Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1947)

Ger­man poet, play­wright, and the­o­reti­cian, Bertolt Brecht—author of such famous works as The Three­pen­ny Opera (1928) and Moth­er Courage and Her Chil­dren (1938)—was a com­mit­ted Marx­ist who pro­posed a new the­ater to shat­ter what he saw as the com­fort­able mid­dle-class con­ven­tions of both trag­ic and real­ist dra­ma. His the­o­ry of “epic the­ater” under­lay his prac­tice, an attempt to shock audi­ences out of com­pla­cen­cy through what he called Ver­frem­dungsef­fekt (“defa­mil­iar­iza­tion” or “dis­tanc­ing effect”).

Brecht’s enor­mous influ­ence was felt not only through­out Europe, but also in the Unit­ed States, where he set­tled for a short time along with many oth­er Ger­man artists and intel­lec­tu­als flee­ing Nazi per­se­cu­tion. In 1943, Brecht col­lab­o­rat­ed with fel­low exiles Fritz Lang and com­pos­er Hanns Eisler on the film Hang­men Also Die!, his only Hol­ly­wood script, loose­ly based on the assas­si­na­tion of num­ber-two leader of the SS, Rein­hard Hey­drich.

Despite Brecht’s anti-Nazi activ­i­ties, in 1947 he was nonethe­less called before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC) and accused of writ­ing “a num­ber of very rev­o­lu­tion­ary poems, plays, and oth­er writ­ings.” HUAC, fueled by post­war Com­mu­nist and sub­ver­sive para­noia, inves­ti­gat­ed dozens of artists and pro­vid­ed the mod­el for Sen­a­tor Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s. Brecht’s friend Eisler was also called to tes­ti­fy, hav­ing been denounced by his own sis­ter. Brecht was crit­i­cized by many for his appear­ance. As part of the “Hol­ly­wood Nine­teen,” a group of screen­writ­ers sub­poe­naed by HUAC, he was one of eleven who actu­al­ly appeared, and the only mem­ber of the group who chose to answer ques­tions. The remain­ing ten, includ­ing even­tu­al­ly black­list­ed writ­ers Dal­ton Trum­bo and Ring Lard­ner, invoked their Fifth Amend­ment rights against self-incrim­i­na­tion. But Brecht was also the only for­eign­er in the group, as he put it, a “guest” in the coun­try, and feared that his return trip to Europe would be delayed if he did­n’t coop­er­ate. After his tes­ti­mo­ny, Brecht wrote in a let­ter to Eisler:

“I see from some news­pa­per clip­pings that cer­tain jour­nal­ists thought I behaved arro­gant­ly in Wash­ing­ton; the truth is that I sim­ply had to obey my six lawyers, who advised me to tell the truth and noth­ing else. Not being a cit­i­zen either, I could no more refuse to tes­ti­fy than you could.”

Brecht’s tes­ti­mo­ny (excerpt above) has become some­what leg­endary. The man who invent­ed the the­ater of alien­ation turns this hear­ing into some­thing of a piece of the­ater. Brecht did not lie to the com­mit­tee; he denied offi­cial mem­ber­ship of any Com­mu­nist Par­ty, which was true. But his pol­i­tics were decid­ed­ly prob­lem­at­ic for HUAC. Instead of dis­cussing them direct­ly, Brecht gave answers that were often equiv­o­cal, iron­ic, or seem­ing­ly eva­sive, turn­ing (like Bill Clinton’s post-Lewin­sky tes­ti­mo­ny) on small mat­ters of def­i­n­i­tion, or mak­ing use of the ambi­gu­i­ties of trans­la­tion. For exam­ple, Chief Inves­ti­ga­tor Robert Stripling asks Brecht about a song enti­tled “For­ward We’ve Not For­got­ten” (from his play, The Deci­sion) then reads an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the song. Asked if he had writ­ten it, Brecht responds, “No, I wrote a Ger­man poem, but that is very dif­fer­ent from this thing,” pro­vok­ing laugh­ter among the audi­ence. In response to the ques­tion about his “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” writ­ings, Brecht clev­er­ly responds: “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, ‘cause I of course was for the over­throw of that gov­ern­ment.”

The com­plete tran­script of Brecht’s tes­ti­mo­ny is avail­able here, and an audio excerpt is online here. Brecht’s tes­ti­mo­ny is a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment of a time when cen­sor­ship and polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion were very much Amer­i­can activ­i­ties.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (6)
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  • Marc says:

    I heard about Brecht’s tes­ti­mo­ny in a con­fer­ence added as bonus of a dvd of some clas­sic Hol­ly­wood movie — can­not remem­ber which one. The leg­endary Pierre Rissien, who start­ed import­ing Amer­i­can movies in France in the mid-fifties at the Mac Mahon movie the­atre (trig­ger­ing the MacMa­hon­ian cinephile move­ment), was telling that after Brecht’s tes­ti­mo­ny, the HUAC was so embar­rassed that they had to stop their activ­i­ties for a while. I don’t know if the sto­ry is true, but I’m hap­py to hear Brecht’s voice and read the whole tran­script.

  • Jamie Bragginton says:

    I own the answer print 1 for the 1979 movie A Good Exam­ple. “BREACHT BEFORE H.U.A.C”. its going up for sale if your inter­est­ed.

  • David Rothauser says:

    Dear Jamie,

    You may recall that I was the actor who played Brecht in A Good Exam­ple. I have been dis­trib­ut­ing a dvd ver­sion of the film for years from my indep­n­dent com­pa­ny Mem­o­ry Pro­duc­tions How much are you ask­ing for the answer print? I’m in con­stant touch with Bertrand Sauzi­er, the direc­tor.

    All the best,

    David Rothauser

  • David Rothauser says:

    Dear Josh Jones,

    As the co-pro­duc­er, actor in A Good Exam­ple: Bertolt Brecht and HUAC I am seek­ing a copy of the “state­ment,” that HUAC refused to let Brecht read. Please send any con­tact infor­ma­tion about the state­ment.


    David Rothauser
    617 332‑5014

  • Jamie Bragginton says:

    Feel free to reach out

  • david Smith says:

    Here is a link to the “state­ment”. It is an ear­li­er trans­la­tion, and I would love to acquire the orig­i­nal ger­man if any­one has it.

    Dr. David B Smith
    NYC Col­lege of Tech­nol­o­gy
    City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York

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