Bertolt Brecht appeared in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on 30 October 1947. Facing him that morning were the Chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, born John Parnell Feeney, who had not only changed his name but also his denomination, to Episcopalian. His political career ended soon afterwards. In 1948 he was indicted and subsequently jailed for defrauding the federal government.
Other members present were Reps. John McDowell (died by suicide in 1957) and Richard Vail (d. 1955). Most of the questions were asked by HUAC Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling, a Texan who, a year later, assisted Richard Nixon in his pursuit of Alger Hiss. Nixon, though also a Committee member, was not present on the day.
Brecht was flanked by two lawyers, Bartley Crum (died by suicide in 1959) and Robert Kenny, and an interpreter, David Baumgardt, about whom a committee member can be overheard at one point interjecting, I can’t understand the interpreter any more than I can the witness.
The only foreigner called up on a Hollywood list of “unfriendly” witnesses, Brecht left the country the very next day, never to return. He was too clever for them and they ended up thanking him for it.
It was like Kafka’s Trial, but in reverse.
The links below are to parts one and two of the full show, with later commentary by Eric Bentley.
The reader is now directed to the audio link part one above, from 18:22, as follows
STRIPLING: Now, I will repeat the original question. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of any country?
BRECHT: Mr. Chairman, I have heard my colleagues, eh, and they considered this question not as proper but I am a guest in this country and do not want to enter in any legal arguments, so I will answer your question fully as well I can. I was not a member or am not a member of any Communist Party.
CHAIRMAN: Your answer is, then, that you have never been a member of the Communist Party?
BRECHT: That is correct.
STRIPLING: You were not a member of the Communist Party for Germany?
BRECHT: No, I was not.
STRIPLING: Eh, Mr. Brecht, is it true that you have written a number of very revolutionary poems, plays and other writings?
BRECHT: I have written a number of poems and songs and plays in the fight against Hitler and, of course, they can be considered, therefore, as revolutionary because I, of course, was for the overthrow of that government.
CHAIRMAN: Mr. Stripling, we are not interested in any works that he might have written calling for the overthrow of Germany or the government there.
From the start of part two, above, Stripling asks about a play called Massnahme, which was one of two Brecht adaptations of a particular Noh play from Japan, but Bentley tells us that Brecht’s explanation relates to the second adaptation, not that Stripling or the Committee spotted the difference.
STRIPLING: Now, Mr. Brecht, will you tell the Committee whether or not one of the characters in this play was murdered by his comrades because it was in the best interests of the Party, is that true? Of the Communist Party.
BRECHT: No, it is not, eh, not quite so in the story.
STRIPLING: Because he would not bow to discipline he was murdered by his comrades, isn’t that true?
BRECHT: No, it is not really so in the play. You will find, when you read it, carefully, that like in the old Japanese play where other ideas were at stake, the young man who died, uh, was convinced that he had done damage to the mission he believed in and he agreed to that and he was ready to die, in order not to make greater such damage. So he asks his comrades to help him and all of them together help him to die. He jumps into a… abyss and they lead him, eh, tenderly to that abyss. And that is the story.
CHAIRMAN: Well I gather from your remarks, from your answer, that he was just killed. He wasn’t murdered. (laughter)
BRECHT: He wanted to die.
CHAIRMAN: So they killed him?
BRECHT: No, they did not kill him, not in this story. They, he killed himself. They supported him. But, of course, they had told him it were better when he disappeared (laughter) … for him and them and the cause he also believed in, up ’til the end.
From 09:32 in part two, above, Stripling leaves the issue of party membership aside to press Brecht on whether he ever attended any dubious assemblies. More laughter ensues.
STRIPLING: Eh, Mr. Brecht, since you have been in, eh, the United States, have you attended any Communist Party meetings?
BRECHT: No, I do not think so.
STRIPLING: You don’t think so.
CHAIRMAN: Well, aren’t you certain?
BRECHT: (chuckles) I am, I am certain, I think, yes.
CHAIRMAN: You are certain that you have never attended?
BRECHT: Yeah, quite. I think so (laughter). You see I am here six years, I am here six years, I do not think so. I do not think I attended, that I attended, eh, political meetings.
CHAIRMAN: No, no, never mind the political meetings, but have you attended any Communist meetings in the United States?
BRECHT: I do not think so. No.
CHAIRMAN: You’re certain?
BRECHT: I think I am certain.
CHAIRMAN: You think you’re certain. (laughter)
STRIPLING: You don’t know what a, what it, what a –
BRECHT: No, I have not attended such meetings, eh, in my opinion.
From 27:23 in part two, the final joust plays out, leading to the longest laugh of all.
CHAIRMAN: Some people did ask you to join the Communist Party, didn’t they?
KENNY (lawyer): In Germany or…?
BRECHT: In Germany, you mean in Germany?
CHAIRMAN: No, I mean in the United States.
BRECHT: No, no, no.
CHAIRMAN (to Kenny): Now you let, you let him, he’s doing all right, he’s doing much better than the other witnesses that you’ve brought here (laughter) … (to Brecht) You don’t ever recall anyone in the United States ever asked you to join the Communist Party?
BRECHT: No, I do not recall anybody having asked me.
The Chairman then asks each of his colleagues in turn if they have any more questions.
STRIPLING: I would like to ask Mr. Brecht whether or not he wrote a poem – a song, rather – entitled, Forward, We’ve Not Forgotten.
McDOWELL: Forward we’ve what?
STRIPLING: (louder, irritated) Forward, We’ve Not Forgotten.
Stripling then recites an entire lyric lost in translation.
STRIPLING: Did you write that, Mr. Brecht?
BRECHT: No, I wrote a German poem but that is very different… (extended laughter) … from this thing.
STRIPLING: Eh, that is all the questions I have, Mr. Chairman.
CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Brecht. And you are a good example to the witnesses of Mr. Kenny and Mr. Crum.
A gavel then bangs for a recess until that afternoon.
On the tape Bentley then recalls meeting Brecht a year later near Zürich, when Brecht laughed at a recording of the show. He added that he had chosen to risk disregarding Bartley Crum’s advice to tell them he was a communist party member (though it was not true) in case a membership card was later forged to ensure a perjury conviction.
They weren’t as bad as the Nazis. The Nazis would never have let me smoke. In Washington they let me have a cigar and I used it to manufacture pauses… between their questions and my answers.