Bertolt Brecht: 
Portrait of an East German Writer

By Stephen Cincotta


One of the greatest and most famous East German writers, Bertolt Brecht stands out as one of only a handful of East German socialist writers whose work is recognized the world over. East German literature in general has had two main problems integrating itself into society. Both problems stem from the communist command economy and its effects on the people’s and literature of East Germany. First and foremost, much East German literature is forced socialist propaganda by the government. Although most East German writers, (including Bertolt Brecht) had highly socialist beliefs many of their works were simply propaganda, which cannot be considered great literature. The other reason for the lack of recognized East German literature is caused by the censorship and lack of value placed on many East German works, which are not propaganda writings. Thus one may note when reading one of the few East German books of criticism that the works regarded as the greatest are in large part simply propaganda writings. As well a lot of literature which is not propaganda may not be very highly regarded if it is mentioned at all.

As these characteristics of East German literature are realized it is useful to note that socialist literature is not entirely propagandist in nature and did not simply appear with the separation of Germany and the instituting of the communist government in 1945. East German literature as all literature is deeply rooted in its predecessors. Socialist type literature and its roots have in fact existed in Germany for over a century, well before the separation from West Germany and the institution of a communist government. Although many of the past East German writers could not be claimed as socialist writers many of their works contained the same basic themes as those of socialist writers, namely concern with the common worker and the peasant.


As has been stated most of the true East German socialist writers produced works that were largely propagandist in nature. Although it was a continuation of literature produced in the pre socialist era it was forced to be more propagandist. Those that did not comply with the wishes of the government many times did not have their works published. This begs the question of why Brecht became much more recognized than most East German writers and how he managed to get all of his works heard or seen.

Bertolt Brecht differs from most of the socialist writers of his era in that he was not a great socialist propaganda writer. Though he was a believer in the Marxist economy and truly felt the socialist society to be better than the capitalist democracy, he simply could not transform his writings into propaganda literature. Though he despised the Nazi regime and fascism and was able to effectively portray this in his writings, along with the evils he believed existed in the capitalist society, he could never make the transformation into the propaganda writer that the socialist government wanted him to become. The truth is that no, Brecht was not a great propaganda writer. He was simply a great writer, who was able to portray society in a way that made people feel his writings, whether they be poetry or performance. He was a deep man, with very strong feelings towards the problems of the world. His works captured his feelings and created feeling in others, more so than even Brecht gave them credit for.


Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria. His father was Catholic, the manager of a paper mill. His mother was Protestant and came from the Black Forest. Though Brecht was very close to his mother, he was instinctively drawn to the city and felt himself to belong there. Brecht was 16 years old when World War I broke out and was already contributing to the school paper. Even at such an early age his writings showed his intense feelings. In this case he sometimes got himself in trouble due to his sharply pacifistic views. Brecht left school in 1916 and moved to Munich where he was soon drafted. In the military he was made a medical orderly being that he had studied medicine at the university. This experience would forever haunt Brecht and leave a lasting impression on his poetry. The gruesome and awful conditions that war inflicted on man would change Brechts character forever. This part of Brechts life would help to shape Brechts underlying belief in all of his writings, which was that the world was intrinsically evil. Brecht’s contempt for war and its evils can be seen in some of his shorter poems. An example of this type of short poem, usually only a verse in length is as follows;

On the Wall There was Written in Chalk:

They want war.

He who wrote it

Has already fallen.

Brecht did not simply feel that just war was evil, he in fact felt war was a necessary entity of this intrinsically evil world. One of Brechts poems, entitled the "Elegie" is a good example of Brecht’s disgust with this world. The poem begins as follows;

These are, indeed, dark times in which I live

To say a guileless thing is foolish;

A smooth brow bespeaks insensitivity.

To laugh is to be someone who

Has not yet received the

Frightful news.


Brechts greatest works however, his great plays and dramas, were not created in East Germany. Most of his plays were written in West Germany, while all of his great dramas were written in exile. Brecht went into exile in February of 1933 during which time he lived in Denmark and the United States and also visited Moscow. In exile he produced his outstanding plays, "Galileo" (1943, 1947, 1954), "The Trial of Lucullus" (1940), "Mother Courage and Her Children" (1941), and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" (1945). In all of his plays Brecht tried to produce a separation between the audience and the character, in order that people would think about the play and not get lost in feeling. The plays were all meant to present the problems of this world and were usually not to be feel-good in nature. Brecht however underestimated his ability to create a real life character and the feelings his words would create. In most of his works the audience could not help but empathize with the character or situation.

In 1948 Brecht returned to East Germany, where his plays were met with enormous success. His writings however stalled as great pressure was put on him by the government to create socialist propaganda. Try as he might Brecht was simply unable to create good works of propaganda; equal to some of the Anti-Nazi propaganda he had produced in exile. Brecht did not in fact have a good relationship with the government as the propaganda and empty promises of the government seemed even worse than those of its predecessors. He remained a communist until the end however, confident in his belief of the evil nature of man and of the world and communism as a means of control. On August 14, 1956 Bertolt Brecht died in East Berlin due to coronary thrombosis. Though he never became the propagandist writer that the socialist government had hoped for, his literature better than any other East German writer of the time, captured the feelings and struggles of a people. The thoughts of a society which had experienced nothing but war and depression. His plays were meant to make one think which they did; yet not as much as they made one feel. Brecht was not the great East German propaganda writer of his time; he was simply the great East German writer of his time.


Works Cited

  1. Huebener, Theodore: The Literature of East Germany, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. New York 1970. PP 1-13, 43-66









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