Bertolt Brecht - Kriegsfibel (1994 edition)

  • Eulenspeigel, 1994
  • Hardcover, second edition
  • Afterword by Jan Knopf and Gunter Kunert

In a short piece written in 1931 for the tenth anniversary of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, Workers’ Illustrated News), Brecht commented that photography has become a weapon against truth, and that the media uses photographs in order to cover up the real facts (Brecht, BFA vol. 21, p. 515). Brecht was a great admirer of John Heartfield, an artist who used photomontage. Heartfield took press photographs out of context, combined them with other images and added his own captions with satirical messages. In this way, Heartfield subverted the ideological implications of mass media images. Heartfield’s covers for the AIZ became famous, reaching a mass audience.

During World War Two, Brecht developed a new artistic practice in which he stuck press photographs of the war into his work journal. Brecht did not doctor these images like Heartfield; instead he placed a four-line poem under each image. In a journal entry of 20 June 1944 he called these works ‘photo-epigrams’.

The result is one of Brecht’s most powerful works. In total there are 85 images and accompanying epigrams, including the addenda and an image for a projected ‘Peace Primer’.

The opening image shows Adolf Hitler making a speech. The epigram comments that he is a sleepwalker who is leading Germany to its doom. The second image shows workers lifting steel plates; the epigram comments that these plates will be used to make guns. One epigram (number 8) asks German soldiers if their real enemy is the French, or their commanding officer. Image 16 shows a crew of aerial bombers; the epigram reminds us that their bombs will be aimed at women and children. Image 18 shows Liverpool before it was bombed; the epigram reminds us that this is still a city, but not for long. Image 41 shows the helmets of dead soldiers; the epigram comments that they were defeated they moment they put on their helmets. Portraits of Friedrich Ebert (29) and Gustav Noske (82) are accompanied by epigrams which mention their role in crushing the German Revolution of 1918, which set the scene for the gradual right-wing takeover of the Weimar Republic.

In her preface to the first edition of Kriegsfibel; War Primer in 1955, Ruth Berlau described the book as a practical manual demonstrating how to read press photographs. Brecht’s book anticipates the work of the French critic Roland Barthes (Mythologies, 1957), in which magazine covers and advertisements are subjected to analysis in order to unmask or decode their ideological content.