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Brecht’s War Primer
Brecht is known in the
For Brecht, “photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie [was] a terrible weapon against truth”. In War Primer, he transformed the epigram – a form of classical Greek poem whose main use was for engravings on stone monuments, hence its brevity - into a kind of caption, reinterpreting the meaning of the original news magazine sources to get at the truth. The work had a “didactic function”, according to Brecht scholar David Evans, the title War Primer recalling “the textbooks used to teach elementary school children how to read”. Brecht’s aim was to teach us to understand what the introduction to the original East German edition described as the indecipherable “hieroglyphs” that constituted bourgeois photography. His photo-epigrams were thus designed as modern, portable “monuments” – not stone, not heroic, but practical - to aid future generations in “critical remembering”. The following notes on a selection of 9 of the 85 “photo-epigrams” attempt to show what is so powerful about this work.
‘What’s that you’re making, brothers?’ ‘Iron waggons.’
‘And what about those great steel plates you’re lifting?’
‘They’re for the guns that blast the iron to pieces.’
‘And what’s it all for, brothers?’ ‘It’s our living.’
In this epigram, the poet/observer addresses the photograph’s subjects, US steelworkers, who respond as in an interview for a documentary. The reporter is clearly partisan, twice addressing the men as “brothers”. Their responses are straightforwardly factual, deadpan, without a hint of bitterness or irony – which makes them all the more devastating. The men speak the plain truth like the child pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. By focusing on a basic productive material, steel, Brecht exposes the irrationality of useful products being destroyed by the system that made them – stated as a dull inevitability with no explanation or surprise: “They’re for the guns that blast the iron to pieces”. The last three words “It’s our living” deliver the poem’s full complexity. Having demonstrated the destructive nature of the economic system in a nutshell, Brecht shows the workers’ alienation, their disinterestedness in capitalist wars - their main purpose being to survive, to make a “living”. Brecht takes sides with the workers by viewing the world through their eyes.
Far older than their bombers is the hunger
That they’ve unleashed on us. And to survive
We have to earn the cash to buy provisions
So, for survival, gamble with our lives.
The original caption from a Swedish newspaper was headed “New Source of Income” and followed by a long caption: “
What you see here, caught in your night defences
These steel and glass cocoons for killing people
With tons of bombs, are just the consequences
For all, and not the causes of the evil.
Brecht’s interest in the what things are made of - the steel in 2 above, and here the steel and glass of the bombers - is influenced by Greek epigrams which treated ordinary material utensils as subjects for lyric poems. The bourgeois emphasis on glamorous makes and names of planes is stripped away and the deadly purpose of the bombers becomes the focus. But it isn’t a pacifist poem. Brecht asks us to think about what causes war in the first place – but typically without giving a ready-made answer. This poem provides a stark contrast, almost a riposte, to the decadence of Italian Futurist artist, Marinetti, who wrote about the 1935 Italian invasion of Abysinnia: “War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers and small tanks… It initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body.”
You see me here, eating a simple stew
Me, slave to no desire, except for one:
World-conquest. That is all I want. From you
I have but one request: give me your sons.
Hitler’s folksy image – like that of many leaders today – is destroyed by Brecht, who makes it into an image of sheer cannibalism. There is an echo here of the work of Brecht’s contemporary, John Heartfield, the great German Communist artist, who used photomontage to produce vitriolic images showing the inherently violent nature of fascism.
But when we sighted the red walls of
People appeared from farm and factory
And they repelled us in the name of every people
Even the people back in
Though the picture is of Soviet partisans, the voice speaking here is that of the German soldiers of the Nazi invasion force. Brecht gives ordinary Germans a voice in many of these epigrams, making a clear distinction between the men and their leaders. The repeated word “people” acts as a refrain, reminding us the commonality of the oppressed. The poem raises the revolutionary idea that being defeated militarily by the “enemy” socialist state was in the soldiers’ own interests.
Alas, poor Yorrick of the burnt-out tank!
Upon an axle-shaft your head is set.
Your death by fire was for the Domei Bank
To whom your parents are still in debt.
This grotesque photo from Life February 1st 1943 has an original caption of its own: “A Japanese soldier’s skull is propped up on a burned-out Jap tank by
A summer day was dawning near
A man from
Supposedly against men from the
In fact against the men of
This is a terse, direct reminder of the Western allies’ fear and hatred of Communism – always their long-term enemy, more worrying to them than the fascist threat, which they only confronted with reluctance. Years of appeasement had been followed by the phoney war, and the opening of a second front had been delayed in the hope that the Nazi invasion of
Worn out by battle, if you only had
Sufficient strength now for yourselves to fight
The world, in death- and birth-pangs, would be glad
It took the pains that led to your defeat.
As with epigram 39 above, this poem reminds us that the German working class is not the enemy. If the ordinary soldiers fought for their own class interests they would confront the ruling class – which would make the suffering of the war worthwhile. The phrase “in death- and birth-pangs” encapsulates the revolutionary hope of the defeat of the old order and the start of a new era of struggle for socialism.
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 learn to learn, and try to learn for what.
This photograph – intended for a later book Peace Primer - was taken from an East German photographic archive. Brecht’s epigram can also be found as the third verse of his poem ‘To the Students of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculty’. The opening appears conventional, a plea to modern youth to remember and be grateful to those who laid down their lives for their sake - except that the ordinary, spoken tone of “not the other lot” undermines the usual bourgeois notion of war memorials, where class is never mentioned, and speaks directly to the students of the GDR on their level. The last two lines take us suddenly into a complex thought about the process of education itself, the relationship of the present peace to the recent war. Peace shouldn’t lead to ivory-tower scholarship (hiding your head) or forgetting there are still sides to take (deserting), but should be about developing a class perspective on history and politics. The repetition of “learn”, three times in a single line urges us to think for ourselves, with the last phrase, as so often in these poems, containing the key point - not an answer, only the injunction to the students, and to us, to work out why we need to know, to understand.
War Primer, edited by John Willet, is published by Libris,