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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Tales you can take to the bank

Tales you can take to the bank

1976
Willie Sutton’s autobiography denied that he’d ever explained why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is”. Though the apocryphal quotation became known as Sutton’s Law, he dismissed the story but, at the same time, admitted that, had anyone ever asked him, he probably would have said it.

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.

1711
To reduce the power of the privately-owned Bank of England, a plan was hatched by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, for a group of merchants to assume parts of Britain’s national debt in return for an annual payment of three million pounds for a set period and a monopoly of the trade to the South Seas i.e. South America. The group then assumed the title the South Sea Company. Extravagant notions of the available riches in faraway fields were fostered and the company’s stock flourished until, in early 1720, it offered to take on the entire national debt. The British state’s creditors were encouraged to swap what they were owed for company shares and speculation then carried South Sea stock to ten times its nominal value. Then the chairman and directors sold out, the bubble burst and the stock collapsed. Thousands were ruined.

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Companies of all kinds had been floated to surf on this tidal wave of interest in South Sea stock. They soon got the nickname of Bubbles, the most appropriate description that the popular imagination could invent. Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, while others were only around for a day. The most preposterous of all showed the complete madness of the people sucked in. It was started by an unknown adventurer who is definitely a candidate for the title of the unknown soldier of cynicism. His venture was entitled a “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. The genius who mounted this bold and successful test of public gullibility merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of one hundred pounds each, with a required deposit of two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to one hundred pounds per annum per share.

How this enormous profit was to be obtained he did not inform them at that time. Instead he promised that after a month full particulars would be announced and a call made for the remaining ninety-eight pounds of the subscription. The very next morning, at nine o’clock, this entrepreneur opened an office in Cornhill in London. Crowds flocked to his door and when he shut up shop at three o’clock, he found that the deposits had been paid for one thousand of his shares. He was thus, after five hours, the possessor of two thousand pounds. Content with his day’s work, he set off that same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

1715
With the death of Louis XIV, the finances of France were in a bad state but the Duke of Orleans became Regent and this meant everything to a Scottish gambler called John Law who was a friend of the Duke and a man convinced that no country could prosper without a paper currency. In May 1716, a royal edict authorised Law to establish a bank. He made all his banknotes payable at sight and in the coin current at the time they were issued. This was a masterstroke and immediately made his notes more valuable than precious metals. The latter were constantly liable to depreciation by the tampering of the government.

john-law

Law publicly declared at the same time that a banker deserved to be put to death if he issued notes without having sufficient security to answer all demands. It was not long before the trade of the country felt the benefit and branches of his bank were established in several cities. In the meantime, Law started the project that has handed his name down to posterity. He proposed to establish a company that would have the exclusive privilege of trading to the Mississippi river and the province of Louisiana, where the country was supposed to abound in precious metals. This company was set up in August 1717.

It was then that the frenzy of speculation began. Law’s bank had brought about so much economic good that any promises for the future were swallowed but, when the bank became a public institution, the Regent ordered a printing of notes to the amount of a billion livres. Law helped inundate France with this paper money, which, based on no solid foundation, was sure to cause a crash, sooner or later.

Law otherwise devoted his attention to the Mississippi project, the shares of which were rapidly rising in spite of the opposition of Parliament. At least three hundred thousand applications were made for fifty thousand new shares. Every day the value of the old shares rose and new applications became so numerous that it was deemed advisable to create three hundred thousand new shares so the Regent could take advantage of the popular enthusiasm to pay off the national debt.

From the tremendous pressure of the crowds, accidents continually occurred in the narrow rue de Quincampoix where Law lived. A story goes that a hump-backed man who stood in the street made considerable money by lending his hump as a writing surface to the speculators. The great masses of customers and spectators drew all the low life of Paris to the spot and constant riots and disturbances occurred. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send in a detachment of soldiers to clear the street.

Thus the system continued to flourish until the beginning of 1720. The warnings of the Parliament that this massive creation of paper money would bankrupt the country were disregarded but, despite every effort made to stop its exodus, the stores of precious metals in France continued to be smuggled to England and Holland. The little coin that was left in the country was hoarded until the scarcity became so great that trade could no longer be conducted. An edict then forbade any person to have more than five hundred livres (then the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling) of coin in his or her possession, under threat of a heavy fine, plus confiscation.

It was also forbidden to buy up jewellery, plate and precious stones. Informers were encouraged by the promise of getting half of any amount they might discover.
Lord Stair, the English ambassador, said that it was now impossible to doubt the sincerity of Law’s conversion to Catholicism, as he had established an inquisition after having given ample evidence of his faith in transubstantiation by turning gold into paper.

All payments were then ordered to be made in paper and even more notes were printed – to the tune of more than a billion and a half livres – but nothing now could make the people feel the slightest confidence in something that was not exchangeable for metal. Coin, which the Regent aimed to depreciate, only rose in value on every fresh attempt to reduce it.

The value of shares in the Mississippi stock had also tumbled and few people still believed the tales that had once been told of the immense wealth of that region. A last trick was therefore tried to restore public confidence in the Mississippi project.
A general conscription of all the homeless in Paris was made by order of the government. More than six thousand of the poorest of the population were press-ganged, as if in wartime. These unfortunates were provided with clothes and tools and told they would be shipped off to New Orleans to work in the gold mines. They were then paraded day after day through the streets with their picks and shovels before being sent off in small detachments to the ports to be shipped to America. Two thirds of them never reached their destination but melted into the countryside. There they sold their tools for whatever they could get and returned to their old way of life. In less than three weeks, half of them were back in Paris.

1907
Sometimes cynicism is wrapped up in a man simply knowing his strengths and limitations. Take JP Morgan in the 1907 American financial crisis, sitting alone in a room in his home, smoking cigars, while all the ordinary bankers were huddled in the next room, presumably with ties loosened and pencils perched over their ears. When a servant entered and ventured to ask him if he had a plan, he said, “No.” By way of reassurance, he added that he knew someone would come through the door with the right plan and then, he also knew, he would be the person to know it was the right one. Who knows that much today?

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1940
W. C. Fields made The Bank Dick. In this film, Fields plays a drunk named Egbert Sousé who trips a fleeing bank robber and becomes a security guard at the bank as a result. Upon being introduced to his daughter’s boyfriend, Og Oggilby, an official at the bank, Egbert remarks, “Og Oggilby… sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.”

Egbert talks Og into embezzling money from the institution. In order to divert a bank examiner from discovering the theft, Egbert takes him to his favourite bar and asks if “Michael Finn” has been in yet – a signal that the barman, one of the Three Stooges – is to spike the examiner’s drink. During Fields’ career, Hollywood standards demanded that good be rewarded and evil be punished but, in The Bank Dick, Fields’ character lies, cheats and steals and yet at the end is rewarded with wealth and fame.

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