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Mar 2006 Journal

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Poor Bert Brecht

The title of Bertolt Brecht's autobiographical poem 'Vom armen B. B.', with its memorable opening lines 'Ich, Bertolt Brecht, bin aus den schwarzen Wäldern./ Meine Mutter trug mich in die Städte hinein/ Als ich in ihrem Leibe lag. Und die Kälte der Wälder/ Wird in mir bis zu meinem Absterben sein', came to mind when an article in The Times compared Brecht unfavourably with - of all people - Max Beerbohm. To compare one of the giants of modern theatre with the author of Zuleika Dobson is a masterpiece of blinkered insularity, even by the standards of the Murdoch press

The Times's real quarrel with Brecht was, of course, political, not literary: Brecht was a convinced Marxist at a time when Marxist orthodoxy meant loyalty to Stalin. But those who accuse Brecht of unquestioning acceptance of Stalinist ideology and practice, like the renegade Communist Ruth Fischer, whose misreading of his play Die Maßnahme led her to call him 'the bard of the GPU' (later KGB), misunderstand his position.

It was, after all, Brecht who wrote a marvellously sly poem after the crushing of the East German workers' uprising of 1953, in which he asked the Communist government, which had blamed the people for forfeiting the regime's confidence, why it did not simply dissolve the people and elect another in its place. It was also Brecht who in the late 1930s wrote the famous poem 'An die Nachgeborenen', in which he appealed to those born in a later, more peaceful age to pass compassionate judgment on his generation, forced to confront the evils of Fascism and capitalism in a world of apparently irredeemable cruelty and hatred: the anguished plea of the moralist unable to avoid soiling his hands with violence.

A deeper issue here is to what extent one's judgment of a work of literature should be determined by one's knowledge of the private life, beliefs and activities of the author. Is Arthur Koestler's analysis of Stalin's show trials in Darkness at Noon any the less artistically compelling because we know of the author's record of violence against women? Is the superbly crafted humanity of Theodor Fontane's novels less satisfying because we know of his aversion to Jews, from his letters to his friend Georg Friedlaender (a Jew, of course)? Do we rank Ezra Pound's Cantos lower because the poet ended up a ranting advocate of Italian Fascism?

It is easy to argue that no work that expresses support for an ideology as abhorrent as National Socialism can have literary merit - but then how do we judge acknowledged masters like the poet Gottfried Benn and the novelist Ernst Jünger, camp followers of that ideology for all that they avoided direct commitment to Nazism in its worst years?
Anthony Grenville

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