Bertolt Brecht 1937

Speech at the Second Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture

Source: Commune. 5th yr, no. 49, September 1937;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2012.

Some four years ago there occurred in my country a series of terrifying events which announced that all aspects of culture had entered a zone of mortal danger. The fascist coup d'état provoked immediate and passionate protests in a large part of the world. Its violence gave rise to indignation. Nevertheless, its general significance has remained obscure even to those who are most profoundly indignant. While recognizing the importance of every isolated fact people have not realized their elementary influence on the “to be or not to be” of culture.

The monstrous events in Spain, the bombing of villages and open cities and the massacre of entire populations serves only s to clarify in men’s eyes the meaning of events – no less atrocious though less dramatic – that take place in countries like mine that are under the influence of fascism. They shine a light on the same frightful origin of the destruction of Guernica and the buildings of the German unions in May 1933. The cry of those assassinated in the public squares reinforces the anonymous cry of those tortured in the Gestapo’s jails. The fascist dictators now export to foreign proletariats the methods first applied against the workers of their own countries. They treat Spaniards like Germans or Italians. While the fascist dictators build up their aviation centers their people no longer receive butter and foreign peoples receive bombs. Unions once rose up for butter and against bombs. They were suppressed. Who can now doubt that it is a matter of one and the same system involved in the exchange of military forces and the gigantic development of their commerce in laborers while their civilian battalions are forced to put their labor in the service of capital?

Once the general attack on the economic and political positions of the German and Italian workers showed itself to be effective, once the freedom to organize in unions and the freedom of the press, and once democracy found itself gagged, the attack on culture was crowned with success.

We didn’t realize quickly or directly enough that the destruction of unions and that of cathedrals and other monuments of culture meant the same thing. And yet that was precisely where culture was attacked.

With the loss of their political and economic positions the German and Italian peoples lost all their means of cultural production. Mr. Goebbels himself yawns with boredom in his theaters. The Spanish people in defending with its arms its soil and its democracy acquires and protects its cultural productivity, and with each hectare of land it protects a square centimeter of the paintings in the Prado.

If this is the way things are; if culture is inseparable from the collective productivity of a people; if it is so closely connected to material might; if one and the same wave of violence can take from a people both butter and sonnets; and if, finally, culture is something so truly material, what must be done to defend it?

What can it do on its own? Can it fight? Well, now it is fighting. And it can. Combat is made up of various phases. At first isolated cultural producers hold themselves apart from the atrocious happenings in the country. But the very definition of the barbarism facing them signifies the need to fight. They then unite against barbarism as the combat demands. They go from protest to appeal, from complaint to battle cry. They don’t content themselves with pointing out the crime; they call the criminals by their names and demand their punishment. They are aware that the hatred of oppression must result in the annihilation of the oppressors; that pity for the victims must abolish any pity felt for the executioners; that compassion must be transformed into anger and the horror of violence become violence itself. The violent fullness of popular might must stand opposed to the violence of the isolated, of the privileged class.

For these wars will never end. The still-warm engines of the air squadrons that yesterday attacked unhappy Abyssinia have returned to the air to unite with their German accomplices and to together descend on the Spanish people. The battle is not yet over and there are already rising above China the squadrons of Japanese imperialism.

It is necessary to declare war on this as on all the other wars we have just spoken of, and it’s a war that must be waged like one.

Culture, which has for so long – for too long – had only the weapons of the intelligence to defend it against the material weapons of the aggressors, that culture is itself not only an emanation of the spirit but also and above all a material thing. And it is with material weapons that it must be defended.