The Poet of Ill Tidings - Bertolt Brecht

Although far better known internationally as a playwright than as a poet, Bertolt Brecht had a supreme gift for language. He applied much of the same plucky, rebellious spirit to his poems that he did to his world-class theater productions of the late Weimar years, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht began publishing his poetry as a teen, around the same time that Germany was gearing up for the First World War. By the 1930s, his work had taken on a decidedly anti-Nazi bent. In 1937, while exiled in Svendborg, Denmark, Brecht produced a cycle of unrhymed epigrams that he called Deutsche Kriegsfibel (German War Primer), which he published in the Moscow-based German monthly Das Wort and later included in his Svendborg Poems. Brecht’s frequent collaborator from his Weimar years, the composer Hanns Eisler—who, in American exile, would furnish the score for the anti-Nazi Hollywood film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), co-written by Brecht and directed by fellow European transplant Fritz Lang—soon adapted the epigrams into an operatic composition titled Against War.

These same epigrams also served as a blueprint for Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer), a series of 85 poems—in this case, rhymed quatrains—that he juxtaposed with evocative photos drawn from the Swedish and American illustrated press (clippings of Hitler and his henchmen, images of wounded soldiers and refugees, landscapes of bombed-out cities and battlefronts). Brecht assembled his photo-epigrams while living in California in the mid-1940s, and he first published them in a truncated German edition in 1955 in East Berlin, where he and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, had returned in 1949. Verso has now published a complete English-language version of these poems, translated by the late Brecht scholar John Willett with the help of the American poet Naomi Replansky and Brecht’s son Stefan.

Born in the Bavarian town of Augsburg in 1898, Brecht first attained political consciousness during the Great War, when he began to rail with intense fervor against the corrosive forces of German bourgeois society. In 1917, he moved to Munich to study medicine, serving as an orderly in a Bavarian military hospital during the final year of the war, and quickly found his way to the theater. His first plays, Baal and Drums in the Night, were composed in Munich in the immediate wake of the war. They were also written against the backdrop of the bloody revolutionary upheaval that accompanied the founding of the Weimar Republic. During these years, Brecht counted among his close friends and collaborators the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch, the anarchic Bavarian cabaret performer Karl Valentin, and the politically minded dramatist Erwin Piscator.

Leaving Bavaria for Berlin in 1924, Brecht continued his labors as a playwright and poet, working at different points with Piscator, Kurt Weill, and Max Reinhardt. In 1932, he collaborated with the Bulgarian-born communist filmmaker Slatan Dudow, providing the script for Kuhle Wampe (released in English with the subtitle Who Owns the World?), an anti-fascist talkie with much the same didacticism of his earlier Lehrstücke (literally, “learning plays”), bold experiments in agitprop theater. After Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933, there was clearly no room for Brecht in Germany. He fled first to Svendborg, where he had the freedom—and the distance—to reflect upon the world as it seemingly burst apart before his very eyes, and then eventually, by way of Finland and Russia, to the United States.

Brecht wrote the defiant epigrams gathered in War Primer throughout these years. It was a time when he harbored an increasing awareness of language’s inability to adequately capture the horrors of fascism and war spreading across Europe. In the spring of 1939, just months before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he wrote a poem titled “Bad Time for Poetry,” in which he mused, almost in anticipation of Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum on writing poetry after Auschwitz, “In my poetry a rhyme / Would seem to be almost insolent.” He nonetheless pushed ahead in crafting his quatrains—for a brief time, it appeared that was all he could write—beginning in 1939 and finishing the bulk of them in Southern California in late July 1941. Brecht’s fellow German émigré Hannah Arendt, long an admirer of his work, once praised him for his startlingly apt, lapidary definition of the refugee as “a messenger of ill tidings.” War Primer is nothing if not a refugee’s undertaking, a “literary report on my years in exile,” as Brecht himself once characterized it in his journal.

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