Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) left Berlin in February 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, an attack on the home of the German Parliament. President Paul von Hindenberg had named Hitler Chancellor on January 30 in the mistaken belief that “the housepainter,” as Brecht called him, could be controlled. On February 4, Hitler had granted himself emergency powers to act against anyone who opposed him in the press or at political events.
At first, Brecht and his wife and frequent artistic partner, Helene Weigel (1900-1971), planned to go to Bavaria. Brecht received letters threatening a visit from five members of the Nazi paramilitary, the SA. Weigel was briefly arrested.
On the evening of February 27, the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag and blamed it on Communists. The next day Hitler declared a state of emergency to protect Germany from high treason. The Nazis passed legislation authorizing the government to rule for four years without any participation from the Reichstag. Walter Mehring, a German writer whose books, along with Brecht’s, were destroyed during the Nazi book burnings, tipped Brecht off that he should leave Germany.
At the time Brecht was writing the first version of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, currently playing at Scena Theatre, he was living in Denmark. My colleague David Siegel, whose excellent review you can read here, has given a thorough summation of what to expect if you attend the production. I will address the circumstances under which it was written.
Brecht settled first in Thurø, a small Danish island. Weigel and their two children would join him there. Weigel had agreed to move with him, with the stipulation that his numerous affairs must end. There are many things to admire in Brecht, but his treatment of women is not one of them.
The Nazis seized Brecht’s car, claiming that it was Communist property. The Gestapo froze the bank accounts of forty-four exiled writers, including Brecht, and took control of their assets. The family were only able to survive in Denmark because a then famous Danish writer (and former friend of Weigel’s) Karin Michaelis provided for them for several years.
Brecht told the Danish authorities that his wife was Jewish, although she had resigned from the Jewish community in Berlin in 1928. This assertion gave the family refuge based on racial persecution. In August 1933, Elisabeth Hauptmann (1897-1973), co-author of The Threepenny Opera and one of Brecht’s lovers, brought back some of Brecht’s manuscripts from Germany. Against Brecht’s advice she went back to Berlin to retrieve more of his papers. She was arrested and escaped to Paris.
It was a frightening time. There were German troops in northern Finland, preparing to attack the Soviet Union. There were food shortages, and Brecht’s daughter Barbara contracted tuberculosis, from which she later recovered. Another lover of Brecht’s, and a close collaborator, Margarete Steffin (1908-1941), who is considered to have contributed to Arturo Ui, collapsed and eventually died from the effects of tuberculosis. The Brechts were desperately trying to obtain visas to the U.S. In this febrile atmosphere, it is remarkable to note that Brecht wrote the play in three weeks.
Arturo Ui was originally inspired by a story in Machiavelli’s History of Florence, and later by the gangland career of boss Dutch Schulz. Brecht finished the play in Helsinki in March of 1941. Brecht intended it to be produced in America, but there was some hesitation due to the possible implication that Fascism could one day succeed in the U.S. It was also deemed too soon after the Holocaust to produce a satirical allegory about Hitler. The play premiered in Stuttgart in 1958 after Brecht’s death.
The play features characters based on real historical figures. There is President Hindenberg (Dogsborough), Göring (Giri) Hitler’s second-in-command and major propogandist, Goebbels (Givola), and the head of the Brownshirts, Ernst Röhm (Ernesto Roma). Arturo Ui details the process of intimidation, blackmail, and violence which leads to the victory of the Fascist regime. This work of Brecht’s has become increasingly relevant due to its warning about the rise of Fascism.
One of the most famous lines is the last: “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Indeed.