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On War Primer

Brecht’s verses say uncomfortable truths rather than toe party lines and so offer us a still vital critique of the economic forces behind war, of how wartime rhetoric becomes a lie machine unfairly demonising and dehumanising our foes.

Stuart Jeffries 9 June 2017

On <i>War Primer</i>

One of the verses in War Primer, Bertolt Brecht’s newly republished attack on war under modern capitalism, resonated strongly for me. Next to an epic photograph of steelworkers labouring over winching chains and sheets of metal that originally appeared in Life magazine in 1940, Brecht writes:

‘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.’

The quatrain struck me because it made me recall other verses about another war took place as I came of age.

I mean "Shipbuilding," a 1982 song by Elvis Costello, written as a British naval task force sailed to the other end of the world as part of a military campaign to oust the invading forces of Argentine president General Leopoldi Galtieri from the Falkland Islands (what is still called Las Malvinas in Argentina).

They were verses that, like Brecht’s above, said the unsayable, tackling the difficulty of making a socialist case against war under modern capitalism when many workers are employed making arms and armaments.

Perhaps the best way to encounter that song is through the version done by Communist former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, who, in his ardent high-pitched voice, sang of how workers get co-opted by the military industrial complex. And, what’s more, that anybody who dares complain about that co-opting who complains risks trouble:

Somebody said that someone got filled in

For saying that people get killed in

The result of this shipbuilding….

With all the will in the world

Diving for dear life

When we could be diving for pearls

More specifically, "Shipbuilding" dealt with the issue almost unsayable on the left at the time of how Margaret Thatcher’s imperialist military adventure bought off those workers whose industries had been destroyed by her deflationary neoliberal economic policies and who become unemployed as a result but who now might get to work again — thanks to the economic possibilities generated by her decision to go to war to defend south Atlantic islands noted chiefly for their abundance of guano (bird shit). Or, as Costello put it:

Within weeks, they'll be re-opening the shipyards

And notifying the next of kin, once again

It's all we're skilled in

We will be shipbuilding.

Brecht’s verses, like Costello’s, say uncomfortable truths rather than toe party lines and so offer us a still vital critique of the economic forces behind war, of how wartime rhetoric becomes a lie machine unfairly demonising and dehumanising our foes. Thus, for example, below a photograph of a German woman sitting in the bombed out rubble of a street behind which is what looks to me like the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral, Brecht addresses his countrywoman:

I hear the men of Downing Street accuse you

Saying you stuck it out, so it’s your fault.

They may be right, but when did they last choose to

Chide people’s strange reluctance to revolt?

Churchill and his acolytes in the Allied press, that’s to say, are hardly justified in condemning the failure of wartime Germans to overthrow Hitler. As a Briton, I gravitate towards such verses in War Primer since they represent something my countrymen and women don’t often come across — the suggestion that our ancestors weren’t, or at least not straightforwardly, the heroes of 1939-1945. Yes, much of the book excoriates Hitler, but Brecht also — much more bracingly — strives repeatedly to puncture the triumphalist, even racist, rhetoric of the Allies.

And then there’s that famous image of Churchill in pin striped suit, mobster’s cigar dangling from the lower lip, clutching a machine gun like some superannuated extra from an Edward G. Robinson flick. Brecht dares to put unseemly words in the Nobel Laureate’s mouth:

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 civilisation. 

You won’t come across snarling sarcasm about Britain’s wartime leader from, say, current foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s bestselling hagiography of Churchill. That’s one reason why this book of quatrains, each a sardonic commentary on an accompanying wartime press photo, are so worth publishing in 2017. They’re necessary correctives to our still deluded dreams about our past. Especially if you’re British.

The book consists of 85 images from World War II, each with an epigrammatic quatrain from Brecht as commentary. The verses date from his exile in Sweden and Finland in 1940 and 1941, but were mainly collected during his exile in the USA, from July 1941 till the end of the war.

I’ve been coming back to War Primer again and again in recent weeks because Brecht is an endlessly disruptive thinker about war. He seems to revel, for instance, in crushing the justification for the gaudy public rites of bereavement. There’s a photograph of a Soviet woman, for instance, abandoned to grief, her arms outstretched and being supported by a man as she stands before — what the newspaper caption tells us — are the bodies that represent “one of the most fiendish crimes that the German army perpetrated on Soviet territory - the shooting of over 7,000 civilians” at Kerch. It’s an image that would lend itself to all kinds of patriotic treacle or emotional unspeak. But, instead of offering the cliches of grief that choke our public utterances when some tragedy occurs (2017’s unspeakable mantra, spoken by politicians the world over: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families and loved ones of those who have been a part of…”) Brecht writes something much more angrily unconsoling, much more bracingly true (true because unfitting for the occasion). He speaks directly the grieving woman thus:

I say pity, woman, is a fraud

Unless that pity turns into red rage

Which will not rest until this ancient thorn

Is drawn at last from deep in mankind’s flesh.

The East German authorities to whom the manuscript was presented in the early 1950s, didn’t care for this stuff. “Totally inadequate” wrote ex-president Otto Grotewohl when the publishers sought his opinion. Why? One reason was that Brecht, writing a verse below two head shots, one of a German and the other of a Russian soldier, wrote:

Here are two brothers, bought in armoured trucks,

To quarrel over the one brothers’ land!

So cruelly the tamed elephant attacks

His brother, the unbroken elephant. 

That perspective underlined the rationale of the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War, Grotewohl thought. Another reason that War Primer did not receive official sanction immediately was that, as the GDR's publishing watchdog, the Kultureller Beirat für das Verlagswesen, put it, War Primer was “too pacifist in its opposition to the war”. Its message was problematic as a new war, the Cold War between the Warsaw Pact and NATO in its infancy.

But the authorities, you’d think, did appreciate some of Brecht’s critiques included here of Allied war aims. Below an image of a D-Day invader emerging from the English Channel, Brecht wrote:

A summer day was dawning near Cherbourg

A man from Maine came crawling up  the sand

Supposedly against one from the Ruhr

In fact against the men of Stalingrad.

Our war aim that summer was to thwart Stalin as much as to overthrown Hitler, Brecht suggests. It’s a perspective that British school children won’t come across as they study history today, though perhaps they should.

East German authorities, though, cared less for Brecht’s poetic meditation on aerial photograph of a bombing raid on oil installations:

A cloud of smoke told us they were here

They were the sons of the fire, not of the lights

They came from where? They came out of the darkness

Where did they go? Into eternal night. 

For me, it echoes the profound disgust form airborne warfare and its human cost expressed later by writers like WG Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction or Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing. His bombers are scarcely human, but rather eternal forces of darkness, disposing inhumanity and injustice .

If there was Manichean struggle going on between 1939 and 1945, Brecht seems to want to say in War Primer, the forces of evil weren’t just on one side. Scarcely any one was uncorrupted by the forces of war and economics.That implicit suggestion typifies how the communist Brecht went insightfully, scabrously off message in this book

I’d never liked Brecht the man much — not least because to read his biography is to come across a man cruel to his women lovers and coldly inept as a parent, but here I find his personality emerges to its best advantage. War Primer is, as his editor Jon Willett puts it in a fascinating afterword that historically contextualises Brecht’s project, “evidence not only of Brecht’s willingness to stick his neck out in politically sensitive situations but also of his obstinacy his refusing to bow to any management he could not respect." We need that ornery, politically engaged sensibility today. Why? Because we haven’t learned the lessons of history. Even in  2017, we may think, as we take up arms or sell them to dubious polities, that we are defenders of civilisation. But as his friend Walter Benjamin recognised in an essay written just before World War II commenced, civilisation is barbarism by another name.

Stuart Jeffries is the author of Grand Hotel Abyss.

Filed under: literature, war