was also living dangerously. That he knew the danger was evident from a poem of the early 1930s in which the ominous refrain is “Cover your tracks.”

What made life even more dangerous for him was the fact that his wife, prominent stage actress Helene Weigel, was half-Jewish. One of the favourite items in the Nazi arsenal of lies claimed that the Jews were actively promoting prostitution, seduction and inter-racial marriages to contaminate the “purity” of the “master” race. This, obviously, is the prototype for the current myth of “love jihad”, the imagined Muslim conspiracy to become a majority in India by producing more children, as fabricated and popularised by Hindutva forces in India.

Escape into exile
The year 1933 in German history is comparable to 2014 in India. Things came to a head in 1933 when Hitler seized power.

There was large scale repression, persecution, intimidation of artists, writers and cultural workers. Among the prominent casualties right at the outset was the Bauhaus, a highly influential school of art and design, and Die Weltbuhne (The World Stage) a journal which was the rallying point for a large number of politically disaffected left-wing intellectuals.

All publications and productions of Brecht’s work in Germany were also interrupted. It is said that his name was prominently there on the Nazi hit list. Knowing that he could no longer avoid persecution, he escaped just in time into exile in Scandinavia.

Many writers and artists, when faced with Nazi intimidation, despaired and some even committed suicide, the most tragic case being that of Walter Benjamin. But Brecht was not a man to despair. He was a fighter. He did not believe in giving up. He never stopped looking for solutions to problems. He had hoped that even in difficult times he would be able to keep his cigar alight. And he did.

He continued to expose fascism and wrote about how Nazi rule was inimical to humanity and democracy, how it was trying to destroy all decent human values, and poison all forms of human relationships. In The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui, through a fable modelled on the actual events of Hitler’s life he satirised the meteoric rise of a gangster from a fixer to that of a dictator just because he was not stopped in time.

During his Scandinavian exile, he also wrote Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (translated into English as The Private Life of the Master Race), which is a collection of 27 sketches, or scenes, each presenting a specific situation – familial and personal (as in The Jewish Wife and The Chalk Cross) or public (as in ‘In Search of Justice’) – to show the distortions, perversions, and falsehoods that had crept into human social existence as a direct consequence of the Nazi rule.

The determining and unifying theses of these 27 sketches, as Walter Benjamin has observed, can be summed up in Kafka’s sentence: “The lie is transformed into a world order.” Each of these sketches, Benjamin says, “demonstrates one thing, how ineluctably the rule of terror, which parades before the nations as the Third Reich, makes all relationships between human beings subject to the law of the lie.”

In Schweik in the Second World War, he used the little man’s ability to survive and to continue to give trouble to the great men (those with power) as an expression of subversive humour. Schweik’s indestructibility, he argued, “makes him the inexhaustible object of abuse, and at the same time the fruitful soil of liberation.”

Similarly, his decision to include a set of poems for children in a collection of serious poems on subjects related to fascism and war was part of a strategy to assert optimism in the face of a grim situation, to show that life goes on despite Hitler and that there will always be children.

[Javed Malick is an academic and well-known theatre scholar. Courtesy: The Wire.]

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Vol 56, No. 38, Mar 17 - 23, 2024