Escape from Washington

Escape from Washington

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.

BRECHT: No.

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?

BRECHT: Uh…

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.

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The Case of Leni Riefenstahl

The Case of Leni Riefenstahl

Die Macht der Bilder (1993) is known in English as The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. When watching this film, it is hard to ignore even the sparkling eyes of a razor-sharp old lady often condemned as a witch of Nazi propaganda, especially for what she filmed at Nuremberg.

In this documentary, she insisted that Triumph of the Will had to be seen in the context of the time, which was 1934, not 1945. At that time in the Thirties, Robert Musil was living in Berlin. His diaries show that not quite everybody was blind to what was happening. It is seen as a spell of bad weather… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up

Riefenstahl nonetheless pointed out too that her film contained nothing about anti-Semitism or racial theory. Instead, she argued that in it she conveyed (through Hitler, you may splutter) the themes of work and peace. Her avowed goal had been artistic, once she had accepted the task on the condition that she would never have to make another film for the Nazi Party.

Riefenstahl was more than able for the unseen interviewer who asked her about the responsibility of the artist concerning those who will be affected by the work. On the issue of filming for Hitler, she pointed out that Sergei Eisenstein had worked for Stalin but her more general point was that artists cannot tell the future and that the likes of Michelangelo and Rodin had shown no grasp of politics.

The more she spoke, the harder it was not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for her position. She ridiculed Susan Sontag’s assertion that she had been attracted to photograph the Nuba people in Africa because their black skin reminded her of the SS. She pointed out that a Nazi wouldn’t think black people were even worth photographing.

In a fit of enthusiasm they later regretted, the French had given Triumph of the Will the gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 – a decision they vindictively balanced out after the war when they imprisoned its maker. This was after the Americans had decided that she had no case to answer, beyond being a fellow traveller (Mitläufer). This imprisonment also happened despite the fact that neither she nor any close family member had been a member of the Nazi Party.

Her true crime? Perhaps it was to be perceived to have done the impossible and actually produced a ‘fascist’ work of art. The Wagnerian comparisons commonly made in this case tie in with Louis Halle’s observation on Germany and Italy in The Ideological Imagination.

What the fascist movements lacked in philosophy they made up for in theatre. It is surely no accident that the extreme of fascism was realized in the two countries most notable for their contributions to grand opera.”

The Ideological Imagination, 1972, p.99

Though she denied she was proud of Triumph of the Will, given the trouble it had caused her, and she did not think fondly of the extended hard work, editing it and so on, there was evident glee on her part as she showed off certain camera effects she had achieved. She could even remember the geographical origins of specific contingents where they took part in particular shots.

Riefenstahl’s outlook was apolitical at the very least and the future was all there to see in Mein Kampf and so on, but the vast majority of Germans – of human beings – are not lights in the darkness like Sophie Scholl or Willy Brandt. As a boy, Leon Trotsky was suspended from school for a year for inciting his classmates to howl at a teacher who was tormenting a fellow pupil simply because he was of German descent. Trotsky saw that once the protest began the class was henceforth divided into three groups – the frank and courageous boys on the one side, the envious and the talebearers on the other and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. Writing about the incident from the perspective of suitably chastened adulthood, he added that these three groups never quite disappeared, even in later years.

In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi expresses anger and revulsion when evaluating a statement made by Liliana Cavani, director of The Night Porter, who said that we are all victims of murderers and that we accept these roles voluntarily. Levi says that to confuse murderers with their victims is a sign of moral disease or artistic affectation, or a sinister sign of complicity rendering a precious service to the negators of truth.

Today the cinematic glorification of serial killers earns vast amounts of money but, in that context, an important distinction can be made between The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, to take two key examples of the genre. In the former, Hannibal Lecter is a satanic figure in the artistic sense of the term, as a snaky embodiment of temptation. He gets all the best lines, his feats are superhuman and, at the end of his satirical quest, he ends up like a guardian angel.

In Seven, the Kevin Spacey character is a grudge-filled little vigilante who trots out his banal motives behind gruesome tortures and murders which have been carefully and cleverly rendered by those behind the camera. Which of these films is a sign of moral disease, a form of sinister complicity?

In the same real world where a gangster like John Gotti gets life without parole, despite never having ordered the carpet-bombing of a Third World country, which of the following pair of even more famous cinema examples answers the same question? Is it Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler (“It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken”)?

Contrast that now with a scene from one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here. In other words, get out. Does the latter example not express the true moral of colonial war?

The application of Leni Riefenstahl’s technical brilliance was ill-advised but one could say too that she was unlucky. Too many artists to mention have buried their heads in the sand or even joined in the madness prevalent at any given time and there was no honest reason for preventing her from ever making a film again. Few others whom we think should have known better actually grasped the destination. They were often simply content to admire the parade.

Regensburg

Regensburg

August 2018

There’s a lot to see in Regensburg but not much to do at night. I know it was only a Tuesday but, given the amount of tourists, I’m surprised the town wants to shut down by eleven, like a curfew. I was having an acceptable homemade dunkel at the Weissbräuhaus when the waitress told me, Ich muss kassieren. No problem but I added I wanted to try the helles (lighter-coloured) version before I left.

Whatever it was that I got, it wasn’t even cold. The receipt suggested a different drink altogether (“Alt. Bayr.”) but given the suspicious delay in bringing the drink, I don’t believe it was a mistake. Just throw something out to him, we’re closing early. The last bottle on the shelf.

Anyway, I left it there. I wasn’t going to be bothered giving grief to the waitress and I’d heard enough of the Himmler inside, pontificating behind the counter whenever she went near him. Pity I tipped her before I tasted it, though. In contrast, the sweet girl with the very pretty dark eyes at the Ratskeller (where I’d had a meal, earlier) well deserved hers.

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I told her it was her luck too that the ticket machine at the train station in Freising was very temperamental about the banknotes it would accept. A girl beside me there had offered twice to swap notes but I already had a fistful of them. Ended up with too many coins in the change, having had to fire in a twenty to cover the last two euro of the fare. Getting to Freising from Munich airport was easy, quick and cheap on the 635 bus. The train onward then cut the Munich to Regensburg journey in half.

As well as the many cobbled alleys here, there are numerous pedestrianised streets but for some reason cars are still allowed to drive down them, albeit relatively slowly. Another thing to look over your shoulder for is the cyclists, especially at night when it becomes evident that having a light on one’s bike is, for many here, not an example of Germanic order.

The Ratskeller has a lovely bottle of beer on the menu. It’s called Regensburger Bruckmandl. Blue label. 33 cl. Quite strong too. Three of them combined with evening heat to make crossing the Steinernebrücke (over and back) not something I’d have liked to do in a hurry.

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At Regensburg the Danube has divided in three. The setting sun and the greenery made up for the never-ending works on the old bridge.

 

Passau, October 2017

Passau, October 2017

The Inn is very scenic near Passau. High wooded riverbanks continue for several miles of train track. The warm sunshine in Bavaria contrasted with the fog in Linz. Having gone down the left bank of the Inn to the peninsula tip where it meets the Danube (blink and you’ll miss the Ilz, around the tip), we walked back through the Altstadt and had a nice meal at a place called Bi Plano. It got cold outside at sundown but there were orange blankets on the backs of the chairs. Passau in Bavaria is very like Steyr in Upper Austria but it’s also clearly a college town.

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Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Dr. John Flynn

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The easiest way to get from Ireland to western Austria is via Munich but at Dublin airport in February 2015 the flight was overbooked until three people took an Aer Lingus bribe to stay behind: €250 plus a free hotel night. I didn’t try to sleep on the plane because I had to eat something i.e. two sandwiches. The Munich airport train seemed to take an age before reaching Marienplatz. The Neues Rathaus looked great in the fog but there was a hint of snow too. It was the most Gothic-looking thing I’d seen.

At the Stachus hotel the room was fine, it had a heated floor. I had a shower and went down to the Augustinerbräu for a couple of steins and a bowl of soup. From there I sought out the Hofbräuhaus but at midnight it was closing. The odd fleck of snow landed on my lips…

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Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of them to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.

A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have given up his dreams of martial glory for the sake of heavy metal.

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Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare and the three-hour trip to Vienna was comfortable. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees. Across the aisle on the train, some Brits and a spherical though pretty Indian girl with an American accent had some ‘psychedelic’ colouring books that didn’t keep them entertained for very long. Two of the chaps vanished to the bar carriage.

If anything Vienna was even hotter than Budapest. Every twenty minutes, late that night, I went to the bathroom to wash my face and neck. At the Westbahnhof we had gone down to the packed U-Bahn but on the Volkstheater station platform I simply couldn’t see the correct exit, it was so far away, so we emerged on the Burg Ring and passed the correct exit on our last daylight slog, up to the Hotel Admiral. That night we made it back over the Ring, down through the dark Burggarten and up the steps to the Paumen Haus with its red neon sign. There we sat outside and got things we needed such as chairs, drinks and food.

After each of two brief stretches of sleep I had a shower in which I turned the tap from lukewarm to cold. Then I went back to bed again, my ears full of water from that and from sweat rolling into them. Even my shoulders were sweating. I’d been turning the old air conditioning unit on the wall on and off and sometime after dawn I just left it on and finally managed to sleep properly until nine.

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We spent the whole day walking around the Ring and the Innere Stadt. There was no way we were going to any outlying palaces with vast gardens of low hedges and shrubbery that offered no protection from that sun. My companion really liked the Café Central and we got to hear a young string quartet on Kärtnerstrasse (“They’re not gypsies, they’re conservatory students”). I’d still like to know the name of this tango.

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We did the walk I’d mapped out:

(1) up the Ringstrasse to Schreyvogelgasse (Harry Lime’s doorway);
(2) down to Freyung to the Ferstel Passage;
(3) a pit stop in the Cafe Central;
(4) along Herrengasse to the Hofburg and a detour through the arches to Heldenplatz;

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(5) back through the arches to Kohlmarkt and Graben (we lunched in the vicinity);
(6) down to Stephansdom (in and around the cathedral);

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(7) Kärtnerstrasse (incl. a detour to the Loos bar where I tried a mojito, because I recognised the name, but it was like mint soup);
(8) back to the hotel via the Opernring.

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At eight in the evening we went to the Witwe Bolte, which was practically around the corner from the hotel. After a garden supper, during which the skin of my head still felt a bit prickly, we were back in the hotel by ten.

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My head continued to melt. The dissolution restarted as soon as I lay on the bed. Cold water from the tap gave brief relief but then a rivulet rolled down somewhere. I filled the sink so I could have a dunk now and then.

There was a slim, dark girl doing long hours down at reception. She was wearing a white garment with buttons, that evening. It made her look like a nurse. She had matching dark frames for her glasses and she kind of embodied the female cool around there, even though most were typically, for Austria, solid and well built. She’d checked us in the day before. By then my head was already melting, unconnected to this hotel, given the time it took to sort out the three-stop journey on a packed U3 line from the Westbahnhof and then make our way on foot. I explained we had just come from Budapest and she looked at me quite sympathetically before remarking on the weather (“Das ist heiss”).

A Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast, applying a serviette to my face, and he came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell (“Hölle! Hölle!”). His wife was Danish, a quite tasty blonde, twenty years younger. She appeared at reception as we were checking out and asked about the fire alarm that was going off, only to be told it was nichts, nur das verflixte Telefon. The woman at the desk was waving the receiver as she spoke.

On the way to Salzburg we got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on ebay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them to Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.

We were in Salzburg by 2pm and though it was a hot if reasonably short walk to the hotel, my companion wanted to make the most of the afternoon, in case it pissed rain the following day. We got the no. 3 trolley bus as far as Mirabell. On entering the gardens we passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said.

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Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer Bierhaus, where two wasps had to be killed, one by me, one by the waiter (“Raus!”). My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the best, with the most stylish clobber. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. We retreated to the hotel early. The rooms had electric fans.

Though I didn’t hear anything, it rained for much of the night. The breakfast at the Guter Hirte was the best, with scrambled egg, scrambled rashers, little sausages, and then we did the Festung. These mist-covered mountains were all now to see. Anyway, across the river we climbed the Kapuzinerberg steps, though the greenery that hadn’t been there that snowy February curtailed the view.

Down from the hill, I had a look in the Shamrock and my February wingman, Daniel, was there on his own. He told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space. After there it was a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd gathered on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.

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I had a few more in the Shamrock that night. At half past eight my pal had to leave. It seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. Only recently, he said, he’d opened the door onto Rudolfskai well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of indeterminate nationality in front of cops and onlookers.

After a hot dog at the Heisse Kiste Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke, I walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. The warm red light was on but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants. I didn’t have a theoretical hour to spare.

We left the hotel at ten the next morning. This time I had heard heavy rain but it was only gloomy out by then. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. These war wounded had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.

I managed to sleep a few minutes on the train to Munich. We dined across the street from the Hofbräuhaus, which was very hot and mental, on the evidence of a few seconds inside. What is it, though, about Bayerstrasse? This day I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec.