Bertolt Brecht; War Primer

Bertolt Brecht; War Primer (Full book)

The Shipwreck of History:
Bertolt Brecht’s “War Primer“

By Roy Scranton


“in the future it will perhaps be difficult to understand the impotence of the peoples in these wars of ours.”

— Bertolt Brecht, journal, June 14, 1940

VERSO’S NEW EDITION of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer is an artifact rich and strange. It comprises 85 photos Brecht collected between 1939 and 1945 while he was a refugee in exile from Nazi Germany, on the move from Denmark to Sweden to Finland and finally, by way of Moscow and the Trans-Siberian Railroad, to Los Angeles, where he settled in Santa Monica among a community of German intellectual émigrés. It is a period almost lost to us now (though you can see Brecht’s modest Santa Monica home at 1063 Twenty-sixth Street on Google Street View), not because of a lack of historical knowledge — Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss, also from Verso, is only the most recent in a shelf full of books about the world of Mitteleuropäische intellectual and artistic refugees who found haven in the United States during the war — but because World War II remains for most Americans, whatever their politics, submerged in a pool of distorting mythology, much as the USS Arizona lies sunk in Pearl Harbor. It is “the good war,” heroically waged by “the Greatest Generation,” an ancient conflict veiled in a mystique of nobility and righteousness, ever present, never quite real. Brecht’s War Primer comes to us from that lost world, its pages less a lesson than the partial remains of a witness.

The photos in War Primer, which Brecht clipped out of newspapers and magazines, are accompanied by poetic epigrams in what is more or less ballad form, tart quatrains in sing-song pentameter rhyming ABAB, sometimes AABB, rendered here in the late John Willett’s finely crafted translations from the German. Their tone is pungently “Brechtian,” the voice that of a moralizing Mackie Messer, cynical, scornful, witty, and sly. Picture-epigram #57 gives something of the taste: the photo shows an American soldier standing on the beach looking down at a dead Japanese counterpart he’s just shot. We see the American from the rear; he clutches in his hand a pistol. The Japanese soldier lies twisted at the American’s feet, holding his stomach. Beyond them we see more bodies, the corner of a barge or landing craft, and the wide Pacific. Brecht’s quatrain reads:

And with their blood they were to colour red
A shore that neither owned. I hear it said
That they were forced to kill each other. True.
My only question is: who forced them to?

Brecht’s hatred for Nazi leadership, and especially his contempt for Hitler, shines clear in many of the epigrams, but War Primer is no work of Allied propaganda. As the text of #57 suggests, Brecht understood World War II largely in terms of masses duped, betrayed, hijacked, and murdered by corrupt rulers. Behind the nationalist fervor roused by the war, Brecht saw gangsters waging a turf battle. In this way, War Primer offers a perspective not often considered by contemporary American readers, an acid take on the so-called “Good War” which sees the conflict not as a necessary struggle of good against evil but a worldwide eruption of violence, cruelty, profiteering, suffering, and lies. It was, for Brecht, like all wars, a global bloodbath in which the vampiric rich fed on the machine-gunned and fire-bombed poor.

Yet while War Primer reaches for the pathos of tragedy, it never quite gets there, since its author’s passion is not sympathetic but critical. Brecht’s generally sardonic tone turns awkwardly toward the elegiac when considering bombed-out cities and crippled veterans, but his wit sparks white-hot when mocking war’s propagandists, publicists, and cheerleaders, Axis and Allied both. This all-inclusive critique proved a problem when it came to publication. War Primer was completed in 1947, but Brecht was on the move that year, leaving the United States for Zürich and East Berlin, after having been called to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in Washington. (“I benefit,” he wrote in his journal about the hearing, “from having had almost nothing to do with Hollywood.” The quip was something of a bitter joke: Brecht had in fact tried, and failed, to get work in the movie industry.) The manuscript was first sent to a West German publisher in Munich, who rejected it, then submitted to Volk und Welt, a publisher in Communist East Germany who suggested cutting several poem-images to make the book more politically acceptable. In any case, when the manuscript was sent to the government censor in 1950, it was rejected for being too “broadly pacifist in its opposition to the war,” for not being critical enough toward “the imperialist warmongers,” meaning the United States and its allies, for focusing too much on Hitler but at the same time not showing clearly enough how Hitler was a tool of the arms manufacturers, and for not paying enough attention to “the significance of the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War.” After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the consequent shake-up in leadership in both Russia and the DDR, Brecht tried again, this time with more success. After a few minor changes, and despite the continued resistance of government censors, War Primer was finally published in December 1955 by Eulenspiegel, an East German satirical magazine. Brecht died of a heart attack eight months later.

One of the changes Brecht made concerns one of the book’s most haunting images, #63, an out-of-focus photograph of a man (likely British) crawling through the surf during a beach landing. We are somehow in front of him, so we can see his face beneath his helmet, and the tank obstacles — giant, threatening heaps of metal — that he had to pass through to get this far. Much of his body is still underwater. His eyes are caverns, his nose a white smudge, his mouth a taut line, his chin fixed: the man’s fear and determination burn through the image, despite or perhaps because of the photo’s blur, conveying down through the decades, from the other side of death, a desperate will to live. Brecht writes:

A summer day was dawning near Cherbourg
A man from Maine came crawling up the sand
Supposedly against men from the Ruhr
In fact against the men of Stalingrad.

These lines, in which D-Day is cast as preamble to the Cold War, were changed from an earlier draft of the manuscript, which (in my own loose translation) reads:

Somewhere near Cherbourg, on a bright June day,
A man from Essen where the wide Ruhr bends
Saw in the dawn light, crawling through sea spray,
A man from Maine — and did not comprehend.

This earlier version addresses one of War Primer’s main themes, which is that the Germans were duped by Hitler and did not know what they were doing. The book’s first image is a photo of the Führer in profile at a podium, hand lifted, mouth agape, a man in the grasp of revelation, a swastika barely visible hanging in the background; the accompanying poem takes on Hitler’s voice, claiming to “know the way Fate has prescribed” for the German people. “Just follow,” he writes, “I can find it in my sleep.” Several other poem-images in the book excoriate the German leadership. A few show German soldiers and airmen, alongside lyrics suggesting that the men were motivated not by patriotism or bloodlust but by fear.

About halfway through the book, though, Brecht’s critique of the Allies comes to the fore, developing a theme seeded earlier. Poem-image #15 offers a photo of Winston Churchill grinning around a cigar, a tommy gun in his hands. The poem reads:

Gang law is something I can understand.
With man-eaters I’ve excellent relations.
I’ve had the killers feeding from my hand.
I am the man to save civilization.

This poem, and others like it, reflect Brecht’s insistence that there were no heroes in the war, no “good guys,” only callous profiteers and their (sometimes complicit) victims. Looking at the images of ruined German cities, hollow-eyed refugees, and shell-shocked soldiers side by side with photos of well-fed, comfortable businessmen, statesmen, and generals, it’s hard not to see his point.

One of the most interesting aspects of War Primer is how it addresses gender, a fact of life which the United States’s mythic memory of World War II tends to simplify and sideline but which held, of course, great interest to the author of Mother Courage and Her Children. Poem-images #26 and #27 show Hitler with German mothers, the lyrics emphasizing his fatal desire for their sons’ bodies. Poem-image #44 shows a young, bare-breasted, dark-skinned woman, likely African, carrying a basket on her head. It reads:

Our masters fight to have you, lovely creature
They race to seize you in their headlong course.
Each feels most fit to bleed you white in the future —
Most justified in taking you by force.

The fact that World War II was a battle between world empires for the control not only of Europe but also of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, a battle which Great Britain lost and the United States won, is hinted at here through the sexualized figure of the African woman, cast as the prize for which the gangsters were fighting. The idea of woman as prize for victory in war recurs a few pages later in poem-image #47, which shows Jane Wyman with nearly a dozen military medals pinned over her pelvis. The caption to the photo reads: “Jane Wyman shows her medals, adorning an ‘R.A.F. blue’ dress designed by a Hollywood patriot who says girls ‘should go military in a feminine way.’” The photo is typical of American wartime propaganda, which often combined winking salaciousness with outright jingoism. Brecht writes:

A breast curves through her military cut
Her parts are hung with old war decorations.
It’s Hollywood v. Hitler. Here we’ve got
Semen for blood, and pus for perspiration.

The facing poem-image shows a prosthetic leg, crutches, and a cane; the next page shows a Singapore mother wailing over the corpse of her toddler, the facing photo an American soldier standing over what the caption explains is “the Jap he killed.” Turn the page and we see “Sexy Carrot,” a photograph, sent in to the editors of Life magazine in response to their request for pictures to cheer up American soldiers in the Pacific, of a victory-garden carrot shaped like the hips and legs of a Hollywood starlet. Facing “Sexy Carrot” is another picture from Life, this one of a Thai woman hiding in a crude bomb shelter, watching bombers fly overhead. “The frightened people looked for holes to hide in,” writes Brecht, “and watched their masters battling from down there.” Such juxtapositions suture individual poem-images, which can sometimes seem overly tendentious on their own, into a complex, brutal, absurd montage: a burned-out skull mounted on a tank, a politician campaigning for office, starving children, workers making bombs, a black man beaten by a Detroit mob, a pin-up girl, a concentration camp.


War Primer is a strange, singular work, but it’s not without precedent. It must be understood in the tradition of Francisco Goya’s famous series of etchings now known as The Disasters of War, originally titled Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices, and Otto Dix’s less well-known series of etchings titled simply The War, inspired by his experiences as an artillery sergeant in World War I. Goya’s series comprises mostly action scenes — women being dragged from their children and raped, a man being cut in half at the groin, refugees begging for food, prisoners being led over a hill — with ironic captions: a rape is titled “The women give courage,” a dead horse on top of a soldier “This always happens,” men pushing corpses into a pit “Charity.” As the series progresses, the irony abrades into stark witnessing: “I saw it” reads the title of a picture of a father being dragged from his family, “This is bad” describes a soldier stabbing a monk in the stomach. Toward the end the pictures turn allegorical, featuring monstrous animals and a beautiful woman, the figure of “Truth.” Plate #79 shows the woman lying on the ground, emitting light, surrounded by onlookers; “Truth has died,” the title reads. Plate #80 shows her from a different perspective. The shadows are heavier, the crowd around her mere impressions of forms, and the contrast with her shining face stronger. “Will she live again?” reads the title. These are the final two plates in the series, which was not published until 35 years after the artist’s death.

The images in Dix’s The War — which was published in 1924, to success and acclaim — are just as horrific as Goya’s, and often even more gruesome, but they tend to focus on static scenes such as ravaged landscapes and corpses torn apart by explosions. When living figures are present, they are often foregrounded staring at the viewer with uncanny directness, as in Plate #22, “Night Meeting with a Madman,” in which a scribbled grinning shadow lunges at the viewer from out of a ruptured and melting Van Gogh nightscape of broken buildings, what seems to be a crippled windmill, and fire. It is a chilling, almost nauseating picture. Another of Dix’s figural scenes puts the viewer practically under the boots of a mass of macabre, skull-like gas masks plunging forward with bayonets and grenades (#12, “Stormtroops Advance Under Gas”). Dix’s titles are usually flatly descriptive, and his etchings, however stark, have no overt political agenda and do not attempt to connect the experience of war to the decisions that led to it. Dix’s expressionist apocalypse seems a calamity beyond human power, beyond human reckoning, a Boschian hellscape visited on humankind by some twisted god made of metal and fire.

Superficially, Goya, Dix, and Brecht all have the same trivial message: war is terrible. And it is. But the full import of Goya’s etchings can only be understood in the historical context of the Napoleonic wars and early 19th-century Spanish politics, subtleties lost on most viewers. Dix’s series is less pointedly political than Goya’s, but Dix’s other paintings are not so circumspect; along with George Grosz and other German Expressionists, he was ruthlessly critical of postwar German culture. And Dix too, like Brecht and Goya, suffered for his apostasy: when the Nazis came to power, he was named a degenerate artist and fired from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy. Abstracting The War from its context — the shock of World War I, the modernism of Weimar Germany, the rise of fascism — evacuates it of all meaning save the most banal.

Likewise, Brecht’s War Primer is, as the blurb on the Verso edition cover adverts, an “album of pity and anger which fixes the evil of war for all time” — but that may be the least interesting thing about it. It is, more important, a historical document about a specific war in a specific time by a specifically situated observer, and it levels its criticisms against specific historical agents. It is this historical specificity that gives War Primer its richness and strangeness, because it is this specificity alone which forces us to confront a World War II which was not simple, which had no good guys, and which was not a titanic collision of ideas but rather a global scramble for real estate. It is War Primer’s existence as an artifact, as embodied time, that gives it an almost magical power to bring to life the truth of a world sunk in the shadows of myth.

Thought must work constantly to rescue the historical from the mythic, the specific from the general, the concrete from the banal, especially when we reflect upon war. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this, the most important of which is probably how vital stories of war are to political identity. We know who we are because of who we conquered, or who conquered us — who our enemies were and are. George Washington beat the British, the North beat the South, the USA beat the Nazis, capitalism beat communism, and now we are locked in a death struggle with … al-Qaeda? ISIS? Russia? China? — fill in the blank here.

The estrangement effect at work in Brecht’s use of irony and montage was a tactic designed to jolt viewers out of such myths. Yet War Primer suffers from the same formal problem as Brecht’s other great works: it is too aesthetically interesting to be genuinely alienating, and too broadly didactic to be truly convincing as critique. We may easily grant Brecht the cynical generalization that all war is exploitation without significantly challenging the golden aura around World War II, because what we grant in principle we may still take back as an exception, and what distinguishes American exceptionalism is precisely that belief that we are engaged in a complicated, tragic struggle to advance human ideals in a corrupt and fallen world. Even if war is hell, that is, we still see ourselves on the side of the angels.

The most cherished myths of American culture tell us that, while war is terrible, our wars are noble, fought only under duress, and in the service of freedom, human rights, and democracy. If we fail in our ventures, as we did in Vietnam and Iraq and probably will in Afghanistan and Syria, that failure was not in our intentions, which were righteous, but merely in our execution. Our worst sins, in these myths, are not ambition, cruelty, or greed, but hubris and lack of foresight. Against such myths, which can be found articulated in the latest Hollywood movies, in the editorial pages of The New York Times, in Brookings Institution essays, and in Amazon’s “Hot New Releases in World War II History,” Brecht’s ideological critique, which is founded in its own mythology of good and evil, can do little or nothing. Indeed, it’s not clear what one can do about such myths at all, since the power they have is precisely that which deforms and obscures reality into something comprehensible, tractable, and bearable; they are not only gratifying but in some sense also necessary. Those who insist on conveying the bitter truth that we live in a world of suffering beyond human understanding and control should expect no thanks for delivering their message, unless they have also brought along a salvific god or compensatory utopia. The best that can be done under such conditions, it seems, is to work to save something concrete from the ruinous tides of time and delusion that wash over us anew each hour. An artifact, a book, a collection of photographs or etchings or poems, a specific moment in which a specific human being lived, brought up out of the dark waters of myth into the light of knowledge: the stuff of history.



Words, War, Words: Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer

By Alexander Billet

The opening page of War Primer contains a short, four-line poem:

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.[1]

Above it is a picture of Adolf Hitler, standing at a podium, one arm extended, his wide eyes cast upward. Demagogic ecstasy, standing above the events of mere mortals, as alarmingly alluring as it is terrifying.

Bertolt Brecht assembled the first of the “photo-epigrams” that make up War Primer in 1940. The last came in 1947. Like some of Brecht’s best-known works also written in that era – Mother Courage and Her Children, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – the short book is preoccupied with both the meaning of war and the rise of totalitarianism.

Despite an obvious timeliness, even for some time after the war had ended, Brecht’s humble volume wouldn’t see publication until 1955, one year before his death. Censors and cultural gatekeepers in East Germany – where the author had taken residence in 1947 – demanded major revisions from Brecht; revisions he was for the most part unwilling to make.

As John Willett suggests in his afterword to the new version out from Verso Books, this was both due to East Germany’s artistic policies of the time – a rigid, one-dimensional version of Soviet socialist realism – and the country’s Cold War political calculus, which apparently might be threatened by the logic of a more undogmatic, multifaceted and humanist Marxist aesthetic approach. Would War Primer have brought down the Berlin Wall? No. But the hand-wringing it earned from Stalinist bureaucrats wasn’t completely unwarranted.

War Primer’s format is somewhat novel, even sixty years after its publication. Each page contains a photograph and lapidary four-line poem referencing it. Brecht credited the photomontage work of Dada artist and communist John Heartfield in the left magazine AIZ as inspiration. (Heartfield’s “formalism” was consistently criticized by the German Communist Party and the publisher of AIZ would later be publicly expelled from the Communist International.)[2]

The images Brecht used came directly from mass-circulation magazines, chronicling the events of World War Two. The loose narrative weaves from the spectacle of Nazi Germany into the carnage of battlefields, from Winston Churchill holding a machine gun to the wry cruelties of occupied Singapore and Sicily, from the calculations of those who make war to the brutal realities of those who experience it.

The Marxist Brecht was not only obviously horrified by the war, but disgusted by the ease with which capitalism could so inexorably lurch toward it. As someone who had fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power he was naturally and violently opposed to the fascist regime, but was no less withering in his criticisms of the Allied powers. America and Britain are spared no punch, though the sensitivity and sympathy shown for refugees, wounded or dead soldiers, the dominated and bombarded, are unmistakable.

Take, for example, the photograph on page 8, depicting two German soldiers emerging from underneath a train, rifles in hand. A caption reminds us that whatever advantage came from tanks or air force, it was grunts on the ground that made the actual difference in the wins and losses of the war. Brecht’s poem reads:

Before you join the great assault I see
You peer around to spot the enemy.
Was that the French? Or your own sergeant who
Was lurking there to keep his eye on you?[3]

By itself, the photo is menacing. In contrast, Brecht’s words are more than a bit puckish, cheeky even. They remind us that there is a hierarchy at work, power that pulls strings behind the image of brave/devious men (depending on whichever side you were on) going into battle.

Or consider page 59, which doles out the same for the “other side” of the war. A Sicilian peasant tells American Brigadier General Roosevelt (son of former president Theodore) which way the Germans fled. Says Brecht:

Alas, our overlords have fallen out.
Over our country, waterless and blighted
Three foreign armies are now in dispute.
Only against us are all three united.[4]

This is the pattern that Brecht sketches for us in one way or another throughout the whole of the book. There is an obviously symbiotic relationship between image and word, one that reminds the reader of just how much one can transform the other. By themselves the images are disturbing, often terrifying. The four lines of poetry make them devastating. They achieve this through what was Brecht’s greatest strength as a writer: his ability to coax out the twisted, icy rationale of a world whose overriding logic is self-justification. The bitter chuckle brought on in the reader by these words reveals unsettling machinations. War, capital and fascism are made mundane before that very mundanity is turned inside out by dint of its own force.

It’s here that the skittishness of East German authorities starts to become frustratingly instructive. In his afterword, Willett lists some of the objections individuals tied to the Ministries of Culture and Education had with Brecht’s proposed manuscript after receiving it in 1949. Most criticisms seem to approach the book more as a work of politics that can be “corrected” according to a party line rather than a more subjective work of art.

One particularly quizzical objection was Brecht’s (quite obviously sarcastic) use of “God is a Fascist” beneath a picture of the four Spanish generals who spearheaded the turning over of their country to the Franco regime.[5] What could have possibly been the nature of this objection? Willett doesn’t say, but we are left to surmise anxiety that readers won’t grasp the irony. In fact, such irony might reveal an historical moment to have several intertwined layers of meaning, revealing the tangle between church, militarism, and authority.

What Brecht understood – along with his friend Walter Benjamin and other dissident, culturally-attuned Marxists – is that history, politics, and economics are all experienced aesthetically, overlapping and intersecting.[6] He also understood that the powerful knew how to consciously exploit that experience. Pitting this aesthetic strategy against itself required a risk that Stalinism seemed unwilling to take. Where apparatchiks seemed to lean toward spoon-feeding the reader, Brecht had, characteristically, made something that would thrum their critical imaginations.

There is a chilling lesson in this for today. Governments of all kinds – not only Stalinist or fascist – seem willing to render history into a reality show almost as a matter of default. The notion of “alternative facts,” derided though it is, lives comfortably in the wider insistence that events must go such a way and to hell with the consequences. History is pounded down into a one-dimensional shelf off which leaders can pick and choose which events to exploit and how best to use them.

Not even Hitler used chemical weapons against his own people says the White House Press Secretary, and subsequently all evidence to the contrary becomes a minor qualification. Meanwhile the figurehead of the official “resistance” loses elections not due to her campaign’s own failures, but because voters didn’t understand that it really and truly was “her turn” (one can clearly pick out, per Brecht’s formulation, the desire “To dissolve the people / And elect another”[7]). The British political establishment chastises a popular leftwing party leader as “irrational” for insisting we think long and hard before pushing the red button and annihilating half of humanity. In none of these is there even a faint acknowledgement to the obvious: that the barbarism of the past came from somewhere, from a system and the decisions made in the name of that system. Or, as Brecht puts it close to the end of War Primer, “The womb is fertile still from which that crept.”[8]

Several pages into the start of War Primer’s new edition – well after those of Hitler experiencing his revelation – is a picture of Friedrich Ebert, the head of the German Social Democratic Party who became the first president of Germany after the emperor’s overthrow in 1919. A few pages from the book’s back is a headshot of Gustav Noske, Ebert’s Defense Minister who recruited the far-right Freikorps paramilitary to obliterate the communist left, murdering revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and crushing the revolution they had led. Fourteen years later most of the Freikorps would be absorbed into the SS and SA of the Nazis. Many have insisted, and not without reason, that had that revolution succeeded, the world would never have known Hitler.

In the original edition that finally appeared in 1955, the epigram of Ebert was removed entirely and replaced by the one picturing Noske. Brecht had been persuaded to make this change because the ruling Socialist Unity Party was making conscious overtures to former Social Democrats; Ebert’s own son, for example was now the mayor of East Berlin.[9] Noske was a far easier foil. Yes it was the elder Ebert who let the bloodhound off the leash in the first place, but this was an inconvenient piece of history, unworthy of regard. Another minor qualification in the name of stability.

This might be, in a fairly meta manner, the most prescient statement that War Primer has to give us: there is an art to treachery. Disentangling it is also an art.


  1. Bertolt Brecht, War Primer, translated and edited with an afterword by John Willett (London and New York, Verso, 2017), 1.
  2. Ibid, 87.
  3. Ibid, 8.
  4. Ibid, 59.
  5. Ibid, 4.
  6. See what are arguably Benjamin’s best-known pair of essays: “The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) and “Theses On the Philosophy of History” (1940). The first of which is key for understanding the difference between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics, the second for grasping as a Marxist the dizzying, uneven pace in which historical change happens and how the radical historical materialist inserts themselves into it. Both must be considered in light of each other and as a whole for fleshing out a viable framework regarding art’s role in history.
  7. From Brecht’s poem “The Solution.” Written sometime in 1953 after the defeat of the East German general strike that protested the expansion of military and heavy industry at the expense of food and consumer goods. Published in a West German newspaper in 1959, three years after the author’s death, it reveals Brecht’s complicated but undeniably dissident relationship with the Stalinist East German state.
  8. Brecht, 81.
  9. Ibid, 93.
Red Wedge

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