Sunday, November 17, 2013
Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Unamerican Activities Committee
Subpoenaed to appear before HUAC (the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee), Bertolt Brecht appeared on 30 October 1947 (in overalls, and smoking a cigar – Elsa Lancester, after Brecht lived for a time with her and her husband Charles Laughton in Hollywood, complained that she had to clean the curtains to get rid of the smell of his cigars). Richard Nixon was among those who sat in judgment of him.
“I am living at 34 West 73rd Street,” he testified. “I am born at Augsburg, Germany, February 10, 1898.”
The Southern accent of the judged named Stripling made a strange counterpoint to Brecht’s German accent. For a second time, Brecht asked, “May I read my statement?” Stripling replied, “The Court, Mr. Brecht, is trying to identify you.”
Brecht told of fleeing Hitler, going to Denmark, then to Stockholm, then to Finland, fleeing with family by the Siberian Express, and, finally, arriving in the United States from which, fleeing J. Edgar Hoover, he would soon have no choice but to arrive at his final destination, East Germany. He wrote the script for the anti-Nazi film, “The Hangman Also Died,” for United Artists, that shows the Brechtian touch although another writer altered his script and Brecht received no on-screen credit – perhaps because of fear of crediting a Marxist.
“Mr. Brecht, are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” For the fourth time, Brecht said, “May I read my statement?” There was laughter in the court. The statement, which included the following remarks about the Nazification of Germany, was never allowed. “Humanist, even Christian statements were judged un-Deutsch, a term I can hardly remember without hearing Hitler’s wolfish tone of voice…. The great American people would lose much if they gave up the free exchange of ideas…. We may be the last generation of the species man. Do you not think that in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely?”
“Mr. Brecht, is it true that you have written a great many revolutionary poems and plays?” Brecht responded, “I have written a great many poems and plays against Hitler, and, of course, they can be considered revolutionary, for I was for the overthrow of that government.”
“Mr. Brecht seems to be a person of international importance for the Communist Party.” Brecht denied that he has written articles for papers in East European Communist countries. The judges produced an “article.” Brecht noted, “That is not an article; that is a scene out of a play I wrote in 1937 or 1938 in Denmark. The play is called ‘Private Life of the Master Race,’ and the scene is about a Jewish woman in about the year 1937 or 1937.”
His judges asked the meaning of another play he wrote. They wanted to know the meaning of the title. An interpreter suggested to Brecht that it be translated “Steps to Be Taken.” The judge pressed him, “Could it not mean ‘Disciplinary Measures’?” Brecht explained that the play is set in revolutionary China and is based on the form of the Noh plays, and the theme of the play is an Eastern idea – “devotion for an idea until death.”
The judge: “What was that idea, Mr. Brecht?”
Brecht: “A religious idea.”
“But didn’t it have to do with the Communist Party?”
“Yes, yes,” Brecht agreed readily, and he tried to explain the situation in China, but was interrupted.
“Mr. Brecht, would you say this promoted the Communist Party?”
“You see, literature has a right to express the ideas of the time. In this play I tried to explain the feelings and ideas of German workers resisting Hitler.”
The Judge: “It’s about China though, it has nothing to do with Germany. The play is full of references to Lenin. Here, just let me read from the play.” In his Southern accent, in a terribly flat voice missing every ironic meaning, the Judge read on and on from the play, obviously jumping and leaping from selection to selection. “ 'Who is the Party? It is all of us. You and I. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing.' ‘Disciplinary Measures’ – Mr. Brecht, couldn’t you tell us whether one of the characters in this play was murdered by his comrades for the good of the Party?”
Brecht: “No, it is not true. You will find in the ancient Chinese plays that a character, when he has betrayed his idea, was willing to die rather than continue living unable to fulfill his idea. He would ask others to help him stop.”
“I gather from your remarks that he wasn’t murdered, he was just killed.” Laughter in the courtroom.
“No,” said Brecht, “they were just glad to have him disappear.” Laughter.
Asked what he had told Immigration when he landed in the U.S., Brecht said, “I made the usual statement about not overthrowing the United States government. They may have asked whether I was ever a member of the Communist Party, but I would have answered as I did here that I never was.”
A judge read a line from the song, “In Praise of Learning,” from his play, “The Mother,” produced in 1935 in New York City. Brecht interrupted after the Judge read, “You must be ready to take over the leadership.” “That is not the right translation,” said Brecht. Laughter. “That is a bad translation.” With the help of his translator, Brecht urged, “The correct translation would be ‘You must take the lead.’”
The Judge continued, “ ‘ You must be ready to ask questions, comrade’ – Is that in there, Mr. Brecht?”
Brecht: “Why not let the interpreter translate it now, word for word?”
Judge: “Because I can’t understand the interpreter!” More laughter.
Continuing to be asked about party and political affiliations, Brecht re-emphasize that he had always been an artist, that he was independent, and his rebellions were literary. “I never belonged to any party. And all of these words you have been reading were not only written for the Communist Party – They were written for the Catholic workers, the….” and Brecht continued with an expansive view of his audience.
Judge: “I would like to ask Mr. Brecht if he wrote a song, ‘Fallen but not forgotten.’”
Brecht: “I do not recognize the English title perhaps. The title should be perhaps ‘Forward and do not forget.’”
The Judge reads from the song:
“All of the world is our making.
What of it can we call our own?
Just whose City is the City?
We have a world to gain.
“Did you write that poem, Mr. Brecht?”
Brecht: “No, I wrote a German poem. But that you read was VERY different.” Laughter in the courtroom.
Within a few hours Brecht left the United States forever. Later he acquired a recording of the hearings and played it often, puffing his cigar and laughing at the dialogue. Video of some of his testimony before the Committee and other information are on YouTube.