No Comment — January 15, 2008, 12:04 am

Brecht ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake’

I

Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!
Das arglose Wort ist töricht. Eine glatte Stirn
Deutet auf Unempfindlichkeit hin. Der Lachende
Hat die furchtbare Nachricht
Nur noch nicht empfangen.

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!
Der dort ruhig über die Straße geht
Ist wohl nicht mehr erreichbar für seine Freunde
Die in Not sind?

Es ist wahr: Ich verdiene nur noch meinen Unterhalt
Aber glaubt mir: das ist nur ein Zufall. Nichts
Von dem, was ich tue, berechtigt mich dazu, mich sattzuessen.
Zufällig bin ich verschont. (Wenn mein Glück aussetzt, bin ich verloren.)

Man sagt mir: Iß und trink du! Sei froh, daß du hast!
Aber wie kann ich essen und trinken, wenn
Ich dem Hungernden entreiße, was ich esse, und
Mein Glas Wasser einem Verdursteten fehlt?
Und doch esse und trinke ich.

Ich wäre gerne auch weise.
In den alten Büchern steht, was weise ist:
Sich aus dem Streit der Welt halten und die kurze Zeit
Ohne Furcht verbringen
Auch ohne Gewalt auskommen
Böses mit Gutem vergelten
Seine Wünsche nicht erfüllen, sondern vergessen
Gilt für weise.
Alles das kann ich nicht:
Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!

II

In die Städte kam ich zur Zeit der Unordnung
Als da Hunger herrschte.
Unter die Menschen kam ich zu der Zeit des Aufruhrs
Und ich empörte mich mit ihnen.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

Mein Essen aß ich zwischen den Schlachten
Schlafen legte ich mich unter die Mörder
Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos
Und die Natur sah ich ohne Geduld.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

Die Straßen führten in den Sumpf zu meiner Zeit.
Die Sprache verriet mich dem Schlächter.
Ich vermochte nur wenig. Aber die Herrschenden
Saßen ohne mich sicherer, das hoffte ich.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

Die Kräfte waren gering. Das Ziel
Lag in großer Ferne
Es war deutlich sichtbar, wenn auch für mich
Kaum zu erreichen.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

III

Ihr, die ihr auftauchen werdet aus der Flut
In der wir untergegangen sind
Gedenkt
Wenn ihr von unseren Schwächen sprecht
Auch der finsteren Zeit
Der ihr entronnen seid.

Gingen wir doch, öfter als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd
Durch die Kriege der Klassen, verzweifelt
Wenn da nur Unrecht war und keine Empörung.

Dabei wissen wir doch:
Auch der Hass gegen die Niedrigkeit
Verzerrt die Züge.
Auch der Zorn über das Unrecht
Macht die Stimme heiser. Ach, wir
Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit
Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.

Ihr aber, wenn es soweit sein wird
Dass der Mensch dem Menschen ein Helfer ist
Gedenkt unsrer
Mit Nachsicht.

I
Truly, I live in dark times!
An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead
Points to insensitivity. He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
And he who walks quietly across the street,
Passes out of the reach of his friends
Who are in danger?

It is true: I work for a living
But, believe me, that is a coincidence. Nothing
That I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I have been spared. (If my luck does not hold,
I am lost.)

They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad to be among the haves!
But how can I eat and drink
When I take what I eat from the starving
And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would happily be wise.
The old books teach us what wisdom is:
To retreat from the strife of the world
To live out the brief time that is your lot
Without fear
To make your way without violence
To repay evil with good –
The wise do not seek to satisfy their desires,
But to forget them.
But I cannot heed this:
Truly I live in dark times!

II

I came into the cities in a time of disorder
As hunger reigned.
I came among men in a time of turmoil
And I rose up with them.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

I ate my food between slaughters.
I laid down to sleep among murderers.
I tended to love with abandon.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

In my time streets led into a swamp.
My language betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers sat more securely, or so I hoped.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

The powers were so limited. The goal
Lay far in the distance
It could clearly be seen although even I
Could hardly hope to reach it.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

III

You, who shall resurface following the flood
In which we have perished,
Contemplate –
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also the dark time
That you have escaped.

For we went forth, changing our country more frequently than our shoes
Through the class warfare, despairing
That there was only injustice and no outrage.

And yet we knew:
Even the hatred of squalor
Distorts one’s features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow hoarse. We
Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness
Could not ourselves be gentle.

But you, when at last the time comes
That man can aid his fellow man,
Should think upon us
With leniency.

Bertolt Brecht, An die Nachgeborenen first published in Svendborger Gedichte (1939) in: Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 722-25 (1967)(S.H. transl.)


I have just posted an original translation of Bertolt Brecht’s poem An die Nachgeborenen. This poem probably dates from 1939 and in any event from the period of Brecht’s Danish exile. Like most of those from the period, this poem has strong political undercurrents and is filled with brooding. Considering the gathering of storm clouds across Europe at the time of its composition, this is easily understood. There are several exceptional works in this collection, the Svendborg poems, but this one is the stand out.

The poem uses a first person narration and is divided into three segments. The first points to his frustration over the evil descending upon his homeland. He is writing about the Nazi regime which has tightened its control over his homeland, ruling with acts of unprecedented thuggery and brutishness. Brecht realized that he had to flee because his life was at risk. The earnestness of the situation is troubling. How, he asks, can one in such circumstances talk about trivialities (he alludes to “conversations about trees”). To do so is to avoid speaking about the unpleasant circumstances that govern their lives. This is followed by an allusion to his decision to go into exile, to Denmark, a short distance from the German border (“he quietly crosses the street,” but is now out of reach for his friends in need, that is, those who remain in Hitler’s Germany.)

In the next stanza he develops this theme a little further. How can he find internal peace with his comfortable conditions in exile when his friends and colleagues live in hunger and cower in fear for their lives, he asks. But these lines contain a second meaning–they refer to the totalitarian state and its ability to reduce the quality of human life to its essentials, to the need for food and drink, for instance. The pact offered by the totalitarian state is simple: we will furnish you those essentials, that food and drink. In exchange we command your unquestioning loyalty. (Hence the sudden change in voice to the command imperative: Man sagt mir: iß und trink du!).

The fourth stanza marks a point of departure from the predecessors, which can be called a catalogue of the indignities of the Nazi regime. Here Brecht turns to the collected wisdom of humanity, to book learning. He points to the received wisdom of prior generations, which admonishes to retreat from the conflicts of the world, to counter evil with good, to avoid seeking to satisfy one’s desires. These values appear buried in a number of texts that Brecht was developing at the time this poem was composed, for instance in the final chapters of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus cycle (1669), in which the protagonist lauds the virtue of retreat from the pointless violence and terror of life in Middle Europe during the Thirty-Years War. Much of this was developed in Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1939). But even more to the point is the Confucian and Buddhist world view which is the object of Brecht’s highly partisan political criticism in Der gute Mensch von Sezchuan (1939).

The fifth stanza jumps back further in time. Brecht alludes to the terror-filled months that followed the collapse of the Kaiserreich at the end of World War I—this is the time of disorder in the cities to which the first lines refer. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate, the nation descended into chaos. Starvation was widespread and competing political groups turned to terror as a weapon for the consolidation of power. This was the inauspicious soil in which the Weimar Republic was launched, soon to be destroyed by an enemy which “revealed itself with its language.” This is one of several passages which is best understood in terms of traditional Marxist dialectic; Brecht is referring to a governing class which employs its own peculiar language. Of course, for Brecht and many of his fellow Marxists, fascism was explained as a manifestation of an ailing or collapsing capitalism.

The final stanzas are filled with anxiety and regret. What will posterity think of the fact of my flight, Brecht asks, of the fact that he “changed his country as often as his shoes.” But for all of this, Brecht is confident in a final victory over fascism and the dawn of a new era in which “men can help one another,” which for Brecht assuredly means the triumph of Marxism. His close is very troubling. He appeals to posterity to consider, before condemning his generation, the terrible circumstances in which they lived. Is he justifying the reach to brutal methods against the enemy? Is he saying that the “ends justify the means?” That is a persistent theme in Brecht’s writings at this time. But the close remains poetic and ambiguous. It was an ambiguity that he only overcame following the uprising in Germany in 1953, I think. That was the point at which he recognized clearly the fundamental evil of an ideology that instrumentalizes humanity.

Still, Bertolt Brecht is one of the consummate writers of exile literature in the twentieth century. His writings maintain an intriguing balance between the sentimentality and longing that mark the genre from the time of Chateaubriand, mixed with ideological backbone and resolve, a determination to engage and fight, a will to vanquish the oppression that drives him from his homeland. And this poem, addressed to posterity, may be the consummate work of exile poetry.


Listen to Bertolt Brecht read An die Nachgeborenen on a SONY BARBArossa Musikverlag (Sony) 2002 recording.

Listen to Gottfried von Einem’s Cantata An die Nachgeborenen, op. 42, composed to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and premiered in New York on October 24, 1975.

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