Anyone seen Bert Brecht?

August 20th, 2011
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The fiftieth anniversary last week of the Berlin Wall’s construction reminds one of the Cold War – which seems not quite distant enough – and the mood of that time. Not surprisingly, the legacy of the Cold War remains politically charged.

It seems that even commemorations of those killed trying to escape East Germany have caused controversy. As reported here, some Leftist politicians in Germany refused to observe a moment of silence for the victims and a similarly-inclined newspaper praised the Wall for keeping “28 years of peace in Europe” and “28 years of plentiful crèche and kindergarten places”. Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

Despite the fact that these views were condemned by some on the Left, they reflect an ongoing theme from that part of the political spectrum. One recalls that, when the Berlin Wall fell, celebrated German novelist Günter Grass opposed re-unification of the divided country. He argued that the former communist dictatorship should be set up as some sort of embodiment of the “Third Way” between Communism and Capitalism.

This view is surprisingly mild compared to other German literati. Bertold Brecht is perhaps the best example of the unreconstructed, archetypal writer of the radical Left. As we think back on the millions who sought to flee the East German Communist and other East Bloc regimes, and honour the scores who died trying, it’s worth noting that Brecht went the other way! He chose to leave the West after WWII and live as a kind of “house scribe” to the Stalinists.

One day, actually it was around the time the Wall fell, I was confronted by what my odd imagination saw as a visual manifestation of this. I’m sure many of us have had the experience leaving a sporting event, or a crowded commuter train, and being swept along by the crowd – all wanting to go one way. For some reason, there always seems to be at least one hapless soul trying to go the other way, struggling vainly against a sea of humanity. So it was that after a hockey game I saw just such a person in an LRT station trying to pull himself along, by grasping a railing, as the throng pushed by. It was then that I thought “There goes Bert Brecht”!

Of course the Brecht experience was, in reality, completely different. The throng going West had to endure enormous hardship and risk, whereas Brecht was welcomed to a life of relative ease and comfort. Simultaneously, he was becoming a darling of the radical Left in the West too, where his works became part of the radical, avant-garde theatrical canon.

Paul Johnson, in his gripping book Intellectuals, describes just how sickeningly successful Brecht was in his political manoeuvring. Firstly, he received from the East Germans a theatre and company of his own in exchange for his artistic identification with the regime. Meanwhile, his copyrights were in the hands of his West German publisher. In fact, according to Johnson, by 1949 Brecht got the sweetheart deal he wanted – “an Austrian passport, East German government backing, a West German publisher and a Swiss bank account.”

He was delighted to receive the Stalin Peace Prize in 1955. Johnson reports that the 160,000 roubles went straight into his Swiss bank account. The windfall was perhaps due to his enduring admiration for the genocidal dictator. On Stalin’s death, Johnson quotes Brecht as saying “The oppressed of all five continents … must have felt their heartbeats stop when they heard that Stalin was dead. He was the embodiment of their hopes”. And so it went.

Readers will find Johnson’s 23-page rendering of Brecht’s whole, craven existence illuminating. Unfortunately, as recent events have shown, his heirs are alive and well, still corrupting the German body politic. Worse still is the fact that we have our own share of latter day Brechts. It seems they will always be with us.

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By John Weissenberger