Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany, on 19th February, 1898. He studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Munich before becoming a medical orderly in a German military hospital during the First World War. This experience reinforced his hatred of war and influenced his support for the failed Socialist revolution in 1919.

After the war Brecht returned to university but eventually became more interested in literature than medicine. His first play to be produced was Bael (1922). This was followed by plays deeply influenced by the work of Ernst Toller. This included Drums in the Night, a play about a soldier returning from war, Jungle of the Cities (1923), Man Equals Man (1926) and A Respectable Wedding (1926).

George Grosz knew him during this period: "Brecht was interested in English writers and Chinese philosophers. He read Swift, Butler and Wells, and also Kipling. He dressed like nobody else in the circle, and looked like some kind of engineer or car mechanic, always wearing a thin leather tie - without oil stains, of course. Instead of the usual sort of waistcoat, he wore one with long sleeves; the cut of all his suits were baggy and somewhat American, with padded shoulders and wedge-shaped trousers. Without his monkish face and the hair combed down on his forehead he might have been mistaken for a cross between a German chauffeur and a Russian commissar."

In 1927 Brecht collaborated with the composer Kurt Weill to produce the musical play, The Little Mahagonny. They then produced The Threepenny Opera. Although based on The Beggar's Opera that was originally produced in 1728, Brecht added his own lyrics that illustrated his growing belief in Marxism. He also worked with the composer Hanns Eisner in The Measure Taken (1930).

Brecht attempted to develop a new approach to the the theatre. He tried to persuade his audiences to see the stage as a stage, actors as actors and not the traditional make-believe of the theatre. Brecht required detachment, not passion, from the observing audience. The purpose of the play was to awaken the spectators' minds so that he could communicate his version of the truth.

Brecht's plays reflected a Marxist interpretation of society and when Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 he was forced to flee from Nazi Germany. After leaving Germany in 1933, Brecht lived in Denmark, Sweden and the Soviet Union. While living in exile he wrote anti-Nazi plays such as The Roundheads and the Peakheads and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. This was followed by Life of Galileo (1939), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Man of Szechuan (1941), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and the Caucausian Chalk Circle (1943). He also spent time in Hollywood and helped with the writing of the film, Hangman Also Die (1943).

In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the entertainment industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

On 30th October, 1947, Brecht appeared in front of the HUAC. He denied he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild and the American Communist Party. Brecht pointed out: "As a guest of the United States, I refrained from political activities concerning this country even in a literary form. By the way, I am not a screen writer, Hollywood used only one story of mine for a picture showing the Nazi savageries in Prague. I am not aware of any influence which I could have exercised in the movie industry whether political or artistic. Being called before the Un-American Activities Committee, however, I feel free for the first time to say a few words about American matters: looking back at my experiences as a playwright and a poet in the Europe of the last two decades, I wish to say that the great American people would lose much and risk much if they allowed anybody to restrict free competition of ideas in cultural fields, or to interfere with art which must be free in order to be art. We are living in a dangerous world. Our state of civilization is such that mankind already is capable of becoming enormously wealthy but, as a whole, is still poverty-ridden. Great wars have been suffered, greater ones are imminent, we are told. One of them might well wipe out mankind, as a whole. We might be the last generation of the specimen man on this earth. The ideas about how to make use of the new capabilities of production have not been developed much since the days when the horse had to do what man could not do. Do you not think that, in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely? Art can present clear and even make nobler such ideas." Soon after giving evidence he left for East Germany.

In 1949 Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble and over the next few years it became the country's most famous theatre company. However, Brecht wrote only one new play, The Days of the Commune (1949), while living in East Germany.

Bertolt Brecht died on 14th August, 1956.

Primary Sources

(1) George Grosz, The Autobiography of George Grosz (1955)

Another of my friends was Bert Brecht, known at home and abroad for his chansons and ballads, all written faithfully in the old style. Brecht was interested in English writers and Chinese philosophers. He read Swift, Butler and Wells, and also Kipling.

He dressed like nobody else in the circle, and looked like some kind of engineer or car mechanic, always wearing a thin leather tie - without oil stains, of course. Instead of the usual sort of waistcoat, he wore one with long sleeves; the cut of all his suits were baggy and somewhat American, with padded shoulders and wedge-shaped trousers. Without his monkish face and the hair combed down on his forehead he might have been mistaken for a cross between a German chauffeur and a Russian commissar.

(2) Bertholt Brecht, statement (30th October, 1947)

I was born in Augsburg, Germany, the son of an industrialist, and studied natural sciences and philosophy at the universities of Munich and Berlin. At the age of twenty, when participating in the war as a member of the medical corps, I wrote a ballad which the Hitler government used fifteen years later as reason for my expatriation. The poem Der Tote Soldat (The Dead Soldier) attacked the war and those wanting to prolong it.

I became a playwright. For a time, Germany seemed to be on the path of democracy. There was freedom of speech and of artistic expression. In the second half of the 1920s, however, the old reactionary militarist forces began to regain strength.

I was then at the height of my career as a playwright, my play Dreigroschenoper being produced all over Europe. There were productions of plays of mine at Berlin, Munich, Paris, Vienna, Tokio, Prague, Milan, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Budapest, Warsaw, Helsinki, Moscow, Oslo, Amsterdam, Zurich, Bucharest, Sofia, Brussels, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, etc. But in Germany voices could already be heard demanding that free artistic expression and free speech should be silenced. Humanist, socialist, even Christian ideas were called "undeutsch" (un-German), a word which I hardly can think of without Hitler's wolfish intonation. At the same time, the cultural and political institutions of the people were violently attacked.

The Weimar Republic, whatever its faults had been, had a powerful slogan, accepted by the best writers and all kinds of artists: Die Kunst denz Volke (Art Belongs to the People). The German workers, their interest in art and literature being very great indeed, formed a highly important part of the general public of readers and theatre-goers. Their sufferings in a devastating depression which more and more threatened their cultural standards, the impudence and growing power of the old militarist, feudal, imperialist gang alarmed us. I started writing some poems, songs and plays reflecting the feelings of the people and attacking their enemies who now openly marched under the swastika of Adolf Hitler. `

The persecutions in the field of culture increased gradually. Famous painters, publishers and distinguished magazine editors were persecuted. At the universities, political witch hunts were staged, and campaigns were waged against motion pictures such as All Quiet on the Western Front.

These, of course, were only preparations for more drastic measures still to come. When Hitler seized power, painters were forbidden to paint, publishing houses and film studios were taken over by the Nazi party. But even these strokes against the cultural life of the German people were only the beginning. They were designed and executed as a spiritual preparation for total war which is the total enemy of culture. The war finished it all up. The German people now have to live without roofs over their heads, without sufficient nourishment, without soap, without the very foundations of culture.

At the beginning, only a very few people were capable of seeing the connection between the reactionary restrictions on the field of culture and the ultimate assaults upon the physical life of a people itself. The efforts of the democratic, anti-militarist forces, of which those in thc cultural field were, of course, only a modest part, then proved to be weak altogether; Hitler took over. I had to leave Germany in February, 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire. A veritable exodus of writers and artists began of a kind such as the world had never seen before.... I settled down in Denmark and dedicated my total literary production from that time on to the fight against Naziism, writing plays and poetry.

Some poems were smuggled into the Third Reich, and Danish Naziism supported by Hitler's embassy, soon began to demand my deportation. Of course, the Danish government refused. But in 1939 when war seemed imminent, I left with my family for Sweden, invited by Swedish senators and the Lord Mayor of Stockholm. I could remain only one year. Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway.

We continued our fight northward, to Finland, there to wait for immigration visas to the U.S.A. Hitler's troops followed. Finland was full of Nazi divisions when we left for the United States in 1941. We crossed the USSR by the Siberian Express which carried German, Austrian, Czechoslovakian refugees. Ten days after our leaving Vladivostok aboard a Swedish ship, Hitler invaded thc USSR. During the voyage, the ship loaded copra at Manila. Some months later, Hitler's allies invaded that island. We applied for American citizenship (first papers) on the day after Pearl Harbor.

I suppose that some poems and plays of mine, written during this period of the fight against Hitler, have moved the Un-American Activities Committee to subpoena me.

My activities, even those against Hitler, have always been purely literary activities of a strictly independent nature. As a guest of the United States, I refrained from political activities concerning this country even in a literary form. By the way, I am not a screen writer, Hollywood used only one story of mine for a picture showing the Nazi savageries in Prague. I am not aware of any influence which I could have exercised in the movie industry whether political or artistic.

Being called before the Un-American Activities Committee, however, I feel free for the first time to say a few words about American matters: looking back at my experiences as a playwright and a poet in the Europe of the last two decades, I wish to say that the great American people would lose much and risk much if they allowed anybody to restrict free competition of ideas in cultural fields, or to interfere with art which must be free in order to be art. We are living in a dangerous world. Our state of civilization is such that mankind already is capable of becoming enormously wealthy but, as a whole, is still poverty-ridden. Great wars have been suffered, greater ones are imminent, we are told. One of them might well wipe out mankind, as a whole. We might be the last generation of the specimen man on this earth.

The ideas about how to make use of the new capabilities of production have not been developed much since the days when the horse had to do what man could not do. Do you not think that, in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely? Art can present clear and even make nobler such ideas.