The Shipwreck of History: Bertolt Brecht’s “War Primer”

By Roy ScrantonJune 4, 2017

The Shipwreck of History: Bertolt Brecht’s “War Primer”

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

“in the future it will perhaps be difficult to understand the impotence of the peoples in these wars of ours.”

— Bertolt Brecht, journal, June 14, 1940


VERSO’S NEW EDITION of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer is an artifact rich and strange. It comprises 85 photos Brecht collected between 1939 and 1945 while he was a refugee in exile from Nazi Germany, on the move from Denmark to Sweden to Finland and finally, by way of Moscow and the Trans-Siberian Railroad, to Los Angeles, where he settled in Santa Monica among a community of German intellectual émigrés. It is a period almost lost to us now (though you can see Brecht’s modest Santa Monica home at 1063 Twenty-sixth Street on Google Street View), not because of a lack of historical knowledge — Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss, also from Verso, is only the most recent in a shelf full of books about the world of Mitteleuropäische intellectual and artistic refugees who found haven in the United States during the war — but because World War II remains for most Americans, whatever their politics, submerged in a pool of distorting mythology, much as the USS Arizona lies sunk in Pearl Harbor. It is “the good war,” heroically waged by “the Greatest Generation,” an ancient conflict veiled in a mystique of nobility and righteousness, ever present, never quite real. Brecht’s War Primer comes to us from that lost world, its pages less a lesson than the partial remains of a witness.

The photos in War Primer, which Brecht clipped out of newspapers and magazines, are accompanied by poetic epigrams in what is more or less ballad form, tart quatrains in sing-song pentameter rhyming ABAB, sometimes AABB, rendered here in the late John Willett’s finely crafted translations from the German. Their tone is pungently “Brechtian,” the voice that of a moralizing Mackie Messer, cynical, scornful, witty, and sly. Picture-epigram #57 gives something of the taste: the photo shows an American soldier standing on the beach looking down at a dead Japanese counterpart he’s just shot. We see the American from the rear; he clutches in his hand a pistol. The Japanese soldier lies twisted at the American’s feet, holding his stomach. Beyond them we see more bodies, the corner of a barge or landing craft, and the wide Pacific. Brecht’s quatrain reads:

And with their blood they were to colour red
A shore that neither owned. I hear it said
That they were forced to kill each other. True.
My only question is: who forced them to?

Brecht’s hatred for Nazi leadership, and especially his contempt for Hitler, shines clear in many of the epigrams, but War Primer is no work of Allied propaganda. As the text of #57 suggests, Brecht understood World War II largely in terms of masses duped, betrayed, hijacked, and murdered by corrupt rulers. Behind the nationalist fervor roused by the war, Brecht saw gangsters waging a turf battle. In this way, War Primer offers a perspective not often considered by contemporary American readers, an acid take on the so-called “Good War” which sees the conflict not as a necessary struggle of good against evil but a worldwide eruption of violence, cruelty, profiteering, suffering, and lies. It was, for Brecht, like all wars, a global bloodbath in which the vampiric rich fed on the machine-gunned and fire-bombed poor.

Yet while War Primer reaches for the pathos of tragedy, it never quite gets there, since its author’s passion is not sympathetic but critical. Brecht’s generally sardonic tone turns awkwardly toward the elegiac when considering bombed-out cities and crippled veterans, but his wit sparks white-hot when mocking war’s propagandists, publicists, and cheerleaders, Axis and Allied both. This all-inclusive critique proved a problem when it came to publication. War Primer was completed in 1947, but Brecht was on the move that year, leaving the United States for Zürich and East Berlin, after having been called to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in Washington. (“I benefit,” he wrote in his journal about the hearing, “from having had almost nothing to do with Hollywood.” The quip was something of a bitter joke: Brecht had in fact tried, and failed, to get work in the movie industry.) The manuscript was first sent to a West German publisher in Munich, who rejected it, then submitted to Volk und Welt, a publisher in Communist East Germany who suggested cutting several poem-images to make the book more politically acceptable. In any case, when the manuscript was sent to the government censor in 1950, it was rejected for being too “broadly pacifist in its opposition to the war,” for not being critical enough toward “the imperialist warmongers,” meaning the United States and its allies, for focusing too much on Hitler but at the same time not showing clearly enough how Hitler was a tool of the arms manufacturers, and for not paying enough attention to “the significance of the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War.” After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the consequent shake-up in leadership in both Russia and the DDR, Brecht tried again, this time with more success. After a few minor changes, and despite the continued resistance of government censors, War Primer was finally published in December 1955 by Eulenspiegel, an East German satirical magazine. Brecht died of a heart attack eight months later.

One of the changes Brecht made concerns one of the book’s most haunting images, #63, an out-of-focus photograph of a man (likely British) crawling through the surf during a beach landing. We are somehow in front of him, so we can see his face beneath his helmet, and the tank obstacles — giant, threatening heaps of metal — that he had to pass through to get this far. Much of his body is still underwater. His eyes are caverns, his nose a white smudge, his mouth a taut line, his chin fixed: the man’s fear and determination burn through the image, despite or perhaps because of the photo’s blur, conveying down through the decades, from the other side of death, a desperate will to live. Brecht writes:

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.

These lines, in which D-Day is cast as preamble to the Cold War, were changed from an earlier draft of the manuscript, which (in my own loose translation) reads:

Somewhere near Cherbourg, on a bright June day,
A man from Essen where the wide Ruhr bends
Saw in the dawn light, crawling through sea spray,
A man from Maine — and did not comprehend.

This earlier version addresses one of War Primer’s main themes, which is that the Germans were duped by Hitler and did not know what they were doing. The book’s first image is a photo of the Führer in profile at a podium, hand lifted, mouth agape, a man in the grasp of revelation, a swastika barely visible hanging in the background; the accompanying poem takes on Hitler’s voice, claiming to “know the way Fate has prescribed” for the German people. “Just follow,” he writes, “I can find it in my sleep.” Several other poem-images in the book excoriate the German leadership. A few show German soldiers and airmen, alongside lyrics suggesting that the men were motivated not by patriotism or bloodlust but by fear.

About halfway through the book, though, Brecht’s critique of the Allies comes to the fore, developing a theme seeded earlier. Poem-image #15 offers a photo of Winston Churchill grinning around a cigar, a tommy gun in his hands. The poem reads:

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 civilization.

This poem, and others like it, reflect Brecht’s insistence that there were no heroes in the war, no “good guys,” only callous profiteers and their (sometimes complicit) victims. Looking at the images of ruined German cities, hollow-eyed refugees, and shell-shocked soldiers side by side with photos of well-fed, comfortable businessmen, statesmen, and generals, it’s hard not to see his point.

One of the most interesting aspects of War Primer is how it addresses gender, a fact of life which the United States’s mythic memory of World War II tends to simplify and sideline but which held, of course, great interest to the author of Mother Courage and Her Children. Poem-images #26 and #27 show Hitler with German mothers, the lyrics emphasizing his fatal desire for their sons’ bodies. Poem-image #44 shows a young, bare-breasted, dark-skinned woman, likely African, carrying a basket on her head. It reads:

Our masters fight to have you, lovely creature
They race to seize you in their headlong course.
Each feels most fit to bleed you white in the future —
Most justified in taking you by force.

The fact that World War II was a battle between world empires for the control not only of Europe but also of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, a battle which Great Britain lost and the United States won, is hinted at here through the sexualized figure of the African woman, cast as the prize for which the gangsters were fighting. The idea of woman as prize for victory in war recurs a few pages later in poem-image #47, which shows Jane Wyman with nearly a dozen military medals pinned over her pelvis. The caption to the photo reads: “Jane Wyman shows her medals, adorning an ‘R.A.F. blue’ dress designed by a Hollywood patriot who says girls ‘should go military in a feminine way.’” The photo is typical of American wartime propaganda, which often combined winking salaciousness with outright jingoism. Brecht writes:

A breast curves through her military cut
Her parts are hung with old war decorations.
It’s Hollywood v. Hitler. Here we’ve got
Semen for blood, and pus for perspiration.

The facing poem-image shows a prosthetic leg, crutches, and a cane; the next page shows a Singapore mother wailing over the corpse of her toddler, the facing photo an American soldier standing over what the caption explains is “the Jap he killed.” Turn the page and we see “Sexy Carrot,” a photograph, sent in to the editors of Life magazine in response to their request for pictures to cheer up American soldiers in the Pacific, of a victory-garden carrot shaped like the hips and legs of a Hollywood starlet. Facing “Sexy Carrot” is another picture from Life, this one of a Thai woman hiding in a crude bomb shelter, watching bombers fly overhead. “The frightened people looked for holes to hide in,” writes Brecht, “and watched their masters battling from down there.” Such juxtapositions suture individual poem-images, which can sometimes seem overly tendentious on their own, into a complex, brutal, absurd montage: a burned-out skull mounted on a tank, a politician campaigning for office, starving children, workers making bombs, a black man beaten by a Detroit mob, a pin-up girl, a concentration camp.


War Primer is a strange, singular work, but it’s not without precedent. It must be understood in the tradition of Francisco Goya’s famous series of etchings now known as The Disasters of War, originally titled Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices, and Otto Dix’s less well-known series of etchings titled simply The War, inspired by his experiences as an artillery sergeant in World War I. Goya’s series comprises mostly action scenes — women being dragged from their children and raped, a man being cut in half at the groin, refugees begging for food, prisoners being led over a hill — with ironic captions: a rape is titled “The women give courage,” a dead horse on top of a soldier “This always happens,” men pushing corpses into a pit “Charity.” As the series progresses, the irony abrades into stark witnessing: “I saw it” reads the title of a picture of a father being dragged from his family, “This is bad” describes a soldier stabbing a monk in the stomach. Toward the end the pictures turn allegorical, featuring monstrous animals and a beautiful woman, the figure of “Truth.” Plate #79 shows the woman lying on the ground, emitting light, surrounded by onlookers; “Truth has died,” the title reads. Plate #80 shows her from a different perspective. The shadows are heavier, the crowd around her mere impressions of forms, and the contrast with her shining face stronger. “Will she live again?” reads the title. These are the final two plates in the series, which was not published until 35 years after the artist’s death.

The images in Dix’s The War — which was published in 1924, to success and acclaim — are just as horrific as Goya’s, and often even more gruesome, but they tend to focus on static scenes such as ravaged landscapes and corpses torn apart by explosions. When living figures are present, they are often foregrounded staring at the viewer with uncanny directness, as in Plate #22, “Night Meeting with a Madman,” in which a scribbled grinning shadow lunges at the viewer from out of a ruptured and melting Van Gogh nightscape of broken buildings, what seems to be a crippled windmill, and fire. It is a chilling, almost nauseating picture. Another of Dix’s figural scenes puts the viewer practically under the boots of a mass of macabre, skull-like gas masks plunging forward with bayonets and grenades (#12, “Stormtroops Advance Under Gas”). Dix’s titles are usually flatly descriptive, and his etchings, however stark, have no overt political agenda and do not attempt to connect the experience of war to the decisions that led to it. Dix’s expressionist apocalypse seems a calamity beyond human power, beyond human reckoning, a Boschian hellscape visited on humankind by some twisted god made of metal and fire.

Superficially, Goya, Dix, and Brecht all have the same trivial message: war is terrible. And it is. But the full import of Goya’s etchings can only be understood in the historical context of the Napoleonic wars and early 19th-century Spanish politics, subtleties lost on most viewers. Dix’s series is less pointedly political than Goya’s, but Dix’s other paintings are not so circumspect; along with George Grosz and other German Expressionists, he was ruthlessly critical of postwar German culture. And Dix too, like Brecht and Goya, suffered for his apostasy: when the Nazis came to power, he was named a degenerate artist and fired from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy. Abstracting The War from its context — the shock of World War I, the modernism of Weimar Germany, the rise of fascism — evacuates it of all meaning save the most banal.

Likewise, Brecht’s War Primer is, as the blurb on the Verso edition cover adverts, an “album of pity and anger which fixes the evil of war for all time” — but that may be the least interesting thing about it. It is, more important, a historical document about a specific war in a specific time by a specifically situated observer, and it levels its criticisms against specific historical agents. It is this historical specificity that gives War Primer its richness and strangeness, because it is this specificity alone which forces us to confront a World War II which was not simple, which had no good guys, and which was not a titanic collision of ideas but rather a global scramble for real estate. It is War Primer’s existence as an artifact, as embodied time, that gives it an almost magical power to bring to life the truth of a world sunk in the shadows of myth.

Thought must work constantly to rescue the historical from the mythic, the specific from the general, the concrete from the banal, especially when we reflect upon war. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this, the most important of which is probably how vital stories of war are to political identity. We know who we are because of who we conquered, or who conquered us — who our enemies were and are. George Washington beat the British, the North beat the South, the USA beat the Nazis, capitalism beat communism, and now we are locked in a death struggle with … al-Qaeda? ISIS? Russia? China? — fill in the blank here.

The estrangement effect at work in Brecht’s use of irony and montage was a tactic designed to jolt viewers out of such myths. Yet War Primer suffers from the same formal problem as Brecht’s other great works: it is too aesthetically interesting to be genuinely alienating, and too broadly didactic to be truly convincing as critique. We may easily grant Brecht the cynical generalization that all war is exploitation without significantly challenging the golden aura around World War II, because what we grant in principle we may still take back as an exception, and what distinguishes American exceptionalism is precisely that belief that we are engaged in a complicated, tragic struggle to advance human ideals in a corrupt and fallen world. Even if war is hell, that is, we still see ourselves on the side of the angels.

The most cherished myths of American culture tell us that, while war is terrible, our wars are noble, fought only under duress, and in the service of freedom, human rights, and democracy. If we fail in our ventures, as we did in Vietnam and Iraq and probably will in Afghanistan and Syria, that failure was not in our intentions, which were righteous, but merely in our execution. Our worst sins, in these myths, are not ambition, cruelty, or greed, but hubris and lack of foresight. Against such myths, which can be found articulated in the latest Hollywood movies, in the editorial pages of The New York Times, in Brookings Institution essays, and in Amazon’s “Hot New Releases in World War II History,” Brecht’s ideological critique, which is founded in its own mythology of good and evil, can do little or nothing. Indeed, it’s not clear what one can do about such myths at all, since the power they have is precisely that which deforms and obscures reality into something comprehensible, tractable, and bearable; they are not only gratifying but in some sense also necessary. Those who insist on conveying the bitter truth that we live in a world of suffering beyond human understanding and control should expect no thanks for delivering their message, unless they have also brought along a salvific god or compensatory utopia. The best that can be done under such conditions, it seems, is to work to save something concrete from the ruinous tides of time and delusion that wash over us anew each hour. An artifact, a book, a collection of photographs or etchings or poems, a specific moment in which a specific human being lived, brought up out of the dark waters of myth into the light of knowledge: the stuff of history.


Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and the novel War Porn. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

LARB Contributor

Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and the novel War Porn. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame.


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