Bertolt Brecht (and Me)

Sketch of Bertold Brecht by Georg Groz. (Detail.)

For me, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann were the two greatest German authors of the 20th century, and Brecht, a believer in socialism – and a fighter for it  – is admittedly closer to my heart than Mann.

In my three different US high schools or first three years at Harvard I had never even heard the name of Bertolt Brecht. A highly-literate comrade in our Communist group at Harvard first told me of this “leading German author,” in 1948, but I did not get to reading  any of his writings until after I had landed in the German Democratic Republic (in 1952).

After becoming a student here, however, at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig, I heard a great deal about Brecht! He was the great favorite of many or most young intellectuals at the time, even to the point of copying his short forward-combed hair, his buttoned up, tie-less shirt or even his love for cigars. The ones who admired and sometimes copied him tended to be critical intellectuals – not those pro-Adenauer-West German types who were hardly likely to read him (or perhaps read any books at all) – but those who were more or less critical of the GDR leadership but not of the GDR in general. For Brecht was decidedly opposed to USA-led western capitalism and anti-Sovietism!

Brecht in exile had never happily integrated into the southern California scene as smoothly as Lion Feuchtwanger, Thomas Mann or his frequent composer and close friend Hanns Eisler. Like so many, he was moved or forced to return to Europe when the  hysterical anti-Communist McCarthy era and its House Unamerican Activities Committee tried to browbeat him. He found no  welcome – nor theater opportunities – in Zürich (where his plays were known), or in Vienna, the homeland of his actress wife Helene Weigel – and least of all in West Germany, riddled in the cultural (and almost every other) field with ex-Nazis. But the writer-poet Johannes R. Becher, returned from exile in Moscow and head of the new Kulturbund (Culture Association), and later the first GDR Minister of Culture, was able to attract him to East Berlin, like other prominent exiles such as Anna Seghers, Arnold Zweig, John Heartfield and Heinrich Mann (who died before he could leave California). In 1949 Brecht was abled to form the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, soon a magnet for wonderful actors, to produce his plays, and after some energetic maneuvering, to obtain in 1954 his own wonderful theater, the scene of his great triumph with “Three-Penny Opera” in 1928, and now, like all theaters in the GDR, financially well-supported by the city government.

In 1956 a fellow-student of mine and ardent Brecht admirer, who had worked as a summer volunteer with his theater, organized a special student excursion to Berlin to see a Brecht play and then meet the master. But alas, the project was suddenly canceled; we believed because of the sometimes strained official relationship with Brecht, who was rarely if ever praised in the official press, though not too sharply criticized either, perhaps because of his growing renown in world-wide literary and theater circles, including the “Three Penny Opera” performed in New York in 1954 with great success (especially the song “Mack the Knife”). Unfortunately, the great sold-out triumph of the Berliner Ensemble  in London came after Brecht’s early death in 1956 at the age of 58.

But the productions, just as he staged them, continued to thrill many, many theater-goers in East Berlin, and as long as this was possible, West Berlin visitors as well. I was lucky enough to see most of them: the old favorite “Three-Penny Opera,” Helene Weigel starring in lead roles in “Mother Courage” and “The Mother” (based on Maxim Gorky’s book),  the great singer-actor Ernst Busch – magnificently – in his leading roles in “Galilei” and “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, “Schweyk in the Second World War” with the fine singer and actress Gisela May, “Arturo Ui” on the rise of fascism, caricatured in the gangster milieu of Chicago – all of them geared to both laughing and thinking as well – against fascism, war, exploitation. Always sold out, even a back seat in the upper balcony was worth it! Those performances were highpoints in my and East Berlin’s rich cultural life – recollections which I still cherish!

Brecht, though grateful for finally getting the fine theater for his plays, with his trained ensemble,  was anything but a yes-man. Never  a member of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, but vocal as an honored member of the GDR Academy of Arts, he was often critical of narrow-minded dogmatism (or plain stupidity), above all in the field of culture. Obviously, such criticism was not always welcome – especially by those affected; he was therefore looked upon  with a degree of suspicion  by some leading official lights – probably explaining why that Berlin student excursion had been canceled.

Anti-Communist media repeatedly quotes his very clever words, written after a stupid statement by a second-rate writer shortly after the angry uprising in the GDR in 1953.

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalin Allee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people  and elect another?

Those who today recall only this quotation in their attempts to misuse Brecht – as another brick in their denigration of the GDR and socialism in general – fail to recall the boycott of his plays in West Germany and Austria and the (vain) attempts to prevent Berliner Ensemble tours to London and Paris. They conveniently forget who helped Brecht and who tried to hurt him – and why!

They hardly recall that, regardless of his sometimes sharp but always constructive criticism, Brecht supported the GDR attempt to build a socialist state in Germany with all his heart. During that same uprising in 1953 he offered his services – to speak in radio and tell people that their grievances were often understandable, often justified, and their participation in redressing them necessary, but warning them not to fall into the trap of supporting  “the other side,” that of “western”, and especially West German capitalism and imperialism. He was, indeed, a dedicated Communist.

A few quotations, better-known to old-timers in East Germany, are as relevant today as they ever were. (Please excuse my clumsy or partial translations. )

A rich man and a poor man, there they stood,
And judged each other as best they could.
The poor man said, his voice at low pitch,
If I were not poor you’d not be rich.


There are men who struggle for a day and they are good. There are men who struggle for a year and they are better. There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives: These are the indispensable ones.


— From “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”, a parable about Hitler’s rise and defeat, in the final lines addressed to the audience:

The peoples broke him, yet                                                                                                                                     Let none of us triumph too soon,                                                                                                                           The womb is fertile still from which that crept!


The great Carthage waged three wars. It was still powerful after the first, still habitable after the second. It was untraceable after the third.

Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: