Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches
Brecht: A Biography
Auden used to say that of the literary men he had known only three struck him as positively evil: Frost, Yeats, and Brecht. John Willett tells us this, and Ronald Hayman goes further. Auden said that Brecht was one of the few people who deserved the death sentence—“In fact I can imagine doing it to him myself.” Willett and Hayman make a point of understanding and forgiving a great deal in their subject. Here is a quote from the early Brecht:
Why can’t the Jews be disposed of? Because for thousands of years they’ve been quartered, broken on the wheel, tortured, spat at. But the spit runs dry before they do.
And here is Hayman’s comment on it:
Despite his friendship with Feuchtwanger, Warschauer, Hedda and Marianne, there is little sympathy for the Jews; on the other hand, ruthlessness is what gives force to both his thinking and his life style.
What a useful limb “the other hand” is. Here it is offering ruthlessness a recognition long overdue.
Willett, who meets many attacks on Brecht with tones of injured surprise, wonders what lay behind Auden’s feelings of revulsion. Auden on Brecht again: “He was simply a crook. Never gave up either his Austrian nationality or his Swiss bank account.” Willett: “I don’t think myself that these are the kind of actions which make a man a crook, let alone positively evil….” Well, of course not, on their own. Austrian nationality is, for an Austrian, an inalienable right, and for a stateless person an immeasurable boon. And the Swiss would be thoroughly inconvenienced without their banking system. But here is Brecht, in April 1949, applying for Austrian citizenship:
Let me emphasize that I consider myself to be only a poet and do not wish to serve any definite political ideology. Nor do I wish to be regarded as the exponent of any such ideology. I repudiate the idea of repatriating myself in Germany.
Citizenship was granted a year later. And a year after that we find Brecht in Berlin writing to a functionary in the Ministry of Culture: “Our artists are prepared to change and with complete devotion to support you in the battle for a great new art.” A few pages later in Hayman’s biography, Brecht writes to Ulbricht:
History will pay its respect to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The great discussion with the masses about the tempo of socialist construction will cause the socialist achievements to be sifted and secured. It is necessary for me at this moment to express to you my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
“At this moment”—the phrase, in what Hayman calls “three cautiously worded sentences,” refers to the crushing by Soviet troops of the Berlin workers’ rising of June 17, 1953. At the same time Brecht suggested that if Grotewohl, the prime minister, wanted to speak on the radio, the program could be accompanied by songs…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.