Glued to Hitler: what Brecht’s overlooked collages tell us about how fascism takes hold

<span>Dictators as gangsters … a cut-out of Hitler adorns a manuscript of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s allegory about the Führer’s path to power.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy the Bertolt Brecht Archive, Akademie der Künste, Berlin</span>
Dictators as gangsters … a cut-out of Hitler adorns a manuscript of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s allegory about the Führer’s path to power.Photograph: Courtesy the Bertolt Brecht Archive, Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Bertolt Brecht believed that theatre should not merely entertain its audience but make them think politically. To achieve this effect, thought the German playwright and poet, a play should not be polished – but jarring. Actors should break out of character to address their audience, plotlines should be broken up and interrupted. In one memorable phrase, he described his ideal play as one that could be “cut into individual pieces, which still remain fully capable of life”.

A new exhibition at Raven Row in London shows how literal the author of The Threepenny Opera was being when he came up with that description. Curated with the Bertolt Brecht Archive in Berlin, brecht: fragments is the most extensive display to date of the visual material the playwright collected over the course of his career, from newspaper and magazine pictures to photocopies of medieval paintings and images from Chinese theatre.

The collage diaries Brecht turned these into, most of which have never been shown before, were overlooked due to how Brecht’s oeuvre was archived in socialist East Germany, where he lived from 1949 until his death in 1956 at the age of 58. Researchers who asked for material at a reading room on Berlin’s Robert-Koch-Platz were only able to view low-quality photographs of these images, which had all been catalogued individually, not as glued-together artworks.

“You had no idea they were all on the same sheet of paper,” says Tom Kuhn, Emeritus Fellow of St Hugh’s College Oxford. “Their context was completely destroyed.” Kuhn, who discovered the collages about 10 years ago and co-curated the Raven Row exhibition, became convinced that these collected fragments, far from being a slapdash scrapbook, formed a significant artistic project in itself. “They are very clearly composed,” he says. “They’re not just materials meant to contribute towards something else.”

Following the chaos of the first world war, Weimar-Republic Germany had seen the birth of collage as an artform, pioneered by the likes of Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch. Two of its most political practitioners, George Grosz and John Heartfield, were friends of Brecht. While the playwright’s montages are less dynamic, the attempt to suggest meaning through juxtaposition is evident. An entry in his journal about the William Wordsworth poem She Was a Phantom of Delight (“a Spirit still, and bright / With something of angelic light”) is accompanied by a photograph of soldiers in gas masks. It looks like a postpunk record sleeve.

In one large album, known as BBA 1198, there is a page with two photographs: one of Adolf Hitler raising his fists in a jolt of anger, and one of a blond schoolboy, not yet into puberty, making the same gesture. The juxtaposition is disorientating. It makes the Führer look like a naughty child, play-acting, but also shows how eager Nazi Germany was to imitate his performative outrage: the schoolboy, the panel explains, is giving a speech on current affairs. The open newspaper in front of him is a Nazi publication.

In Germany, Brecht is the most frequently performed playwright after Shakespeare and its leading dramatists stand guard along the fourth wall that Bertolt brought down, in case anyone is thinking about raising it up again. Elsewhere, the term “Brechtian” has become shorthand for pretty much any theatrical manoeuvre intended to politicise an audience.

This show feels like a refreshing antidote to all that theory-first Brecht, revealing a rawer, more punk version of the writer. Fittingly, there will be twice-daily performances of fragments from his experimental, unfinished plays, not the classics. The Brechtian devices they contain are still raw ideas rather than accomplished techniques.

What is clear from the pictures Brecht collected is that he was fascinated by gestures – and how they could be used and abused. We see people begging for food, soldiers embracing loved ones before heading off to the front. Hitler is also shown beside the corrupt New York mayor Jimmy Walker: both are wagging their fingers in the same way, two mendacious leaders confidently assuring onlookers of their sincerity.

Most of the images at Raven Row were found and collected during Brecht’s years in exile. Fearing persecution, the committed socialist left Germany on 28 February 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire. By the time Nazis burned his books, Brecht and his family were already ensconced on a Danish island in the north sea, from where he eventually reached the US. In California, Brecht tried to become a Hollywood scriptwriter. Although he wrote Hangmen Also Die, which was directed by his co-exile Fritz Lang, he struggled to break into the industry.

Yet, even as Brecht moved further from home, his photomontages suggest that the rise of fascism was never far from his thoughts – particularly how it had so infested German politics. Given Brecht’s status as the gospeler of political theatre, it’s worth asking how astute his analysis looks now.

The Threepenny Opera, his breakthrough play, had explored parallels between the grimy London underworld and the respected capitalist endeavours of the city’s bankers. He extended that analogy in 1941’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, about the path to power taken by a fictional Hitler-like Chicago mobster (and cauliflower racketeer). Fascism is presented as a criminal venture, but also a capitalist one.

The Raven Row show includes a remarkable typescript of the play illustrated with 24 pictures, including a photomontage that juxtaposes news images of gangsters and mob funerals with shots of Hitler and his acolytes. The most extraordinary image from this archive find is as stark as it is simple: an Arturo Ui typescript page with a glued-on cut-out of Hitler looking like he’s standing on a corner in the Five Points of Lower Manhattan, hands rakishly lodged in trouser pockets.

The dictators-as-gangsters thesis is also all over the BBA 1198 album. One page draws parallels with the media’s romanticising of Bonnie and Clyde (“Bonnie Good Girl Gone Wrong, Mother Says,” reads the headline Brecht cut out). Another, from a Nazi publication, portrays Hitler and Goebbels as benevolent outcasts. This thesis has held up remarkably well. If Brecht was making these scrapbooks today, you would imagine them full of the gestures Donald Trump makes with those tiny hands, with headlines quoting his mafia-don-style utterances, not to mention that menacing mugshot of the former US president after his 2023 indictment in Atlanta. Further volumes could be filled with Vladimir Putin’s power poses, bare-chested on horseback.

But the analysis of fascism as “the nakedest, most shameless, most oppressive and most treacherous form of capitalism”, as Brecht said in 1935, has blind spots. As German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt – an admirer of Brecht’s plays and poetry – wrote about his politics: if you understand fascism as nothing more than a continuation of class warfare, you end up belittling the racism as its core. Racial persecution in such an interpretation becomes nothing more than a diversion tactic to channel proletarian anger, an “optical illusion”.

Yet, says Kuhn, “Brecht resolutely stuck to his interpretation of fascism, and we can absolutely read it as a limitation of his political analysis. He wrote a lot about racism, but he underestimated the centrality of antisemitism to National Socialism.”

When Brecht returned to East Berlin after the end of the war and founded the Berliner Ensemble theatre, he clashed with the governing Socialist Unity Party and the apparatchiks it had put in charge of cultural affairs. But his criticism of Stalinism and the Soviet Union mostly remained a private affair. His most frequently cited poem, mocking the party’s reaction to the 1953 workers uprising, contained the line: “Would it not be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?” It wasn’t published until after his death.

Precisely because Brecht managed to say so much with so little in his photomontages, one spread in BBA 1198 stands out. Here, he has collated five photographs of Lenin and Stalin, but there are no juxtapositions, no obvious conversations between the images. It’s as if the man who turned theatre into an involved political experience briefly allowed himself to stop thinking.

• brecht: fragments is at Raven Row, London, 15 June to 18 August