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THE CRIMES of the Third Reich were so great, wrote Bertolt Brecht in 1945, that the nazis had even succeeded in giving war a bad name.
“I am told that the best people have begun saying/How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War/Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht/Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected/The extermination of certain peoples...
“Even the bishops/Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short the feeling/Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland/A lamentably bad turn, and that war/While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the/ Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman/Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been/Discredited for some time to come.”
This tragic, mocking irony sets the tone of Brecht’s extraordinary War Primer, translated and edited by John Willett, which is republished by Verso Books at the beginning of next month.
Brecht started the book in 1940 when he was living in exile in Finland. Sticking photos from newspapers and magazines into his journals, he soon found he was adding short satirical verses to the photographs.
Many of the images are propaganda photos from what Brecht called “the Bayreuth republic, featuring Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Noske. Like John Heartfield’s AIZ photomontages, the effect is to subvert the original meaning of the images by suggesting their real context. Beneath a propaganda photo of Hitler in a trance-like oratorical ecstasy, Brecht wrote: “Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep/I know the way Fate has prescribed for us/That narrow way towards a precipice./Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.”
Because Brecht kept adding to this scrap-book until the end of the second world war, it serves as a kind of running commentary on the conflict, generals and politicians, the dead and the wounded, soldiers and civilians and the terrible destruction of European cities.
A military photograph of a German firing squad in France in 1944 appears above the following text: “And so we put him up against the wall:/A mother’s son, a man like we had been/And shot him dead. And then to show you all/What came of him we photographed the scene.”
To the photograph of a Russian woman grieving for her son, one of 7,000 Soviet civilians shot by German forces in Kerch in 1942, Brecht added: “I say all pity, woman, is a fraud/ Unless that pity turns into red rage/ Which will not rest until this ancient thorn/is drawn at last from deep in mankind’s flesh.”
First published in book form in the GDR in 1955, some of these poems were set to music by Hans Eisler, while others later turned up as part of longer poems by Brecht. None are great, but there is a greatness to the whole project in the “savage indignation” with which Brecht tried to address the brutality of WWII.
War Primer is comparable to the work of Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, Vassily Grossman or Tony Harrison, whose A Cold Coming about a dead Iraqi soldier clearly echoes Brecht’s verse here about a dead Japanese soldier.
And, although the book ends with victory in 1945, it also looks beyond the defeat of fascism in Europe.
Beneath a press shot of Hitler raging on a platform towards the end of the war, Brecht wrote: “That’s how the world was going to be run!/The other nations mastered him, except/ (In case you think the battle has been won) –/The womb is fertile still from which that crept.”
Fittingly, the final photograph is of university students in the GDR. Brecht wrote beneath the photo: “Never forget that men like you got hurt/So you might sit there, not the other lot./ And now don’t hide your head, and don’t desert/But try to learn, and try to learn for what.”
- War Primer, price £12.99, is published by Verso Books on May 2
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