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Brecht's feelings about war cast in new light by emergence of teenage poems


Two newly attributed poems find Brecht, a writer later known for his trenchantly anti-war views, in surprisingly patriotic form

Two poems showing a teenage Bertolt Brecht urging "real German men, of steel and iron" to resist a world "standing stiffly against us" have been attributed to the author for the first time, casting a new light on a poet and playwright better known for the trenchantly anti-war views he held in later life.

The patriotic poems, entitled 1813 and 1913, were published in a literary magazine edited by Brecht and his school friends in 1913 and 1914. In 1813, Brecht imagines the battle of Leipzig, writing of how "German men, with their clashing weapons strong, / saved the tottering state". In "1913", the poet writes: "now, after one hundred years, once again a world is standing / stiffly against us and we are quite alone / so the call goes out from the Baltic to the Rhine / to be truly united and strong". Brecht goes on to plead: "give us, God, in wars and perils / real German men, of steel and iron, / like those in the battle one hundred years ago."

The verses are unattributed, but Stephen Parker, a German professor at the University of Manchester, identified them as the work of a 15-year-old Brecht after linking an August 1913 diary entry to the literary magazine.

Brecht wrote in his diary: "Yesterday sent off a poem 'A Hundred Years Ago', which I'd written in the night. Afterwards I saw that various things were missing and that the title was wrong."

In his forthcoming book Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, the first English-language biography of the artist for two decades, Parker reveals that Brecht actually changed the title to 1813, publishing it alongside 1913 in Die Ernte (The Harvest) to celebrate the centenary of the battle of Leipzig, at which Napoleon was defeated.

Parker said the patriotic subject matter of the poems is part of the reason they have not previously been attributed to Brecht, because "people find this hard to deal with". While it is known that Brecht wrote patriotic pieces in the early stages of the war, critics "have struggled to account for them, not least because they project back on to the young Brecht the amoral cynicism that is so much part of his later poetic self". Parker's new reading of the artist's early life "incorporates them in a fresh understanding of the development of his sensibility, from hypersensitive boy/youth to amoral cynic," he said.

"I don't want at all to cast aspersions on Brecht's very trenchant anti-war position," said Parker. "Like millions of others across Europe, growing up he was almost instinctively patriotic. That potent Protestant war theology was imbibed at church, and he was a fervent believer. I think it is an interesting trajectory."

Parker delved through letters, diaries and stacks of unpublished material to write his account of Brecht's life, which is due out in February and will be published by Bloomsbury. He looks at Brecht's politicisation during the Weimar Republic and his years of exile, also unveiling the discovery of a previously unpublished letter from the author to his son, Stefan, written during his US exile from Nazi Germany.

The war, writes Brecht in the letter, which Parker found in a Berlin archive, demanded the adoption of an "INSENSITIVITY (indestructibility, resilience) which greatly pre-occupied us when we were young".

Brecht wrote that he and his friends "treated the subject of insensitivity, coming out of a great war, quite personally. How could one become insensitive? The difficulty, not immediately apparent, was that society, awakening in us the wish to be insensitive, simultaneously made productivity (not only in the artistic sphere) dependent on sensitivity, ie the productive person had to pay the price of vulnerability."

"Brecht almost always used irony and sarcasm to cover his real feelings about all sorts of things," said Parker. "It was only in writing to a close relative like his son that he was clear and explicit about his thoughts. He felt that he and others of his generation were wishing to be sensitive but were feeling the necessity of being inured to sensitivity by the war. That was their bind."

Parker said Brecht was hypersensitive and "very damaged" by the experience of the war. "That's why his early first world war writings are so terribly important," he said. "It's that artistic sensibility, both of his sensitivity, and being inured to it, which I really try to explore in my biography."

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