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For the dark times ahead

Andreas Hess

Bertolt Brecht’s Refugee Conversations, Tom Kuhn (ed) Romy Fursland (transl), Methuen Drama, 121 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-1350044999

In October 2019, thirty-nine Vietnamese refugees were found frozen to death in a container truck parked at a junction in an industrial zone in Essex just outside Greater London. Some of the dead allegedly carried Chinese documents, which led to the first but misleading assumption that the dead had been of Chinese origin (thereby triggering memories of another, similar disaster a few years before in which an even larger group of victims found dead in a truck had been Chinese). The deceased from the Essex industrial estate had obviously tried to enter the UK by way of an illegal and extremely risky route simply because no other legal and more promising route seemed available. Thus the disaster was no singular occurrence but the proverbial accident waiting to happen.

Not a single day passes without news about refugees or migrants either putting their lives at risk or encountering death while trying to make their way into “fortress Europe”. Yet Europe does in fact very little to help the desperate, be they political refugees escaping wartorn countries like Syria, Iraq or Sudan or so-called economically driven migrants who escape sub-Saharan African countries or other failed states or regions (and let’s be frank: who would be able to determine where exactly political motivation and economic needs begin and end?).

In terms of distribution of those who seek a life without fear, some European countries don’t even accept the rules of the club of which they are a member. EU countries Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic categorically refuse to take in any refugees or migrants who are not of European origin (this despite their own long history of migration for both political and economic reasons). Other governments, such as Italy under the only recently removed deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, were reluctant to accept the very fact of the existence of refugees, looking away or openly refusing to come to the help of those fighting for their lives in open seas. On a number of occasions these governments have even prevented aid organisations from saving people from the Mediterranean.

But even when refugees have set foot on terra firma their odyssey is not over. The arrival in a foreign country is often a rather humiliating and degrading experience; years of processing and dependency on state and other organisations may follow. Ireland and its failing direct provision system are just the tip of the iceberg: asylum seekers may be free of immediate fear from cruelty and persecution; however, being dependent on the good will of others is not the same as having achieved freedom.

The larger picture promises no relief any time soon. The last century has already been called the century of refugees but the twenty-first century might break all previous records. As of January 2019, there were 70.8 million displaced people and refugees worldwide according to the UNHCR. 41.3 million were internally displaced people, 25.9 million UNHCR-registered refugees, and 3.5 million asylum seekers. All too often Europe, which seems to have largely forgotten her own recent history of exile and migration, remains, despite her humanist rhetoric and the continued reassurances of her leading politicians, a bystander. Influenced by “whiteshift” popularisers and exhibiting also tendencies to ethnic self-absorption, it has remained largely indifferent to the cruelty and major injustices suffered by those who have come to seek exile and asylum within its borders.

Could it be sheer historical coincidence, an accident perhaps? Or, more likely, a late publisher’s bad conscience? Or it is maybe simply a twist in Hegel’s famous cunning reason of history that explains the English appearance of Bertolt Brecht’s far too long neglected Refugee Conversations exactly at this moment, almost sixty years after its original publication? Whatever the circumstances, publication now is timely to say the least. Brecht’s Refugee Conversations speaks to us directly. Not only is its subject the twentieth century European exile experience; as an epic “teaching exercise”; it also aims to enlighten us beyond its own historical particularity and context – and thus aims at the current refugee crisis too.

Brecht had not arrived at writing Refugee Conversations by accident. Having become one of the most famous and innovative left-wing playwrights of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and ’30s, he was forced into exile when the Nazis came to power in 1933. His books were burned and prohibited. Theatres which had performed his plays and musicals were threatened with closure. Brecht first fled to Prague and spent some time in Paris before escaping to Denmark, where he stayed until 1939. He then left Denmark for Sweden, where he remained until 1941. From Sweden he moved to Finland to escape the imminent occupation of Denmark and Norway by the Nazis. He stayed for more than a year, before finally escaping via the Soviet Union to the United States.

Brecht never felt much at home in his Santa Monica exile. As a playwright in Hollywood he felt cut off from his audience, not just in terms of language but also in the sense of isolation from familiar political, social and cultural contexts. Translations of his work barely existed or were just in the making. It didn’t help that he was also under the watchful eyes of the FBI and that he had been forced to testify in the HUAC trials. At the peak of the American “red scare” and after another indignant hearing Brecht decided to return to Europe.

Being sceptical about the situation in Germany he first stayed in Zurich before accepting an invitation to return to Berlin and become the director of the newly founded theatre in the Eastern communist-controlled part of the city. However, being a curious dialectician and critical Marxist-inspired writer and producer, Brecht’s attitude to the GDR’s communist regime remained ambivalent, despite the welcome. His concerns and sometimes open discontent were not just voiced in conversation with friends, partners and colleagues but also appeared in his writings, most noticeably perhaps in his poems. Brecht never followed the official cultural guidelines and policies and never became a propagandist for socialist realism, despite the occasional self-protective nod to the regime.

Having been forced to move countries more than once Brecht always planned an escape route: thus, even while pursuing his theatre ambitions in Berlin, he applied for Austrian citizenship in 1948 after some theatre engagements there. Toward the end of his life he played with the idea of buying a house in Geneva and moving to Switzerland. It seems that even the beer (a hundred bottles a month) shipped from Munich to East Berlin and the fat cigars no longer sufficed to calm his nerves.

The experience of exile shaped Brecht and his work considerably. Many critics and Brecht experts have argued that the years in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the US and Switzerland marked the writer’s most productive period. In those years he played with a new language that fitted the dark times. He also experimented with form. Cut off from his German-speaking audience, prevented from working collaboratively with actors on stage or discussing his work with friends or publishers, he turned to poetry and prose. The Svendborg poems written in Denmark and the Refugee Conversations written in Finland (and partly in the US) are arguably the most outstanding creations of that Scandinavian period of exile.

While the Svendborg Poems and other prose projects conceived in exile eventually saw the light of day, the Refugee Conversations were neither published nor performed during Brecht’s lifetime. They were published originally only in 1961, five years after the author’s death. A slightly revised edition with additional fragments came out as part of Brecht’s multivolume Berliner Gesamtausgabe in 1995 and again as a single volume in 1998. While most of the works of Brecht have now been published in multiple volumes in English by Methuen/Bloomsbury, the English appearance of Flüchtlingsgespräche has been long postponed for reasons that are not altogether clear and about which Brecht’s main editor remains remarkably silent in his introduction. Perhaps it seemed a marginal text to the publisher, perhaps there were rights issues, or a dependency on the German critical edition of Brecht’s work (not a small German-German effort until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and with 32 volumes in total). In the United States there were some performances, but these remained more or less private initiatives based on unofficial translations of the text or fragments of the same.

Be that as it may, to have the Refugee Conversations out in English translation is a major feat because the text speaks, as pointed out above, to the experience of dark times  ̶  in both past and present. At the same time the dialogues are about more. The exile experience encourages doubt, ranging from questioning firmly held convictions to searching for new meanings in life. 

Helsinki’s main railway station happens to be the location where two refugees meet by chance  ̶  the overweight physicist and intellectual Ziffel (his first name is never mentioned) and the tall worker and one-time political activist Kalle (who is only known by his first name). The location, Helsinki station, was not chosen accidentally. Brecht lived close to the railway station, and then there is of course the story of Lenin returning home via the Finland station from his Swiss exile (after having passed through Germany in a sealed train).

The station signifies hope in a transit situation, the old is dead but the new has not yet arrived.

Over the next few weeks and months and during repeated encounters (seventeen altogether) between the two protagonists various tropes come up. The conversations start with Kalle’s concern for bad beer and even worse cigars, which he complains are not really worth the money. At the end of their first encounter the reflections about exchange and use value and actual prices give way to a debate the value of passports. Ziffel observes wittily: “The Passport is the noblest part of a human being … A passport will always be honoured, if it’s a good one, whereas a person can be as good as you like, and still no one takes any notice.”

In the course of their next few meetings Ziffel and Kalle exchange their views about their respective former countries of transit and exile. Each country is paired with some peculiar feature. Switzerland beats all, due to its sense of freedom: “Switzerland’s historical thirst for freedom is a consequence of its unfortunate location. It’s surrounded on every side by great powers that like conquering things. As a result, the Swiss have to be constantly on the alert. If things were different, they wouldn’t need a thirst for freedom. You never hear about the Eskimos having a thirst for freedom. They live in a more favourable location.”

As the two characters get to know each other better they open up and begin to discuss other burning questions of the day: the reasons why fascism won; Mussolini (“Thingummybob”) and Hitler (“Whatsisname”); the idiosyncrasies of fascist ideologies, including heroism and racism; the implications of political violence and war for the civil population; the model character of concentration camps for future living; the failed response and often double standards of democracies when it comes to standing up to dictatorship and tyranny; the contradictions between capitalist markets and morals and the constant pressure to show virtuous behaviour; the role of patriotism and “the people”; philosophy and Marxism, education and professional training; and the differences between revolution and evolution. Funny observations, clever references and sniping remarks about sexuality, food, drinking and cigar smoking accompany and pepper the meetings and conversations.

There are some Chaplinesque highlights in these encounters. They are usually paired with some amazing insights and reflections concerning what it means to be human. Here are just three examples: At one point the conversation turns to the subject of the dialectical relationship between evolution and revolution. Ziffel explains: “Over a long period of time there are tiny variations, discrepancies and deformations that pave the way for the change. But the change itself comes with dramatic suddenness. The dinosaurs carry on moving in the best circles, so to speak, for quite some time – even though they’ve already started to be left behind. Their standing is no longer based on anything concrete, but they are still acknowledged. In the Who’s Who of the animal world they are still afforded a certain respect, if only due to their great age. It’s still seen as very good manners to eat grass, even if the better animals have already started to favour meat. It’s not a shame to be twenty metres long from nose to tail, even if it’s no longer an advantage. Things go on like this for a certain amount of time, and then suddenly the moment of complete turnaround comes.”

Or take the moment when the trope of order and obedience and disobedience comes up. Ziffel declares, almost Schwejk-like: “sloppiness has saved thousands of lives. Often, in war a man need only deviate very slightly from the course of action he’s been ordered to take and he’ll escape with his life.” He continues a few lines later: “Or take the pilot, for instance. He’s tired, and he reads the flight instruments slightly wrong. He drops his bombs next to a large tenement building instead of on top of it. Fifty people’s lives are saved. What I mean is that people are not ready for a virtue like orderliness. Their thinking is not sufficiently developed . Their undertakings are idiotic, and only a sloppy and disorderly execution of their plans can save them from even greater harm.”

As to Hegel and dialectics, Ziffel delivers what is perhaps the most symbolic line of the entire text: “Exile is the best possible school for dialectics. Refugees are the sharpest dialecticians. They’ve become refugees as a result of changes, and they spend all their time studying changes. They see the smallest signals as harbingers of the most significant events – if they’ve got any sense, that is. When their opponents are victorious, they calculate the cost of the victory and they have a keen eye for contradictions. Long live dialectics!”

At one point in the conversations Ziffel tells Kalle about his intention to write his memoirs, and Kalle becomes a supportive listener who has all the tips at hand that would improve the manuscript of his new acquaintance – all to no avail since Ziffel’s memoirs remain those of a normal middle class intellectual person who hasn’t experienced much. We later learn that Kalle has a go at being a travelling salesman selling office equipment while Ziffel is trying his luck as a chemist. Toward the end both protagonists decide to start a joint company specialising in pest control to earn some money but also to contribute to something useful  ̶  the extinction of cockroaches! Their new project soon runs into difficulties because extinction gas is almost impossible to come by in these difficult times (and because it might be used for other purposes, although Brecht was unlikely to have known this at the moment of the first writing of the draft of Refugee Conversations).

The tools of a Swift, a Diderot or a PG Wodehouse are never far away from Brecht’s intellectual inventory. Satire, polemic but also some funny and enlightening entertainment are his main appliances. Not only does the reader (and the potential theatre audience) learn that it is less important to save culture when saving human lives is the order of the day; the attentive reader or audience will also be encouraged to reflect as to what it means to live not just a meaningful but a better life.

Last but not least, can this be put on a stage? Refugee Conversations was written as a prose piece, not as a play. However, so far theatre performances based on the text (mostly but not only in German-speaking countries) have proven that there is real epic theatre potential in Brecht’s text. Any professional producer or lay performers worried about gigantic production costs should think about the simple setting and the circumstances in which these conversations take place.

Bertolt Brecht’s success remains undiminished: there were 12,000 performances in Germany alone (Goethe and Schiller each only reach the 5,000 mark). Brecht’s works have been translated into more than twenty languages. In the last ten years there were five hundred performances of his works worldwide, most of which were of Mother Courage, Life of Galileo and the Brecht/Weill co-productions The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny. The Refugee Conversations could become equally successful, though it is a pity that this is likely to be for the continued omnipresence of the problem to which the text refers.

1/12/2019

Andreas Hess teaches sociology at University College Dublin. He is, with Samantha Ashenden, editor of Between Utopia and Realism. The Political Thought of Judith N. Shklar, Penn Press, 2019, and Judith N. Shklar On Political Obligation, Yale University Press, 2019.

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