GDR lapdog: Brecht’s third act

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Brecht testifying before HUAC

After World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee caught up with Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, who’d fled his native Germany when Hitler took power and spent the war being tortured – namely, by what he saw as the hellish vulgarity of southern California. On October 30, 1947, he appeared before HUAC, accused of having written “a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings.” While denying  (correctly) that he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, he managed to avoid confessing that he was, in fact, a believing Communist. In any event he ended up being let off the hook, and the next day he left the country.

Almost exactly a year later, he returned to his homeland for the first time in fifteen years, settling in East Germany, where he was lauded as a local hero. For all his theoretical enthusiasm for Communism, however, and his eagerness to accept all the goodies that the Berlin government was prepared to hand over to him, Brecht was cynical enough not to convert the money he’d earned (and continued to earn) in the Free World into into soft Warsaw Bloc currency; instead, he banked his cash in Switzerland – a decision that enabled him to live high on the hog the rest of his life, a beneficiary of capitalist largesse surrounded by people immured in Communist poverty. He also made sure to hang on to an Austrian passport that he’d acquired after the war.

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Brecht with Hanss Eisler, 1950

But none of these lingering links to the bourgeois West kept the East German government from treating Brecht as a national treasure and as an iconic Communist author. In Berlin, he was given his own theater. In 1955, the USSR awarded him the Stalin Prize, its own equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In return, Brecht – who, as we’ve seen, carped constantly about the evils of California sunshine – was an obedient subject of the commissars. Champions of Brecht have emphasized his quiet complaints about various aspects of governance behind the Iron Curtain. These defenders distort the record. Stalin was one of the great monsters of human history, and Brecht had a pretty good knowledge of what he was doing and had done – but he never raised his voice in criticism of Uncle Joe. On the contrary, he outspokenly supported some of Stalin’s most brutal acts.

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Walter Ulbricht

He was, to quote John Simon, consistently “deferential” toward Communist leaders – and cowardly in his readiness to gang up on the system’s victims. Hanns Eisler, composer of the GDR’s national anthem, had a sister who was no fan of Stalin, and Brecht’s verdict on her was heartless and unequivocal: The swine has to be shot.” Brecht’s own wife was Jewish, but he didn’t complain about the Soviets’ treatment of Jews, either. His habit of sucking up to GDR authorities is reflected in a shameless, toadying letter to party leader Walter Ulbricht, written after the armed suppression of a popular uprising: “History,” Brecht wrote, “will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany….At this moment I must assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.”

Bottom line: however opposed Brecht may have been to Nazism, he chose to sit out the war in America – all the while constantly running down his hosts and neighbors, whose valiant sons were putting their lives on the line to liberate his homeland. And as fierce as his opposition to Nazism, apparently, was his nauseating readiness to kowtow to the Soviet variety of totalitarianism. Brecht – who died in 1956, a year after gratefully accepting the Stalin Prize – ended his life a useful stooge for Communism, as thoroughly barren of heroism as were the characters in his grim, misanthropic plays. 

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