|Brecht, Berthold (1898-1956)|
Outstanding German playwright and poet who was a militant opponent of Nazism, Bertolt
Brecht was born on 10 February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria.
Drafted as a medical orderly in the last year of World War I, Brecht's disillusion found a voice in his first expressionist dramas, performed in 1922, Trommeln in der Nacht, Baal and Im Dickicht der Stadte. They exhibited a nihilist, anarchist streak underlying Brecht's anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment attitude and his fascination with violence.
His greatest theatrical success, Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), adapted from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (with music by Kurt Weill), was a satire on gangsterism and bourgeois ethics which proved enormously popular with the middle-class public. Other plays such as Mann ist Mann (1927) and Mahagonny (1929) reinforced Brecht's reputation as a witty parodist of bourgeois respectability.
After 1926 he began to study Marxism and to espouse a doctrinaire communism that found expression in his chilling play Die Massnahme [The Measures Taken], which anticipated the totalitarian Stalinist mentality of the late thirties.
Though he served the Party till the end of his life, many communists never felt wholly at ease with his work and he was not popular in the Soviet Union.
Brecht's real rise to fame began after 1933 - he went into exile the day after the Reichstag fire - as his work gradually conquered Britain and America. His most famous plays were written in these years of Scandinavian exile in the Danish city of Svendborg and after 1941 in Hollywood and Santa Monica, USA. They included Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis [The Caucasian Chalk Circle] and Leben des Galilei [Life of Galileo]. Brecht's plays, radio scripts and poems against Nazism were less impressive, if only because they reflected his Stalinist allegiance, unshaken by the Moscow trials, the Spanish Civil War or the Nazi-Soviet pact. In Die Rundkopfe und die Spitzkopfe (1938, Engl. trs. Round Heads, Peak Heads) and Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (1938, Engl. trs. The Private Life of the Master Race), Brecht tried to capture the trials and tribulations of the German people under Hitler's yoke and to ridicule racial theories. The wooden prose dialogue disguises, however, a more basic weakness, namely that Brecht's Marxism prevented him from grasping that in the Third Reich it was race not class that counted. Hitler had liquidated hunger and unemployment, thereby winning the support of the German working classes. It was the Jews, not so much the proletarians, who were being persecuted, a fact barely grasped by Brecht. It is no accident that his satirical play on the 'irresistible' rise of Adolf Hitler, Arturo Ui, singularly failed in its intention to explain the rise of fascism on the model of a Chicago protection racket.
After being called before the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 for his pro-communist leanings, Brecht left the United States. He initially hoped to settle in Munich, but this proved impossible. At the end of 1949 he went to East Berlin, but held on to his Czech (later Austrian) passport, his Swiss bank account and West German publisher.
In East Berlin, Brecht formed, headed, directed and wrote for his own theatre, the
Berliner Ensemble, which became an internationally renowned cultural showcase of the
communist world. Though he received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954, Brecht's artistic
creativity as a dramatist and poet largely dried up during his last seven years in East
Germany. He died on 14 August 1956 in East Berlin.
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