"They were going to look at war, the red animal – war, the blood-swollen god."

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

In Literature, poetry, Uncategorized on February 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

A morning visit to my neighborhood independent bookstore, BookCulture (a great store – go visit at 112th Street east of Broadway), yielded a surprising find: War Primer by the great poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. I hadn’t even known of the existence of this extraordinary document, but since the over-sized hardcover volume was marked down from $60.00 to $14.99, I promptly bought a copy.

By 194o, already many years into his long exile from Hitler’s Germany, Brecht had begun to clip photos of war from newspapers and magazines, and to write terse and fierce four-line poems to accompany the images. He mounted the photos and poems on paper, creating what he called “photo-epigrams.”

Young sufferers of war in Russia, France, Greece and Sicily

You, in your tanks and bombers, mighty warriors,
You that in Algiers sweat, in Lapland freeze
In scores of battles you have been victorious
See whom you’ve conquered. Hail your victories!

War Primer is a collection of these photo-epigrams, which Brecht worked on as he and his family moved from country to country, “changing countries more often than our shoes,” trying to stay ahead of Hitler’s invasions.

"Exhausted Soldiers"

Those you see lying here, buried in mud
As if they lay already in their grave–
They’re merely sleeping, are not really dead
Yet, not asleep, would still not be awake.

In 1941, Brecht lived in Sweden, Finland and Russia before arriving in the United States, where he would remain for six years.  Throughout World War II and its aftermath, Brecht continued to work on War Primer, while writing some of his greatest plays, including Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He completed War Primer in 1947, the same year he testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC).

The day after his HUAC testimony, Brecht left the U.S. for Switzerland.  In 1949, after fifteen years of exile, he finally returned to East Berlin.

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.

(Kriegsfibel was published in Germany in 1955. It was published in English as War Primer in 1998.  John Willett translated and edited; Libris is the publisher. A small stack of the books remains at Book Culture. What a find.)

Here, for good measure, is a poem of Brecht’s that has served me for years as a mental talisman:


Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.

  1. […] — The womb is fertile still from which that crept. [tr. Willett] That was similar to the quatrain Willett translated (1998) from the portion of that that Brecht used in his War Primer [Kriegsfibel] (1947): That’s how the […]

  2. […] biting satire in Bertolt Brecht’s German War Primer is a lesson from history we can’t ignore, writes Andy […]

  3. […] blogpost on Bertolt Brecht, including quotes from War Primer, a full-length poem, and a video of Brecht […]

  4. I’ll have to look for this book!

    Brecht could be tendentious, but he was an undeniably powerful poet. I’ve always liked

    Als ich wiederkehrte
    War mein Haar noch nicht grau
    Da war ich froh.

    Says it all, for those in Europe who survived the war.

    (WWII, that is… not the _last_ war, any more)

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