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Friday, 13 January 2012

Bertolt Brecht: The God of War (Der Kriegsgott)


The USS Arizona (BB-39) burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. USS Arizona sunk at Pearl Harbor. The ship is resting on the harbor bottom. The supporting structure of the forward tripod mast has collapsed after the forward magazine exploded
: photographer unknown; image by Cobatfor, 2 September 2011 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum / National Archives and Records Administration)

I saw the old god of war stand in a bog between chasm and rockface.

He smelled of free beer and carbolic and showed his testicles to adolescents, for he had been rejuvenated by several professors. In a hoarse wolfish voice he declared his love for everything young. Nearby stood a pregnant woman, trembling.

And without shame he talked on and presented himself as a great one for order. And he described how everywhere he put barns in order, by emptying them.

And as one throws crumbs to sparrows, he fed poor people with crusts of bread which he had taken away from poor people.

His voice was now loud, now soft, but always hoarse.

In a loud voice he spoke of great times to come, and in a soft voice he taught women how to cook crows and seagulls. Meanwhile his back was unquiet, and he kept looking round, as though afraid of being stabbed.

And every five minutes he assured his public that he would take up very little of their time.

Bertolt Brecht: The God of War (Der Kriegsgott), 1938, translated by Michael Hamburger
, from Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (1976)

File:Casualties of a mass panic - Chungking, China.jpg

Casualties of a mass panic; during Japanese air raid, 4,000 people were trampled or suffocated to death trying to return to shelters. Chungking, China, 5 June 1941
: photo by Carl Mydans (National Archives and Records Administration)


TC said...

Brecht, of course, had certain petty dictators in mind here, but the parabolic reach of the poem is considerable.

When he fled across the top of Europe from Finland to Leningrad to Moscow to Vladivostok and thence by boat across the Sea of Japan and the China Sea, he found himself in water roiled by the same god of war in different guise.

The Typhoon

On our flight from the house-painter to the States
We suddenly noticed that our little ship was not moving.
One whole night and one whole day
It lay against Luzon in the China Sea.
Some said it was because of a typhoon raging to the north
Others feared it was German raiders.
Preferred the typhoon to the Germans.


To each age and nation this god pays his visits.


Nin Andrews said...

Wow, what a haunting poem and series of photos. I love this personification of the god of war. The idea that he wd be looking about anxiously, that he would teach women to eat crows and gulls.

It reminds me of this story . . .

I just read A Visit from the Good Squad, and there's this one story in there, Selling the General, in which a former movie star is supposed to pose with the general to upgrade his image, which she does, and then starts asking him what it was like to kill all those people . . .
I can't do it justice, but it's great.

Robb said...

This is what stuck with me the strongest: "he fed poor people with crusts of bread which he had taken away from poor people." Yes, of course.


Lally said...

Tom, Thanks for all the Brecht stuff. A big influence on me as a young reader and writer, especially the first poem in the Grove Press edition of his selected, translated by H. R. Hays (nowhere near as good as later translations by others like the one above) as "Concerning Poor B.B." (Von Armen B.B.). Again, thanks man.

TC said...

Yes, constant maintenance and upgrading of the image is always required of the petty martial gods.

And there are always more and more poor people to feed, to which end other poor people must always be starved.

TC said...


And what a classic that poem is.

A few of my own Brecht versions:

Brecht: Die Opiumräucherin

Brecht: The Mask of Evil

Brecht: The Stone Fisherman

Hilton said...

Brecht managed to combine sardonic insight with compassion. His poems are much neglected. Thanks for posting this. Hilton

TC said...

"Brecht managed to combine sardonic insight with compassion."

Well said, Hilton. And as we know, that is no mean trick.



"Der Kriegsgott'

" . . . smelled of free beer and carbolic and showed
his testicles to adolescents, for he had been rejuvenated by several professors."

How did Carl Mydans find his way into that cave? And two years later to that stairway?


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, waning white moon above branches
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

likewise two sketches after,
is another reason why

“being” no more than sounds,
with which it, “to be”

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
sunlit green of pine on tip of sandspit

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Clearly, what this world needs is more Brecht to bite into and certainly not more Mars candy bars--thanks again, Tom.

Nin Andrews said...

The photo of all those trampled bodies--
And I assumed at first glance it was bombing or something . . .

When I was in El Salvador, they talked a lot about the earthquakes,
the people that saved others, reaching hands in to pull them out, only to fall in themselves.
But at least, I like to think, there are those who do reach out, even in a time of panic. So I like to beleive . . .

TC said...


As to how Carl Mydans got into that cave... I suppose the short answer would be: he was an extremely intrepid photojournalist.

After his FSA work (which we've seen here more than once), he went to work for Life magazine, joining Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Peter Stackpole and Thomas McAvoy as staff photographers there.

He won an international name for himself with his war photography in Asia. His photos of the effects of Japanese bombing in Chungking became widely known. After his stints in China, he and his wife Shelley, a journalist, were in the Philippines. They had the misfortune to be there when the Japanese invaded. They were held captive by the Japanese for a year in Manila, then another year in Shanghai, before being released in a prisoner-of-war exchange. Mydans then went on to cover the war in Europe, before returning to the Philippines in time to photograph the return of Douglas MacArthur. (MacArthur had dispatched a military plane to pick him up for the triumphant photo-op.) After the war he became the Time-Life bureau chief in Tokyo.


Yes, less Mars, more Brecht!


And yes, more helping hands!

Anonymous said...

The last time I saw the bottom picture (sorry to pun about such a thing) was in an LRB review in which the caption said it was from the rape of Nanking. So that was quite wrong, apparently. Good to know.


TC said...


Let's not tell the LRB they have it wrong, but yes, that's Chungking.

(Fact checking of course has never been a favoured dish among the august literati.)

The horrific Japanese terror-bombing firestorms in Chungking went on over a period of years. The clear target was the civilian population. The first two days of the May 1939 Japanese raids killed 5,000 civilians.

These raids resulted in the first US economic sanctions against Japan, proscribing shipment of airplane parts.

Mitsubishi, the manufacturer of the majority of the Japanese bombers, was however only temporarily inconvenienced.

On 5 June 1941 the Japanese flew twenty or more sorties over the city of Chungking. The bombing was sustained and continuous, over a three-hour period that must have seemed an eternity to those hiding in caves and shelters. Four thousand residents who had hidden in a tunnel were asphyxiated. It was shortly afterwards that Carl Mydans took that picture of the unfortunate victims of the holocaust.

It became what would now be known as an "iconic photo".

My oldest personal possession is a book I was given in 1946: Collier's Photographic History of World War II. It is a great compilation of the best photojournalism from the War. Mydans' frightening and unforgettable photo is in there, with this caption:

"Japanese bombers on a night raid hit a public air raid shelter in Chungking. Bodies of more than seven hundred women and children were piled up at the entrance of the tunnel in which they had suffocated to death."

Historical research later led to the upward revision of the fatality numbers.

Between 1939 and 1942 the Japanese dropped 3,000 tons of bombs on the city of Chungking, in 268 raids.

The spring 1941 bombings were the worst. Carl Mydans, who probably witnessed more of that prolonged atrocity than any other Westerner, called the spring 1941 Chungking raids "the most destructive shelling ever made on a city".

Of course Bomber Harris and the RAF outdid that record a few years later. In a single night 2,300 tons of bombs fell on Berlin.

The god of war hates sleep.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Truemmerfrauen (Rubble Women)

Steineklopfen gehen, knocking rubble,
cobblestones, bricks together
after the bombing
when she was seven. She says
she did not mind it,
part of their routine;
knocking them, stacking it all back up.

Germany, one giant quarry, everyone forced
to work together. Again, still, always.
Nobody going anywhere.
Reasons a mile high.

Yes, I see how this is—
bringing things in means
making something of them—
making it smaller from larger
consuming when there is nothing
to be gotten from it—no—
nutrition, just pieces of rubble—

gritty, chalky; mountains, hills of it—
knocking mortar off the bricks.
The idea overwhelming/small action

the idea of nothing, taking nothing apart
stone nothings, stone everythings
cumbersome lakes on fire.


It’s supposed to be about travel
but knocks into something else:
working with the rubble,
Steineklopfen gehen, that’s what
the rubble women would do.
She joined them. It was a routine
she did not mind. She said a job,
age seven, for food.
Did I mention food? The basic,
high tech action of teeth
those perfect tools.
Germany, chewing up what was
left over. It did not happen
over night. Yet
everything happened by night.

By day, there was something
to be made by knocking
stones together near Bohemia.
A project never finished,
the meal ticket, knocking mortar
off the bricks. Appearance nothing,
appearance everything. Nothing left,
no one, nothing left to eat—
before the Marshall Plan kicked in—
minds no longer on fire
stacking and clacking against each other.

Her Germany

A place she remembers then doesn’t.
I married him to see the rest of it.
How they took care of one another, 1960s happy.

Nobody smiles there, still, at strangers. I’ve
learned that they’re the ones to smile at.
They come with luck, examples. I’ve never met
a dangerous stranger. Never followed that line.

The wolves are at home. They gulp down
their food. I may be next. I will
pretend I do not know this. Everyone
knows I’m pretending. It is
that embarrassing.

Lally said...

Tom, thanks for the links to your translations, and with Bill K. I say let's see more and too would love a collection of them. And how wonderful that there was someone in your world in 1946 hip enough to give you that book!

TC said...


Thanks. The book came from my father.


Astonishing poems.

(Your mother, we take it?)

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Thanks, Tom. Thanks for your work. I see those crystals and think: remain sharp in the dark. Thanks for helping me to see there.

TC said...

A response of such order makes the crazy labours in the dark seem (almost) worth the trouble.

(Maybe helps oversensitive peepers like mine to view nightwork by caveman ultraviolet... sub species preternaturalis?... the points of light sometimes sharp as tiny thorns, causing pain, or -- mayhap -- causing awakening...?)

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Yes, my mother--born in 1938 and orphaned in 1944 from the bombing in Germany. She and her four sisters grew up remembering/missing their parents and three other siblings. My mom lived with matron aunts and in foster families. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1957--one sister already here and another one would follow. They (the sisters) were always her real family, I feel, in their phone calling and urgency/dramatic visits to Germany. She still cries (easily, quickly) about the bomb. She and one sister were at Kindergarten and not in the bomb shelter where the others were (bombed) and died or were dug out. The story about the bomb keeps changing every time I hear it. The bomb is the main character, always, and gets in the way of details and accuracy of events, etcetera.

TC said...

The stories that matter keep changing every time we tell them -- or hear them -- as the gemstone, moved, appears to change, the light striking through from different angles, illuminating different facets, aspects of the interior...