Brecht in Denmark

2022 updates: Svendborg Dage (FB; events), marking its 10th anniversary, with the theme of Verdensborger i en skrøbelig verden; events inc Brecht på Plakaten (exhibition), Late Night Book Club (FB). Under stråtaget (film; FB), Moritz Schramm (FB), En poppel på Karlsplatz (pic)…

Updates: in need of a healthy rewrite, not least since our visit to Skovsbostrand 8 in July 2020; access is limited, so we were unable to verify whether Truth is concrete (copyright BB’s idol Hegel) is still painted on a beam in the study (source: Metromarxism; more; another)…Huspostil (FB: Hauspostille), first Danish publication of BB’s first poetry collection…

In der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim

Back in 2015 I spotted two bouts of German cabaret songs on the Golden Days programme, at Frederiksberg’s Revymuseet (now Alhambra) and in Riddersalen, where, hold the front page! Brecht sat at the back during the final rehearsals for the Round Heads and Pointy Heads premiere on 4 November 1936. The play even got a performance in Den Sorte Diamant, as part of a Hanns Eisler conference.

It turns out that Brecht lived in Svendborg, a fair-sized town (pop: 27K) on the drive-through island of Fyn, from June 1933 to April 1939. He was invited to Denmark by journalist and writer Karin Michaëlis, who during the 1930s had several German emigrants as houseguests in her house on the nearby island of Thurø.

While in Denmark Brecht wrote Mother Courage, The life of Galileo (with the figure of Galilei initially based on Niels Bohr) and The good person of Szechwan, and was visited by not least Hanns Eisler and Walter Benjamin. The Brecht family also had a summer house in Dragør (update: according to Ekstra Bladet of the 29 September 1934 the Brechts spent that summer at Dragør Badehotel, which feels more likely). In the spring of 1939 they upped sticks to an island near Stockholm, then to Finland, ending up in the USA from 1941-47.

Then there’s the poems; I can still visualise a volume of Brecht poetry I owned in the 1980s (why does one get rid of books, really?), surely John Willett’s translation part 3.The Svendborger Gedichte, published in Copenhagen im 1939,  also got a couple of run-outs at Golden Days courtesy of Oktoberkoret. Here’s the Motto to the Svendborg Poems:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (trans. John Willett, 1976)

Motto der Svendborger Gedichte:

In den finsteren Zeiten
Wird da auch gesungen werden?
Da wird auch gesungen werden.
Von den finsteren Zeiten.

Today Svendborg hosts a biennial Brecht festival, Svendborg Dage (FB), often with an immigration related focus (2018 theme: Det Gode (The Good), 2020 theme: Håb (Hope); next festival in 2022, with a pop-up event in 2021 (FB)). Tours are offered of Brecht’s house (FB) at Skovsbostrand 8, a world away from 1930s Berlin.

I visited Svendborg back in the day, it’s pleasant enough if crashingly dull; Benjamin described the southern tip of Fyn as “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing.

The library duly delivered two publications on Brecht in Denmark:

  • Bertolt Brecht i Danmark: pamphlet published by the Brecht-Zentrum der DDR in cooperation with Svendborg Kommune in 1984, a celebration of the setting up of a memorial plaque in Svendborg in 1981, currently languishing in the Stadsbibliotek’s Depotbibiliotek; includes reminiscences from journalist Frederik Martner and actor Dagmar Andreasen
  • Brecht på Fyn: in two parts (Under det fynske stråtag covering mainly his life on Fyn and De alt for små øer on his work and its reception in Denmark at the time), by Harald Engberg, published in 1966 by Andelsbogtrykkeriet i Odense and acquired by Hvidovre libraries on publication, now smelling a bit fusty TBH
  • see also Die Welt geht hier stiller unter: Das Brecht-Haus im dänischen Svendborg

At the front of Under det... there’s a photo of Brecht in June 1934 in flat cap and what looks like my father’s cardigan, holding a cigar, plus a picture of the house in 1966 (“der er kommet lidt småpynt til siden Brechts dage, som ikke er hans stil”); other photos include Brecht at the typewriter in his study and behind the wheel of his ancient Ford Model T, in which he took drives to stave off restlessness, but not the money shot of Brecht playing chess with Walter Benjamin (again) in the garden.

Brecht left Germany on 28 February 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, travelling first to Prague and Vienna, before looking for somewhere to live in Switzerland. Finding Zurich too expensive, he next checked out Paris where Kurt Weill was living, but he was no Francophile and did not settle. He arrived in Denmark on 20 June 1933 and bought the ramshackle fisherman’s house in Svendborg on 9 August 1933 for 7000 kr., moving in on 28 December. In a letter to Walter Benjamin on 22 December he wrote “Der er behagligt her”, and that it was possible to survive on 100 kr. (60 Reichsmarks) a month. In addition, Svendborg library would get you _any_ book you want. The language was unusually easy, and above all “verden går under mere stille her”. Wonderful stuff.

Brecht brought his own world with him into exile, making no great effort to learn Danish or to mix with the locals. He also travelled widely – in 1934 to London and again in 1936, in 1935 to Moscow and New York, to New York again in 1936, plus several visits to Paris.

The Svendborg VI poems Zufluchtsstätte, Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils and Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten underline his feelings of flight, coupled with impatience and restlessness:

Immer fand ich den Namen falsch, den man uns gab: Emigranten.
Daß heißt doch Auswanderer. Aber wir
Wanderten doch nicht aus, nach freiem Entschluß
Wählend ein anderes Land. Wanderten wir doch auch nicht
Ein in ein Land, dort zu bleiben, womöglich für immer.
Sondern wir flohen. Vertriebene sind wir, Verbannte.
Und kein Heim, ein Exil soll das Land sein, das uns aufnahm.
Unruhig sitzen wir so, möglichst nahe den Grenzen
Warten des Tags der Rückkehr…

The Danish idyll was not for him. No Romantic, the delights of Fyn, the garden of Denmark, did not entice him to reverie, although his sojourn in “isolated Svendborg” was paradoxically productive – perhaps a reaction to that very peace and stillness – and he was able to enjoy a stable family life with his two youngest children for the first time. The Danish stråtag (das dänische Strohdach – thatched roof) offered him a form of camouflage, and became a frequently employed metaphor during his years of exile.

Brecht received a residence permit from Sweden on 14 April 1939, leaving Denmark on Easter Monday and selling the house to a sheet music dealer. While in Sweden he wrote his reminiscences of his time in Denmark, collected as De alt for små øer (can’t trace), and continued his satirical writing as Herr Keuner, a version of which was published as Flüchtlingsgespräche after his death in 1961.

One of the 18 conversations tackles Dänemark oder der Humor. Brecht was particularly piqued by the Danes’ sense of humour, maintaining that “han ville gerne være venlig, men hans Widerspruchsgeist lod sig ikke mane i jorden”:

Sie haben immer betont: Wir sind zu schwach, um uns zu verteidigen, wir wir müssen Schweine verkaufen…Sie waren alle überzeugt, dass der Faschismus bei ihnen nicht geht, weil sie zuviel Humor haben.

His Danish friends told him that “deres humor desværre lod sig ikke oversætte, fordi den bestod af ganske små sproglige vendlinger”, to which he retorted that “når man kun kan sige små ting på et sprog, kommer man let til at skrive om små ting”.

The worst thing about Denmark was not its size, but the fact that it had everything, just on a very small scale:

Her eksisterer intet, som man kan måle det med, fordi selv målestokken er for lille. En ‘høj’ bakke i Jylland hedder som bekendt Himmelbjerget, men den er knap 200 m. høj.

While Brecht never returned to Denmark, the day before his death in 1956 the sale went through in his name on a small house in Humlebæk. Was the restless Brecht once more seeking camouflage, or simply a bolthole to work in?

Brecht’s house in Svendborg

Postscript: the Danes went Brecht crazy in autumn 2016 (but why?), with Immigranten, an interpretation of Flüchtlingsgespräche performed på dansk by Xenia Noetzelmann and Katrin Weisser to music by Bent Fabricius-Bjerre at Louisiana, plus Svendborger Gedichte, in a new – and complete – translation as Svendborgdigte set to music by Saybia’s Søren Huss at Baggård Teatret in Svendborg.

Skønlitteratur på P1 featured the Svendborgdigte on 7 June 2017, with an interview with translator and old Brecht hand Hans Christian Nørregaard. Nørregaard visited Helene Weigel in East Berlin in 1963. Following several radio broadcasts he made a film for DR2 about Brecht’s Danish exile, Under stråtage (review), in 1998. He has also published several works on German exiles in Denmark in the 1930s, including På flugt fra nazismen and Tysksprogede emigranter i Danmark fra 1933. (In this connection see also 2016’s Networks of refugees from Nazi Germany.)

It seems that Brecht as poet was/is? less known in Denmark. In the 1930s he was viewed  as having had his time with Die Dreigroschenoper – it was only later that it became clear that his Danish exile represented a period of transition, with his next great work, Mutter Courage, written under that thatched roof in Svendborg, heralding a new epoch in theatre.

Nørregaard highlighted Til efterkommerne (An die Nachgeborenen; Wikipedia | English) as one of the Danish poems which has stood the test of time (it seems that in Danish literary circles Brecht was for a time known as Bertolt Brugt). A snippet of BB reciting the poem (in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice) can be heard at around 13 mins in (here’s a full reading), followed by a Danish reading.

Today the house is owned by Svendborg Kommune, and for most of the year is let out to writers, artists and researchers:

Previous residents inc Lars Mønster, who published Skovsbostrand: en digtfortælling in 2012?, but which has left few traces. Of more interest: Günther Schwarberg‘s Sommertage bei Bertolt Brecht – Tagebuchskizzen unter dem dänischen Strohdach (1997).

Brechts hus i Svendborg (2018; FB):

  • one of the proposals for Svendborg’s cultural canon in 2016
  • the three authors had worked on the project for more than 25 years, even before the fall of the Wall, with the aim of finding the right use for the house, which a far-sighted council had acquired; the ambition was to create a levende kulturrmiljø med udgangspunkt in the story the fordrevne author’s stay in Skovbostrand udgør; since the first decade’s of the institution’s existence this has become part of Svendborg’s identity; Brechts Hus is part of Svendborg’s cultural capital (hmm, CPH??
  • BB left Berlin on 28 Feb 1933, a month after Hitler came to power; Helene Weigel was instrumental in the choice of Svendborg, as she was friends with Karen Michaelis
  • BB knocked on several doors looking for protection and a way of continuing to work; he wanted a German-speaking host country, dvs Switzerland, the natural choice for many German intellectuals, inc Anna Seghers etc, but high cost of living made this impossible
  • first destination was Prague, followed by stops in Vienna, Zurich and Lugano; at some point ended up in Paris
  • their first home in DK was Torelore on Thurø
  • with the family came barnepige Maria (Mari) Hold, who married butcher Jørgen Henrik Ohm in 1934 and lived in Svendborg until her death in 1980
  • the family were in Thurø by 10 June, with BB writing his first letter from DK on 28 June; it seems likely all travelled by ship to Esbjerg
  • BB network diagram? he was a people person and surrounded himself with people, making connections whenever he could, wiritng letters etc
  • on 9 August signed the deeds for what is today’s Skovsbostrand 8, which at the time was quite a way out of Svendborg; BB did not intend to stay long or to mix with the locals
  • at 7K kroner it was a cheap house, but it was small and, seen with Berlin eyes, primitively furnished; he also enjoyed the view of the Sound, which gave him the feeling of being close to his homeland
  • the first edition of the Svendborg Digte were printed by Universial Trykkeriet, Rigensgade 21 in Nørrebro and published by a Czech emigrant press, Malik Verlag
  • BB left Svendborg in April 1939, after having written inter alia Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches: one act radio plays staged in Paris in 1937, and Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar, ditto; Sezuan and Galilei got their premieres in Zurich in 1943
  • BB also travelled a lot during his stay in DK, one year altogether, with trips to Moscow, Paris, Sanary-sur-Mer in the south of France, where Lion Feuchtwanger was living, New York and London, but gradually stayed longer in Danisch-Sibirien, while friends and colleagues visited him
  • visitors: his father, Margarete Steffin who was a long-term house guest. Ruth Berlau, perhaps as a menage a trois, Hanns Eisler, who lived in a found-gabled bindingsværk hus on nearby Randzausmindevej for a while, Walter Benjamin, who may have stayed in the nearby pensionat Stella Maris
  • the family stayed for a year in Lidingo near Stockholm, then a shorter stop in Finland, before in 1941 taking the train via Moscow to Vladivostok, where they set sail for San Pedro in California on a Swedish steamer

Brechts hus: fra ide til realitet:

  • fra idefasen 1981 til stiftelsen af foreningen Brechts hus 1995
  • far-sighted mayor Viggo Schulz contacted both the DDR’s embassy in CPH and the Brecht-Zentrum in Berlin; plans included both a museum/mindestue and a vistor centre, until it was finally agreed to create a refuguim for kunstnere og videnskabsfolk
  • 1933: house sold to Jensen, who lived there until 1952
  • 1952: house sold to Knud W Knudsen, aka Frihed Knudsen, who lived there with his wife until their deaths in 1983
  • 1981: mindeplade erected on 9 September, the 25th anniversary of BB’s death, attended by Barbara Brecht and the DDR ambassador
  • 1983: Anders og Birgitte Svendsen bought house
  • 1988: Svendborg Kommune buys house
  • 1995: Foreningen Brechts Hus stiftes

Foreningen Brechts Hus ser dagens lys:

  • et fristed for kreative mennesker fra hele verden og til inspiration for det lokale kulturliv
  • autumn 1995: guest actors at BaggårdsTeatret from Latvia were the house’s first guests
  • 1996: first paying guests; house let 189 times by the end of 2016; 500-600 guests in total
  • 2011: Gunter Grass visits; Siegfried Lenz also visited
  • 2012: first Dage med Brecht festival

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