The greatest dead poet alive
After the Second World War, the communist regime in Eastern Germany had reason to boast: one of the greatest German poets alive was on their side. This provoked the Western German poet Johannes Bobrowski to state that the poet in question was the greatest dead poet alive: “he breathes and he writes, but no one hears him and nobody reads him.”1 So, who is the man in question?
The man in question was born in Munich in 1891 as Hans Robert Becher. In Munich the future poet developed into a typical troubled young man. His father had made a career in what then still was the German Kaiserreich and he envisaged his son to do exactly the same. He gave his son a stern upbringing in which two things were regarded as most important: good behaviour and good grades. But the young Hans Robert soon showed that he had no talent for this kind of upbringing.
A failed last stand
When the young Hans Robert did not develop into the kind of child that he envisaged, his father tried a more rigorous approach and put him in a Christian correctional school. There Hans Robert was submitted to a daily routine of physical discipline and military drill.2 He returned home a year later, but his authoritarian father still presented a guarantee for a difficult puberty. From the age of sixteen Hans Robert found refuge in poetry. Poetry presented an alternative world and a way to provoke his father:
I dreamed chaotically in a chaotic night
I have killed my parents
With the stiff and cold gaze of a murderer.3
His father tried everything to keep his son away from the unproductive idea of becoming a poet and things became unbearable for the adolescent son. At the age of 19, Hans Robert and his girlfriend Franziska decided to make a last stand. Hans Robert wrote a letter to a local newspaper in which he announced that a higher duty demanded his death.4 One night Hans Robert took a gun and shot Franziska before shooting himself. And that could be the end of this article, were it not that Hans Robert was a bad shot. When the love-couple was found they were still breathing. Franziska died of her wounds in hospital but Hans Robert survived. The judicial court was lenient on the young man because in their eyes he had acted out of some kind of poetic vanity.5 But the attempted suicide had one important result: his father now decided that every attempt to discipline his son would be useless, he let go of him.
Studies, morphine and poetry
After going to Berlin, Hans Robert for some reason decided to study medicine but only attended lectures on literature and philosophy. After a short period he decided that it would be more suitable to “study on his own” and to combine this private studies with abundant visits to local taverns. The dream of becoming a poet was still alive and luck had it that one of his drinking buddies dreamed of becoming a publisher. In 1911 the first collection of poems were published by the two friends under the alias of Johannes R. Becher. The work got positive reviews and prestigious publishing houses were interested in his work. In 1914 a collection of prose and poetry called Verfall und Triumph (Decay and Triumph) was published by the reputable publisher Hyperion. The tone of Bechers work is expressionist and radical:
On clear wagon streets there stilt the pederasts
Impaled girls are roaming with their colourful dresses
The neon lights of the devil spit coloured fires
A gloomy stream of refuse wallows itself in the broad moon6
Does it surprise you when I tell you that Becher was addicted to morphine at the time? His addiction was heavy enough to ruin his health at the age of 23. He spent the period of the First World War in numerous tries to get rid of his addiction. That was probably not as horrible as serving in the trenches of the Western front, but still the detoxing must have been very unpleasant. It made Becher think about his personality and his future. He suddenly felt the need to have an ideological fundament to underline his poetic work.7
In the East grows the light
This yearning for ideology came at the right time in history: the German emperor abdicated from the throne when the First World War was lost and Germany was quite at a loss about the political future. Eventually the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) won the first free elections and founded a democratic government. But from then on parliamentary government would be contested by radical groups on the left and right sides of the political spectrum. In this eventful period Becher did not have to search very long to find and ideology, and he found it in the communist party. His new found allegiance soon becomes apparent in his poetry. In his poem “Greetings to the Russian Federal Soviet Republic” he writes:
In the East grows the light
The poet himself leans towards you
Destroy and Liberate!
And from then on a divine lineage will rise in true peace8
Further on Becher states that the Soviet-Union is a holy empire and compares it to the Biblical paradise.9 The man of bourgeois decent now wrote poetry that was an instrument of political propaganda. The party ordered him to write poetry to convince the petty bourgeois of the fact that the communist party was the right choice. Becher appeared on political rallies and meetings where his poetry would be recited in public. When Chairman Lenin died in 1924, Becher recited:
Hammer and Sickle
You sign which will accompany our victory!10
But it was not the communist party that prevailed in Germany: in 1933 the national-socialists of Adolf Hitler came to power and those who weren’t Nazis had to fear for their lives. Becher fled to what he regarded the capital of paradise: Moscow. In the midst of the Stalinist purges, Becher led a restless existence traveling to various socialist cities and writing poetry that should make the German people turn away from national-socialism.
Stalin’s friendly face
When national-socialist Germany was finally defeated in 1945, the Soviet military occupied the Eastern part of Germany.
Their leader Josef Stalin wanted to show his friendly face. Almost immediately political parties and cultural organisations were permitted to resume their activities. But Stalin had his motives for that: he was convinced that when the people were becoming aware of their choices, they would off course choose communist dictatorship. But just to be sure, the party would try their best to convince the people into making this choice (and when that didn’t work there was always the option of repression off course). When Becher returned to Berlin, he was the man who would have to coordinate this convincing with literary means. He was appointed chairman of the Kulturbund for the Democratic Renewal of Germany.11 The Bund was formed to convince the “old humanist intelligentsia” to follow the course of “anti-fascism”, and anti-fascism off course meant communism. Although there was a dialogue with Western authors to a certain degree, Bechers own work increasingly became an example of the totalitarian kitsch that is so characteristic in dictatorial regimes. A good example is the eulogy for the communist party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that Becher wrote in 1950:
You big we, you that is the will of us all
To you we have to thank what we have become
Only you can fulfil the dream of peace
The red of your banner rises in the wind of centuries12
Poet and politician
It was this kind of poetry that ensured Becher the luxurious life of a communist official and the disdain of his colleagues in the Western part of Germany. Eventually Becher would write the national hymn for the GDR and in 1954 he even became Minister of Culture. That position should have catapulted him into the higher echelons of the party, but Becher was too much of a poet to make his term of office a success. He had become Minister of Culture one year after the death of Josef Stalin. That event started a period of relative lenience in the Soviet satellite states. Becher was appointed minister to make the censorship offices of the GDR superfluous. But the old Stalinist elites of the GDR were ready to put up a fight and Becher was not the kind of man to fight back. He started to waver: should he be loyal to the old communist comrades or should he support the reformers within the party?
In 1956 the brother state of Hungary stretched the leniency of Moscow too far. There, the communist regime was denounced and eventually it would take Soviet tanks to restore the communist order in Budapest. The period of leniency was over and in the GDR the Stalinist dictator Walther Ulbricht was restored to former glory. Becher had made plans to bring his endangered Hungarian colleague and old friend Georg Lukács, who was now regarded an enemy of the Soviet-Union, to Berlin. But Becher was stupid enough to ask Ulbricht for his approval, which off course he did not get. Instead of that Becher was forced to humbly ask the party to release him from office.13
Poet of the nation
Formally retired, there was not a lot of time to repose for Johannes R. Becher. Drinking habits and the morphine addiction of his past took a toll now he was growing older. He spent his time writing memoirs in his cottage at the seacoast. In these memoirs he stated that choosing socialism was the worst mistake he ever made.14 The memoires stayed unpublished until 1988.15
In 1958 Johannes R. Becher died. His burial was accompanied with state ceremony. Walther Ulbricht did his best to keep up appearances and declared in his eulogy that Becher was the poet of the one nation that embodied peace and socialism.16
Conclusion: seeking sedatives
The German author Franz Werfel once wrote about communists: “they seek the revolution like the sick seek a sedative to get rid of their horrific situation.”17 This makes it tempting to state that communism presented an alternative to morphine for Becher, but I simply do not know whether Becher acted out of pragmatism or out of conviction. The tragedy is that his choice put him in a position where he was too much of a poet to be a good politician, and too much a politician to be a good poet.
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A.Behrens, Johannes R Becher. Eine politische Biographie (Köln 2003) VIII ↩
Ibidem, 12 ↩
Ibidem, 14 ↩
Ibidem, 19 ↩
“Gesang der Nacht” from Johannes R.Becher, Verfall und Triumph (Leipzig 1914) ↩
A.Behrens, Johannes R Becher, 55 ↩
Ibidem, 60-61 ↩
A.Behrens, Johannes R Becher, 61 ↩
Ibidem, 83 ↩
Ibidem, 224 ↩
S.Wolle, Der Große Plan. Alltag und Herrschaft in der DDR (1949-1961) (Berlin 2013) 38 ↩
A.Behrens, Johannes R Becher, 295-301 ↩
A.Behrens, Johannes R Becher, 293 ↩
One year before the fall of the communist regime they were published under the title Das Poetische Prinzip ↩
A.Behrens, Johannes R Becher, 301 ↩
In Barbare oder die Frömmigkeit from 1929 (page 437) ↩