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Brecht’s War Primer

The great poet and playwright Bertold Brecht added four-line epigrams to images from mass-circulation magazines, in order to analyse and expose the brutal workings of capitalism.

Bertold Brecht
In 1947, Bertolt Brecht, aged forty-nine, left the US, where he’d lived during the latter part of the war as a refugee.  Two years later, after a period in Switzerland, he settled in the newly established socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR), where the War Primer was published in 1955.  Brecht, by then a major cultural figure in the GDR, director of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, died the following year.

Brecht is known in the UK mostly for his great “teaching” plays (lehrstucke), such as Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Sechuan, and for his musical The Threepenny Opera, written in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill.  Less well known are his poems, his critical essays on theatre and realism, his film Kuhle Wampe and his War Primer.  War Primer, which wasn’t published in English until 1998, is a book of what Brecht called “photo-epigrams”, photographs from wartime mass-circulation magazines, mostly from Life, each picture accompanied by a 4-line, rhyming epigram, or short poem, commenting on the photo. 

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: “London’s poor have found a new source of income.  Children gather round the exits of underground stations, which serve as air-raid shelters.  They have reserved places in the shelters and hire them out, with bedding, when there is an alert.  Our picture shows a group of youngsters with mattresses and blankets carried in prams.”  Brecht’s epigram transforms this picture of innocuous-sounding entrepreneurialism to reveal the truth - that these children are risking their own lives for money for food, and that it is class oppression that kills – only the weapons vary: poverty, bombs, or both.




  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 Moscow

  People appeared from farm and factory

  And they repelled us in the name of every people

  Even the people back in Germany.


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 U.S. troops.  Fire destroyed the rest of the corpse.”  The use of the word “Jap” here reveals the triumphalism of this image.  By addressing the head directly as a fellow human being, Brecht restores its dignity, echoing Hamlet’s sympathetic speech on mortality addressed to the skull of Yorrick.  The inflated rhetoric of the Shakespeare, followed by the high-flown word-order of “Upon an axle-rod your head is set”, is punctured by the blunt down-to-earth “burnt-out tank”  and “axle-shaft”.  This is no pompous war memorial inscription.  In the final lines, Brecht provides an explanation, something the bourgeois press photo avoids - a concise analysis of the brutal workings of capitalism.  In doing so he reminds us movingly that the head was once a human being, with parents, who have lost doubly under capitalism.  Our feeling is, finally, not the passivity and completeness of pity, but anger, which is as alive and unfinished as the banks’ power, and which demands action.



  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.


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 Russia would destroy Soviet power.  D-day began the race for Berlin, whose aim was principally to stop socialism gaining ground in Europe.




  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, 10 Burleigh Road, London NW5 1UE.