interview with wolf biermann

Drawing of Eisler from 1935
Poet-singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Introduction by James K. Miller

Wolf Biermann, probably the most prominent political singer-songwriter-poet in Germany today, reveals in this interview the deep connection he feels with Hanns Eisler.

When, in October 1983, I had the opportunity to speak with Wolf Biermann through the good offices of Helen Fehervary of Ohio State University, I hoped he would be able to speak about Hanns Eisler’s life and music in a fresh and provocative way which would be appealing to a young and radical audience in the United States. As someone with a fervent but somewhat lonely interest in Eisler, I knew that Eisler had innoculated his music against easy acceptance in the bourgeois concert hall. Eisler’s revolutionary outlook was too tightly interwoven in his work to permit his supporters to pass his music off as “classical”—as music beautifully written despite his Marxist ways. Eisler insisted on being eaten whole or not at all. Biermann—as a musician of protest but also a scathing critic of “real socialism” in Eastern Europe, and as a living and working artist who knew Eisler closely—is uniquely suited to the process of “rehabilitating” Eisler without dressing him up for the music-appreciation crowd.

Wolf Biermann was born in Hamburg in 1936. His father Dagobert, a Communist, died in Auschwitz in 1943. Biermann moved to East Germany in 1953, at the age of seventeen. He was expelled from the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1963. Two years later he was forbidden to publish, record songs, or sing publicly. In 1976, following a concert in West Germany, he was stripped of his GDR citizenship and refused permission to return. He was one of the first exiled artists to return to East Berlin after the collapse of the Communist régime in the fall of 1989.

When, in 1983, I learned Biermann was in Ohio, I wrote to him in Columbus from my home in Cleveland asking if I could interview him about Eisler. Within a few days, my phone rang and I heard a man say in passable English, “I am that German you wrote to.” He explained that he wanted to talk about Eisler, and that he had an interest in exploring an industrial city in the U.S. heartland—but the only time he could visit was the following day. Thinking quickly, I decided that my job as a community organizer in a blue-collar suburb of Cleveland could be put on hold for forty-eight hours.

Biermann and I then spent the better part of two days zigzagging through Cleveland neighborhoods, with me doing my best to introduce him to the realities of class and racial politics and culture in my much maligned city. He seemed fascinated by our rusty, down-at-the-heels ways which must have seemed properly Brechtian. In high, good humor he proceeded to interrogate me. Struck by how often I returned to the centrality of racial issues, he began to make loud, satirical pronouncements about the crazy American preoccupation with race. Nervously I tried to hush him up, since there was no way of knowing how the people around us would take his sharp statements. Nevertheless, I realized that after a while he had succeeded in building a map of the city in his mind, with class and racial boundaries inked in. We ate dinner that evening with friends at a little Polish restaurant in Slavic Village on the south side.

By the time we sat down to tape the interview, he had taken my measure. He knew I was no scholar, but I believe he trusted my political instincts and the sincerity of my commitment to Eisler’s unknown music. With a friend interpreting, he virtually dictated his account, ignoring my attempts to stage an interview. Nevertheless, he was talking to me, and in Cleveland, and I think it is possible he wouldn’t have given quite the same account under other circumstances. Indeed, he remarked that he had never spoken about Eisler for public consumption before.

Part I: Meeting Eisler

When did you first hear about Hanns Eisler? It must have been pretty early in your life, correct?

Yes. The first Eisler I heard was from my mother, because a few of his songs—for example, the “Solidaritätslied” (Solidarity Song)—had already made their way into the working class before the Nazi period. Then, when I was seventeen, I went to the GDR from West Germany—that was in 1953. And two years later, after my Abitur (high school graduation), I went to East Berlin, the capital of the GDR, and came into contact with the most famous theater of the world at this time, the theater of Brecht. I was enthusiastic about Brecht—I became a so-called “Brechtian”—and, of course, that also meant a fan of Hanns Eisler, as Eisler is the most significant composer in relation to Brecht’s work. When Brecht was young and sassy he had Kurt Weill; when he was older and sometimes had attacks of weakness, he had Paul Dessau.

But Eisler! Above all others, Eisler. And I entered his great house through the small door of the agitprop [Agitation-Propaganda] songs he had written for “Die Mutter”, a play which, with respect to the music as well as the text, was the culmination and end of the agitprop movement. In this play, with this music, the agitprop movement of the 1920’s was raised to a new level.

I then came to the Berliner Ensemble [BE, the theater company in East Berlin founded by Brecht after the war] as a production assistant, a year after Brecht’s death (1957). And immediately I found myself in the midst of the leadership and succession struggles among [Brecht’s] heirs—the Diadochenkaempfe. At this time I worked on the new production of “Die Mutter” at the BE, when Helene Weigel was still playing the lead role, though Ernst Busch was no longer available for these songs which through him had become famous, just as he had become famous through them. Ever since that time I have been especially fond of these “coarse” songs by Eisler, which, upon closer examination, prove to be extremely sophisticated and well-crafted. For even in the case of these songs, everything Eisler had learned from Schönberg and classical (musical) literature is invested.

So you studied with his after this time?

No, I was never a pupil of his. After that I worked at the Berliner Ensemble for two years (1957-59), where I came into close contact with Eisler’s music but not with him personally. Then I changed course and went back to Humboldt University [in Berlin, for] my second period of study in philosophy and mathematics. But I didn’t want to leave the theater entirely. I wanted to study more in order to get a running start so that I could jump into theater more deeply. Because, while at the BE, I had learned, among other things, that I still had something to learn. In spite of my studies, I founded on the side a small ensemble for the purpose of doing some sort of modern, political agitprop.

Satirical stuff?

No, not satirical. Agitprop is not so satirical. It’s not cabaret. To a certain extent, it’s even the opposite of cabaret. Cabaret produces its effect with cotton balls, while agitprop does it with a sledge hammer—which, however, was used by Eisler like a fencing foil. In order to fence with a sledge hammer, you have to have a lot of strength! Eisler had that; you can hear it in all of these songs, which he also composed to texts by Mayakovski. At this time I wrote an agitprop piece after I had been sent out into the countryside along with all the other philosophy students to convince the farmers of the merits of socialist agriculture.


Yes, the LPG’s [Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften, or “Agricultural Production Cooperatives”]. And perhaps you know that in 1960 all of [the farmers] were 100-percent convinced! Just like that! I was one of the little idiots who hammered socialism into the agricultural economy with unsocialist methods. When I returned from this revolutionary act of heroism, I wrote an agitprop play in order to process intellectually what we had done wrong in practice.

Then some interesting cultural-political interference took place. Part of the prevailing Stalinist cultural bureaucracy had sought to establish continuity in proletarian-socialist cultural policy simply by trying to pick up again where things left off in 1933, when the agitprop movement was abruptly terminated by Hitler. But they had failed to understand something: when Hitler stopped the agitprop movement it had already reached its limit historically, in cultural-historical terms. Then came the long years of Fascism. And it was, of course, childish to just pick up where things had left off in 1933. But is was somehow understandable, too, because the Nazis had stolen this time from our lives. We really wanted to assert our continuity. Brecht himself at this time had provided the impulse to reconnect with the agitprop movement, although he had changed during the years of emigration; he had moved a considerable distance from the artistic level of “Die Mutter” and far away from what we today would have to call dogmatic, Stalinist plays like “Die Massnahme”. In the meantime, he had written “Galilei”, “Mutter Courage” and “Lukullus”—which the cultural functionaries did not like—and Eisler had attempted to process the Faust story on his own terms. [Editor’s note: Eisler’s libretto for an opera based on Faust was sharply criticized in East Germany as an offense against cultural orthodoxy, leading to the composer’s temporary self-imposed exile.]

And written his Hollywood Songbook….

But, I didn’t know much about all of that, and in 1960 I wrote songs, in the style of Brecht-Eisler’s “Die Mutter”, for a play in which I defended the “socialist transformation of agriculture,” as it was referred to officially. And now, since I had become a student again at Humboldt University, this agitprop play was supposed to be performed there, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding. And it was to be supposed to be performed by the Ernst-Hermann-Meyer Ensemble, a song and dance group modeled after Soviet song and dance troupes, which quite justifiably carried the bad name of Ernst Hermann Meyer, a composer who was, so to speak, the favorite composer of the Stalinist bureaucracy, just as Johannes R. Becher was their favorite poet. The bureaucrats regarded Brecht and Eisler with suspicion; they enjoyed then with reluctance. And that suspicion was justified.

Anyway, this Soviet-oriented ensemble was supposed to perform my agitprop play, and there was a rebellion. They didn’t want to do this Politscheisse [political crap]—that was another tradition. Along came all of these players who were used to this pseudo-popular Soviet kitsch—the cultural extension of the Great Patriotic War—and clashed with this more political, class-struggle-oriented art. The party leadership, which had the final say in all cultural matters, found themselves in a difficult position. “To learn from the USSR means to learn how to win,” went the slogan. On the other side was the proletarian tradition, which, however (I didn’t realize at the time), was already a corpse, half beaten to death by Hitler, half deceased from old age. And, because I took all of this so seriously, I had given this corpse mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and written songs in this old-fashioned style. Since these Ernst Hermann Meyer people didn’t want to do this, I had to put together a new ensemble. I did; but those responsible for cultural affairs at Humboldt University were outraged that I was strutting around with this agitprop shit at the university. They were also Ernst Hermann Meyer people and didn’t like Eisler. The matter was only complicated ideologically because Eisler had written the GDR national anthem and he was “the great composer” in spite of the opposition. And they tried to forbid my agitprop songs. But they made a wonderful mistake.

There is a text by Brecht from the time of his first honeymoon with Marxism that isn’t so well known, a very dogmatic text about the party:

Der Einzelne hat zwei Augen
Die Partei hat tausend Augen.
Die Partei sieht sieben Staaten
Der Einzelne sieht eine Stadt …
Der Einzelne kann vernichtet werden
Aber die Partei kann nicht vernichtet werden

The individual has two eyes
The Party has a thousand eyes
The Party sees seven states
The indvidual sees one city …
The individual can be annihilated
But the Party cannot be annihilated

Yes, that’s from “Die Massnahme”.

And it goes on and on like that … a boring text, ja? I found that so nice, and wanted to integrate it into my agitprop play. And my cultural superiors, these Ernst Hermann Meyer fans, said: if it is to be performed at all, then not with Eisler’s music, but rather in the setting by Meyer. (He’d also set it to music.) And that was stupid. Eisler had set it just as Stalinist as it was. In fifths. [Biermann sings a few lines.] You get hit over the head constantly with an ideological hammer, right? But it was, of course, consistent with the text, and when a genius like Eisler writes something bad, then it’s brilliantly bad. And more interesting than when some ass—like Ernst Hermann Meyer—writes something good.

But there’s some power in it, right?

Okay, I liked it. And they prohibited it. That was good. I called up Hanns Eisler.

What year was this?


You called Hanns Eisler…

…and said: “Dear Mr. Eisler: I’m a young man at the University; I’ve studied at the BE; now I want to put on an agitprop piece about the socialist transformation of agriculture and would like to use your song ‘Du musst die Führung übernehmen’ (a very good song) as well as this song ‘Die Partei hat tausend Augen.’ And they won’t let me do it; they want me to use the setting by Ernst Hermann Meyer.” Eisler was also just a human being, you understand, and this didn’t make sense to him at all—questions of party loyalty aside. And he got all upset. “Das ist doch unerhört!” [Biermann imitating Eisler: “But that’s outrageous!”] And then I said, “In addition, I’ve written all sorts of other songs for this Polit-Show and they are not to be performed because they’re considered unworthy of representing Humboldt University.” And Eisler said, “Well, young man, we’ll see about that.”

There were about fifty people in my ensemble—the best jazz band in the GDR at that time, which with considerable effort had pushed through New Orleans jazz in face of opposition from the cultural authorities. I had seduced them, good jazz musicians, into playing Eisler’s songs. It went beautifully. They played the parts from “Die Mutter” with real precision, and with a little more drive, but without jazzing things up too much.

Because it’s not jazz.

Right. It worked quite well. We were enthusiastic; we were young; we weren’t these pensioned revolutionaries. And we played his songs as fresh as the morning dew. And he came to a rehearsal to which all of these high-level musical officials from the University were invited—the Musikwissenschaftler, the professors, etc.—who preferred the music of Ernst Hermann Meyer. And now, Eisler, a heavy man, gasped his way up the stairs (he was already pretty sick by this time), and all of these professors and cultural functionaries came as well. First we played him his songs, and he was enthused. He was happy, and had reason to be.

Because his songs were living again.

I mean, if you misunderstand this song “Du musst die Führung übernehmen” (“You must take over the leadership”) in the right way, then, under Stalinist conditions, it is an extremely productive, good song! And that was precisely our position. We didn’t want to split for the West; we wanted to stay in the GDR and assume the leadership, “die Führung übernehmen,” whatever that means. I mean, we certainly didn’t want to become … Generalstaatsanwälte [chief state prosecutors]! But we wanted to do our own thing. And then we played my songs, which, of course, were very “Eisler-ish”—just as Bob Dylan in the beginning sounded like Woody Guthrie. You can’t always be inventing the wheel for the first time. You’re standing on other peoples’ shoulders, otherwise you can’t get anywhere. So I “eislered” away like crazy and it pleased him greatly. But because I was, first of all, much less intelligent than he was and understood a lot less about music (I’d had no academic training)…

You hadn’t studied with Schönberg!

…and, secondly, because I was younger and influenced by different music than he, there were occasional harmonic elements in my music which arose from a combination of ignorance and the influence of a later time. And these professors cried out to Eisler: “Don’t you hear that? Herr Professor! You can’t do that! What is this? Look how he gets to B-major! There are still laws in music! (etc.)” But this entire reaction was expressed in a tone of extremely devoted, obsequious irritation. Because Eisler was, at the same time, the great man. They hated him and they kissed up to him. And when they made the remark about B-major, he cut then off and said, in his asthmatic manner of speaking (just as you can bear on recordings): “Be quiet! You don’t understand a thing! These rules, these norms of which you speak: Do you have any idea how old they are? Two hundred years? Three hundred perhaps? They’re no older than that! Leave!” It was a political orgasm. All of the young people who had sung, the jazz musicians who had disciplined themselves to play his music, and I with my songs: we were so happy. This important man had wiped out all of these cockroaches! It was a splendid victory. That was my first encounter with Hanns Eisler and really has nothing to do with my later ties to him. We did the performance. He had prepared the way for us, and no one was allowed to harass us further; we were successful with our “political crap.”

Part II: Eisler becomes Biermann’s sponsor

Then came the building of the Wall in 1961. We founded a theater; we didn’t want to disband after we had produced this political play. It was the best pantomime troupe in the GDR at that time. Plus this popular jazz ensemble. All of these people—young artists from the BE, actors, the chief scenic designer from the Comic Opera (Walter Felsentein’s opera), who didn’t feel like serving up whip cream for him all the time, a young man who wanted to do something different.

Who was that?

Zimmerman. He became our stage designer. All of these people, as well as factory workers, for example, from the Josef Stalin Electric Works, the Berlin brake works, big factories. Artists, workers, students: we worked together without money and turned an abandoned movie theater in a working class district (Prenzlauer Berg), right in the midst of the big apartment houses of the workers, into a theater. We had cooperative ties with some seventy VEB’s [collective industrial concerns], and we didn’t have a single penny, but we pulled off a project worth millions. We were supported on all sides—it was like a Lehrstück taken out of the socialist children’s book. And, of course, the cultural functionaries were suspicious. In part they were enthusiastic that that which they had always preached had finally happened. Percentage-wise, let’s say they were 49-percent supportive and 51-percent afraid of what we were doing. Because they had no economic leverage with which to manipulate us (since we had no funding). So, of course, there were difficulties—and Eisler helped us. He came to our theater and supported us with his big name. Later, the theater was shut down for reasons which even Eisler’s clout wasn’t sufficient to prevent. But in this way I had gotten to know him.

During this time I had also begun to write songs which were very different from these agitprop songs. I played guitar and did what one calls Lieder, which had more to do with other traditions than with agitprop. If it had anything to do with Eisler, then at most in relation to other things he had composed. And after I had written perhaps thirty or forty of these songs (which I only performed for my friends), I summoned up the courage one day to impose on the great master and asked him for an audience so I could play my latest songs for him. He remembered me quite well and invited me to his house, a small villa on Pfeilstrasse in Hohenschönhausen, a section of East Berlin. No, it was NIEDERschönhausen, for as the nasty saying goes, “in Niederschönhausen, wo die Höhen schön hausen!” [where the big shots live well]. And there I visited him with my guitar. And that is then the second, more important part of my story.

So you visited him….

You want to hear more?

Yes. What did he say? What did he think of your songs?

Well, I came to his house on Pfeilstrasse; he was there, and was very friendly. I brought my guitar along, and he sat down to listen to the latest heroic deeds (i.e., the songs) by his young friend from the university. And of course, for my first song I chose one which I thought he would like. Although I wasn’t exactly suffering from an excess of modesty, I nevertheless knew where God lived and then as now Hanns Eisler was for me the great master. This first song was a ballad about a long-distance truck driver who has an accident and has to stay overnight in a small town while the truck is being repaired. And in this run-down hotel he sees a young woman at the table next to him, drinking tea, and he sits there over a beer and keeps wondering whether or not he should invite her over and somehow “get friendly” with her. But he doesn’t, and the next morning, as he wants to continue his trip, he hears the innkeeper say that the girl died and hadn’t paid her bill. So he pays it for her and doesn’t know why and drives on. And just as he passes by Rostock he thinks suddenly to himself, “if I had done something with her, certainly she wouldn’t have died.”

That was the ballad, and Eisler sat in his armchair and looked as though he’d been forced to eat shit. During the first stanza he reserved judgment; during the second he was already squirming, and when the song was finally over he snapped harshly, “Das ist ja Dreck!” [“That’s real trash!”] And asked, “What did she die of?” And I, by now a bit defiant because I was intimidated, said, in a snottier way than I really intended, “Weiss ich doch nicht.” [“How should I know?”] And I didn’t feel like explaining to him at length that what she had died of was totally irrelevant; the important thing was that this young guy had convinced himself that she wouldn’t have died if he’d done something with her. But he said: “That’s an uncultured adolescent song.” He was certainly in a position to judge, and I had no courage left with which to argue with him. I didn’t feel particularly good about things.

I was about to put my guitar away when he asked in a somewhat bored and agitated tone of voice, “Do you have another song?” “Sure, of course.” “Alright then, sing another one.” But he said it as though he really meant, “Please don’t sing any more!” I don’t know why, but I did another song for him anyway. His facial expression relaxed a bit, he leaned back in his chair, and when the song was over, he said: “Well, that’s not so bad. Do you have another?” “Yes.” “Go ahead.” So I sang a third one, and he listened with interest and said: “That’s pretty good. Have another?” “Sure.” It went on like this, and after the fifth or sixth song he called out: “Steffi! Come in here, there’s something to hear.” She came in, his attractive second wife, along with her beautiful daughter. That put some wind in my sails, and now he presented me to the women as his product and I had to sing one song after another.

He became more and more enthused and, when I was finished, he ordered me to come back in a week. He said that in the meantime he wanted to invite all the people in the GDR responsible for mass media: in the first and second place his own brother, Gerhart, the head of the radio committee, who also had a say in TV policy, also, the director of the Deutsches Theater, Wolfgang Langhoff, an anti-fascist, one of the authors of the famous Peat Bog Soldiers Song. And his sister-in-law, Hilda Eisler, who edited a magazine, the most widely read publication in the GDR because both naked women and the naked truth were occasionally presented in it. He wanted to invite all of these people and I was supposed to come back and sing my songs for them. He wanted to promote me. He was as happy as a kid and, in an exaggerated manner, now found everything I’d done as wonderful as he’d found it awful at first. He called my songs “brilliant”—which in Viennese usage doesn’t mean a great deal. But in any case he was delighted, and I was delighted by his delight. And—this might shed some light on his personality—what probably pleased him most was not only that there was someone in Germany who wrote such lively songs, but that we, the GDR, had produced him, not the Klassenfeind [class enemy] in the West. He enjoyed it politically, that something like this was growing on GDR soil.

You gave him some hope, perhaps.

And that wasn’t entirely false. I came out of there as though I were drunk following this “sauna treatment” and in all felt very encouraged. A week later, I came back just as I was supposed to, and the little Pfeilstrasse was full of big cars. Indeed, he’d kept his word and everybody was there. I rang the front door bell. The automatic lock buzzed. I saw him by the back door as he pressed the button, and he came down the stairs toward me, to the garden path, took me aside and said: “Okay, they’re all there. You sing them your songs. I’ll say which ones you’re singing. You have a list of the songs, ja? And before you begin, quickly, I’d like to say something important to you.”

I have to make a correction: he did not say “brilliant” at our first meeting. It was at this point that he said, “You know, this song about the truck driver….” (And I thought, oh no, here he goes again.) “Brilliant!” In spite of the fact that in Viennese usage this word doesn’t mean that much, I think it showed how carefully he dealt with me. He had evidently rewound the tape he had of me in his mind and, in light of his subsequent impressions, had heard the first song again, with an ear that no longer expected agitprop songs, which is where he knew me from. That is to say, he was obviously disappointed at first in false expectation. There was no connection between the first experience he’d had with me and this one. He took such care in dealing with me, a young person, so as not to confuse my standards of judgment. Because for me, this first song was a good song, and still is a good song today. He was just completely misguided in his expectations at first. Now that that had been set straight, we went into the house and there he presented me as his “work.” I did my thing and everyone was enthusiastic, just as they were supposed to be.

Incidentally, there is a tape recording of this evening which Hans Bunge made. This tape is both annoying and amusing, because you can hear how all of these people who are responsible for the mass media in the GDR—the party paper, Neues Deutschland, the radio, TV, etc.—are discussing who should present me first. I was supposed to do a matinée at the Deutsches Theater, then someone was supposed to write about me, then I was supposed to be promoted on TV, and so on. But after all of this came relatively little. There was an article in Hilda Eisler’s magazine in which I was introduced as the “Troubadour of Berlin.” But other than that not much happened. The cultural bureaucracy, in all of its stupidity, nevertheless had a good nose, and it smelled something. Although I was still a kid at that point and much too modest, they smelled the odor of impudence, rebelliousness, a rock-the-boat attitude. Then began the difficult struggles over which songs I was allowed to sing and where. I performed publicly; many things happened which then culminated in my Verbot [performance ban] in 1965. But, unfortunately, Eisler had already died in late 1962, so I no longer had this strong ally who could have helped me against my external enemies and my internal ignorance.

Eisler and I had talked about whether it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to obtain a formal musical education; my lousy guitar playing especially bothered him. Since then, at least compared with that time, I’ve made substantial progress in my technique. But Eisler nevertheless came to the conclusion that it would be too dangerous to train me formally in music. He had been around a while and knew that when one leaves this land of original, creative innocence through education, when one bites into the apple of knowledge, then it normally occurs that one gets the obligatory kick out of paradise. In the process, most lose the apple from which they’d eaten and never find it again. They’d only nibbled on the apple, but received the full punishment; they had gotten themselves into a situation in which they’d lost their original innocence—an innocence necessary for the production of art and which one only gets back if one eats the entire apple mit Stumpf und Stiel [with worms and all]. Then you have a chance of returning on a higher level to the paradise of original innocence. Eisler was one of the few people who had accomplished that. Most remain stuck in the second phase, and he was probably worried that the same thing could happen to me. So I remained “ignorant” in this regard, i.e., with respect to formal musical training, and as long as I work in the small, relatively modest and manageable genre of song, it is perhaps enough. And in the end, perhaps better than if I had become totally stupid though somewhat more intelligent. Or, rather, more educated.

So that was Eisler’s advice.

Yes. Now I’ve gone too far already in this direction and have gotten too old to consider seriously whether or not I should get a formal musical education. Sometimes I play around with the idea, because I sense that I ‘m a not on the same level technically as my own musical imagination. But since I also write poetry, do concerts, make records, i.e., “masquerade” as a singer, I have plenty of projects to accomplish, for which I barely have enough energy. With respect to the problem of biting into the apple, I find myself in a divided situation vis-à-vis my output as a whole. In everything having to do with words, I’m not in this condition of “original innocence” because a lot was invested into my training in this area. But in music, I’m a lay person, and that is perhaps good for my songs, because that gives then both a certain “knowing” sophistication and a raw, powerful directness.

Part III: Eisler’s brother, Gerhart

That Hanns Eisler himself was at least as contradictory as the times in which he lived isn’t really surprising in his case. If one knows what kind of family he came from and how drastically the historical conflicts were reflected within his own family, then it’s self evident that Eisler belonged to those who were deeply torn. His father [Rudolf Eisler] was the editor of this famous neo-Kantian philosophical dictionary. His siblings were just as brilliant as he was—Ruth Fischer, with her well-known, tragic story; and his brother Gerhart, who was one of those who in 1928 tried to alter the KPD’s [Communist Party of Germany] orientation toward Stalinism. Ernst Thaelmann had been coöpted into the leadership as a “proletarian ornament” and then he became Stalin’s man, the man of the Comintern, who, true to the Comintern’s maxims, led the KPD in a direction which paved the way for the Fascists.

A lot has been written about this, but few know that Hanns Eisler’s brother was one of the few who recognized this danger early on and tried to bring Thaelmann down. It suited him well that Thaelmann was involved in an embezzlement affair at this point. To be more precise, it was Thaelmann’s brother-in-law who had embezzled party funds. Thaelmann certainly knew about this and covered it up—I suspect, on account of the party’s reputation, i.e., for noble reasons, and not because of the money. In any case, it was an advantageous opportunity to bring Thaelmann down; he lost his position as chairman of the KPD, was thrown out of the leadership and was supposed to be excluded from the party altogether. In reality it wasn’t a matter of his person but of the politics he represented, which led to a situation in which the KPD, shortly before the Fascist takeover in 1933, was chiefly preoccupied with struggling against its SPD comrades who were labeled “social fascists.” Thus, the power of the workers’ movement was split—leading to such obscene historical events as the transit workers’ strike in November 1932, when the Communists marched together with the Fascists against the Social Democrats.

So, in 1928 Thaelmann had been thrown out of the saddle; he had fallen on his face. But a short time later, with the aid of Moscow’s long arms, he was put back in charge.

And those who had brought about his fall were sent into the desert: Gerhart Eisler, as a small-time Comintern agent, to China, where such people were occasionally eaten up. One of them, a doctor, was sent to Argentina and played into the hands of the Fascists who put out three hundred cigarettes on his body and thereby drove him insane. Gerhart Eisler struggled his way through the world in despair, beaten and misused by his comrades, but at the same time with a sacred conviction that he had to do something for the world revolution no matter where he was. Whether he was right or not.

It was in this complicated time that he came to the United States, and was eventually called to testify before the HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee]. Gerhart Eisler escaped in an adventurous and delightfully impudent way. He slipped past his American guards and, armed with a large bouquet of flowers, went boldly onto a Polish ship, managed to get up on deck, lay down in a deck chair, and only once the ship was well underway did anyone realize what kind of passenger they had on board. The ship was en route to England; in England there are English laws, and he was lucky. He got to Poland, but now where was he supposed to go? In the Western world he had no chance, and in East Germany a man had come to power in the meantime, one of the few who had stuck by Thaelmann in 1928. Walter Ulbricht. You can just imagine the novel-like complications arising from this constellation.

Gerhart Eisler “fled forwards” and became the most rabid apologist for the Ulbricht regime. And he did it with such exaggerated vehemence, with so such venom, with such a shrill voice, that he accomplished an impossible feat: he became even more hated than Ulbricht among the people. Maybe that was the best thing he could do for Ulbricht.

And his brother Hanns saw through all of this clearly, or, rather, let’s say, he saw it with one eye and it couldn’t have pleased him. But with the other he saw what no one else knew: why everything had happened this way. And, as a bourgeois intellectual who had been converted to Marxism—i.e., in the case of a man as radical as Eisler, who believed in more-or-less strict discipline in relation to the political organizations of the working class—he also understood his brother, and was ashamed that his brother, in this political division of labor, had assumed the less grateful role. His brother did the dirty work and in the process got dirty. And [Eisler] wrote those fine Kampflieder, and, in his better hours, twelve-tone music. I had the impression that he loved his brother very much, with open eyes, also with an open heart. He knew too much to despise his brother. He knew that those nice lines from Brecht’s “An die Nachgeborenen” applied to himself: “Zufällig bin ich verschont. (Wenn mein Glück aussetzt bin ich verloren.)” [“By chance I have been spared. (If my luck runs out, I am lost.)”]

He was fortunate. He was the artist. But, on the other hand, as an artist, in the realm of art, he was not so fortunate. Although he is perhaps the most significant composer of this century, the semi-official art world (and that’s still for the most part the Western one) fails to acknowledge him. To the ones in power in the East he smells as badly as Brecht; in his music is too much modernity, too much impudence, a free spirit, too much of a subversive dialectic. And for the Western art market, he’s both too high and too low. They consider him guilty for writing the GDR national anthem; his classic pieces for the workers’ struggle are of no interest to the bourgeois art market; his “Fourteen Ways of Describing the Rain” doesn’t interest those who live from selling cardboard roofing. He sat down between all of the chairs; no one in America knows him, but in West Germany there are more and more people who are interested in him: the leftist movement, the peace movement, the Greens—or let’s say, at any rate, the more intelligent people among these groups, those with greater historical consciousness—who grasp increasingly that Eisler is part of the most precious legacy which they must appropriate. And if I can contribute something to that, by telling people here (in America) about Eisler—from my very limited perspective, of course—then it’s a good thing and I’m happy about it. Ja.

Originally published in “Communications”, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 21-35, International Brecht Society. The interpreter for the interview was Leslie Adelson of Ohio State University. The text was transcribed, translated and edited for publication by “Communications” editor Michael Gilbert, and edited for web publication by Andrew G. Lang.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: