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  Origins of Bertolt Brecht’s Asia

Eberhard Fritz, Altshausen/Germany

Grandma, Pietism and the Missionaries: Origins of Bertolt Brecht’s Asia

On May 20, 2010, this paper was given during the 13th Symposium of the International Brecht Society 'Brecht in / and Asia’, which was held from 19 through 23 May 2010 at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Honolulu.
By courtesy of the organizers this paper is published on my homepage. A longer article on the subject in German, along with the notes, will be published in the 2011 issue of the Brecht Yearbook.

Images from
"Album für Freunde der Länder- und Völkerkunde"
Leipzig/Germany, not dated (around 1900)

A look at a world-famous poet like Bertolt Brecht could lead to the conclusion that everything about him is well documented and that there is no need or possibility for further original research. As this conference program proves again most of what is researched nowadays about Brecht basically is an ongoing interpretation of his life and of his works. But if we get the impression that the original sources about Bertolt Brecht’s biography are exhausted and that there is no more to be found this is certainly not true, as my presentation will show.

Let me begin with a quote by Renata Berg-Pan: Brought up in a household where he found little to nourish his intellect and taught by teachers whose 'worthless educational materials' did not offer him very much either, Brecht discovered his literary tastes and their satisfactions on his own. This includes his discovery, if we may call it that, of things Chinese and oriental. Brecht provides an interesting contrast to Hermann Hesse whose appreciation of oriental culture, especially Indian and Chinese, was fostered by his parents and grandparents who had been missionaries in the orient. Brecht seems to have relied primarily on sheer accident and good luck at first. ...Brecht’s knowledge of things Chinese was sporadic in his early years and, unlike Hesse, he received no inspiration and stimulation from home. He had to rely on accident.

Those statements from a fundamental book about Bertolt Brecht have never been seriously verified. Therefore, with Brecht and Hesse two of the most important authors of the 20th century appear as complete antagonists. While Hermann Hesse was born into a family with a worldwide horizon Brecht apparently only learned about the Far East by accident. Today I would like to offer a new theory about the origins of Brecht’s interest in China which, however, to say it explicitely, is not backed by documentary evidence. But there are so many individual points to support my assumptions that it could lead to a new view on Brecht’s inspiration for his dealing with China. The reason for overlooking possible early influences could not only be caused by the fact that the family history of the Brechts has hardly ever been thoroughly researched. Brecht himself not only alienated his motives artistically but he also marginalized the sphere of his original family. Renata Berg-Pan says: There are few hints and reminiscences regarding his home life in Brecht’s work. . As Brecht himself obviously did not regard his childhood and youth at Augsburg as very important there did not seem any reason to research it further.

But if those few, rather accidental remarks about Brecht’s early years are taken into account they suddenly do no more appear as insignificant as it seems at first glance. He himself said one time that he owed his linguistic expressiveness and his lifelong intimate knowledge of the bible to his maternal grandmother Friederike Brezing. Hansjoerg Kammerer was the first to draw further conclusions from that statement by pointing out the influence of Wuerttemberg Pietism, a religious movement which Friederike Brezing followed. But Kammerer’s article was almost completely overlooked by Brecht researchers because it was published in a yearbook for church history Blätter für Württembergische Kirchengeschichte. And it was the author himself who saw a need for further research because he felt that more could be found out. Insofar I based my research on his article but in a wider context of Pietism I feel able to draw more thorough conclusions.

When Bertolt Brecht was born at Augsburg in 1898 as son of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother it was clear that he was to be baptized a Protestant. This reflects the religious attitude of his parents, for his father was a habitual churchgoer while his mother was heavily influenced by Pietism. One time Bertolt Brecht referred to her as the Protestant rebel in the family which not only indicates a dedicated religiosity but also an element of resistance against ecclesiastical authorities and doctrines. In the fall of 1900 Brecht’s maternal grandparents moved to Augsburg and lived in an apartment in his parent’s neighborhood. From then on, the Brecht family with the two boys saw the Brezing grandparents regularly. The few stories about them clearly show that Friederike Brezing was the active part of the couple. Although she had never attended a higher school she obviously used to read much and was rather educated. She used to tell the boys exciting and lively stories from the bible. The few remarks in Walter Brecht’s memories and Bertolt Brecht’s letters lead to the conclusion that their grandmother’s religious attitude was characterized by a strong rationality but also by fundamentalist opinions. She was deeply rooted in the culture of Wuerttemberg Protestantism in the area near Stuttgart. Although of course her thinking was strongly influenced by Pietist attitudes it also generally helped people to live in a society of scarce ressources, hard work and the need for subsistence. Due to the law of succession in the Protestant part of Wuerttemberg all children male and female shared an equal inheritance from their parents. The fields were highly divided and so many people had to struggle for their sheer existence. On the other hand, besides the upper class and the very poor people there was a broad middle class of citizens who were forced to live modestly to get along with their ressources. Although grandfather Brezing managed to rise from the class of peasants and craftsmen to a stationmaster Walter Brecht described him as an official without means.

In general, Pietism in Wuerttemberg is characterized by assemblies besides the church services where people met to meditate texts from the bible, sing and pray. Either some chapters from a religious book were read as an explication for the biblical text or the men who were present in the assembly were asked to share their thoughts. Women only were passive listeners and hardly ever were allowed to speak. Most of the Pietists belonged to an association closely connected to the church, the Altpietistischer Gemeinschaftsverband. Since the early 19th century that mainstream Pietism had developed a culture of his own, with a flourishing bookmarket, local and regional protagonists and new social forms of organization like groups for women or young people. Besides that, Pietists dedicated themselves extensively to the spreading of bibles, the founding of institutes for people in need, and to the mission in “heathen” countries.

But both of the Brezings did not originally come from the main direction of Pietism. Rather, they had been raised in families who were followers of a small Pietist movement called Pregizerianer. They believed that if a Christian turned to God he was forever free from any sin, and therefore could feel nothing than joy for the rest of his life. So happy songs and positive sermons were typical elements of the assemblies. Most probably Joseph Friedrich Brezing and his wife Friederike lost connection with the Pregizerianer groups because as a railroad official the husband and his family moved many times to places in different regions of the Kingdom of Wuerttemberg. But at least Friederike Brezing seemed to have stayed close to Pietism all her life.

Now Wuerttemberg Pietism is basically unseparable from a deep interest in mission, be it at home or abroad. We do not actually know how much Friederike Brezing was interested in the “exterior mission”, as the mission among heathens was called in Wuerttemberg and elsewhere. As early as 1815 a mission society named Basler Mission had been founded at Basel, Switzerland, which was heavily supported by Pietists of Wuerttemberg. Young men from the Pietist circles went to Basel to become a missionary. At home, all the members of the Pietsist assemblies had the opportunity to support the Basel Mission by regular donations and by their prayers. As the missionary work in different countries required a lot of money the Basel Mission operated a highly organized public relations department. The missionaries had to write reports about all aspects of their work, not only about their missionary activities but also about the geography of the country they were living at, and about the culture and religion of the “heathens”. Those reports were published in the mission magazines which were either read in the assemblies or in the families. At the end of the 19th century those magazines were mostly read within the families, and due to the progress in printing it became possible to illustrate the articles with wood engravings and later with photographies. When the missionaries came home for some months of vacation they were expected by the Basel Mission to travel around and do presentations in the Pietist assemblies. Books about the lives and adventures of missionaries were in chance of becoming bestsellers in Pietist circles.

Even if there is no definite proof of Friederike Brezing having subscribed to a mission magazine there are ways of research to make it probable. Among the most widespread magazines we find the Calwer Missionsblatt, edited by Hemann Hesse’s father, and the Evangelisches Missions-Magazin, published by the Basel Mission. The latter has been thoroughly examinated by Julia Mack for her PhD thesis which is yet to be finished. Ms. Mack was so kind as to provide me with the titles of all the articles published between 1895 and 1916 in the Missions-Magazin. In respect to China, the Basel Mission was only active in some provinces like Canton, while several thousand missionaries from the United States covered all the other districts of China. But mission was understood as a common enterprise where each mission company contributed its part. Therefore, while of course most articles were written by missionaries from Basel the editors also printed articles from other companies.

For a long time, missionary activities have been understood by researchers as a cultural “one-way street” where foreign people were “civilized” according to Protestant and European standards. While this point of view certainly is not completely wrong it should be taken into account that the missionaries saw themselves directly confronted with the different culture of the country they worked in on a daily basis. Every attempt to transfer the European way of living directly to people in the foreign countries proved to be very problematic. Therefore, the longer they worked abroad, the more many missionaries studied the culture of their place of living. They wrote articles for the mission magazines about the language, the culture and the customs of those exotic countries. At the same time the missionaries were covering topics which the academic circles simply ignored. Thereby, they offered their readers first-hand insights into strange countries and cultures. This is particularly remarkable given the fact that most pietists in Wuerttemberg were peasants and craftsmen. Therefore, mission magazines were also media of education. In times where the public attention concentrated on a specific country like for example China during the The Boxer Uprising the articles in the mission magazines became even more important as eyewitness reports.

Unfortunately the list of subscribers of the Evangelisches Missions-Magazin could not be found and as already mentioned we do not know definitely whether Friederike Brezing actually was among them. But an analysis of some articles in connection with Brecht’s works makes it probable. According to the research of Julia Mack 284 articles about China were published in the Evangelisches Missions-Magazin between 1898 and 1916. But of course young Brecht could have read even the articles published before he was born if his grandmother had kept them. For instance, although the Basel Mission was not active in the province of Sichuan it is mentioned four times in the articles in reports of missionaries from other societies. In respect to Bertolt Brecht’s work mainly the connections between the province of Sichuan and expressions like “riot” and confucianism seem important. They are linked to his most prominent theater play The Good Person of Szechwan, and in fact the spelling of the province name is closest to his German spelling “Sezuan” in the magazine issues of 1913 und 1916. Special attention should be drawn to an article from 1895 entitled The riot in the Chinese province of Sztschuen. But a possible reading of the mission magazine could also explain why Brecht in contrast to other contemporary writers and in opposition to the general trend took intense efforts to understand Confucius. Here Han-Soon Yim’s statement can be verified that Brecht’s „interests surpassed the added literary value of Confucius’ personality and philosophy and got to know the aspects of the social history of old China as well”. Even an overview on the issues of the Evangelisches Missions-Magazin shows articles like Confucius, the Saint of China (1903), Confucianism in China, once and now (1913) and – in the same issue where again „Setschuan“ is mentioned - The re-introduction of Confucianism as a state religion. By a German missionary in China (1916).

Some passages in Brecht’s works also bear strong indications that he was familiar with mission in a Christian sense. In his drafts and his published early works from 1920 – written shortly after his grandmother had passed away – he repeatedly used the expressions „mission“ and „missionary“ in a religious sense, although alienated. Possibly the sentences They do not fight like a boxer, they fight like a missionary. Like a missionary who’s an atheist from the scene In the thicket throw a most striking light on Brecht’s attitude towards religion at all. In spring 1920 he even was beginning to work on a book called Mission book which remained unfinished in his initial stage. Although the articles in the mission magazines certainly did not convey Brecht an extensive knowledge of Chinese philosophy they could have set the initial impulse for his interest in the Far East.

If you read the aforementioned article Confucius, the Saint of China from 1903, the writer tells the life story and gives an overview on Confucianism. And surprisingly he even compares Confucius to Jesus Christ because both religion founders had to suffer very hard. Although of course in the author’s view Christ as the real son of God stands much higher than Confucius he gives a lively picture of the Chinese philosopher. He quite recognizes the importance of Confucius’ doctrine for the Chinese people.

But the other two Chinese religions are mentioned as well in the Missions-Magazin, for example in an article from 1898 entitled The spiritual life of the Chinese, as reflected in their three religions by a missionary named Schaub. In 1909, in a series about the Holy Gospel and the non-Christian religions, an overview over the three Chinese religions was published in the Missions-Magazin. In 1911 and 1913 we again find articles about Buddhism and Confucianism, and the issue of 1913 is particularly interesting because twice the province of “Szetschuan” respectively „Szetschuen“ is mentioned, and the first mentioning is in the article about Confucianism!

All in all we can state that Brecht’s most important impulses for his poetic body of work remained the Bible and Protestant hymns, the latter never having been acknowledged properly by Germanist research. But besides that he used Chinese philosophy and culture as elements of alienation by relying entirely on secondary literature and translated poems. Brecht neither spoke Chinese nor was he interested at all in the real life of Chinese people which he could have experienced while living in Santa Monica, California. To me this seems another strong indication of an initial impulse from those mission reports.

Therefore, it could be worthwhile for Brecht researchers to do an extensive analysis of the mission magazines in question to see if there are more references between Brecht’s works and the articles on China. Of course this examination could be expanded to other aspects of his poetic works. Moreover, it will be a task for the future to shed more light on Brecht’s Pietist heritage because to me he seems to have been more influenced by his mother’s side than by his father’s family (probably vice versa to his brother Walter). Only recently, a study by Barry Stephenson has shown Hermann Hesse’s deep rooting in Swabian pietism. Stephenson also pointed out that even in his most famous novel “Siddhartha” Hesse only used India as an exotic backdrop while he was actually describing a European situation from a Pietist view. Most probably the same can be said about Brecht, and so the two poets could be much closer to each other spiritually and culturally than formerly presumed.

Hopefully it has become clear that the possibilities of further original research have not yet been exhausted and that there are all kinds of sources in the archives which have not yet been considered. Brecht’s Pietist heritage could not only lead his biography in a new direction but could also help us to understand his life and work deeper than we ever thought before.

Copyright 2010 by Eberhard Fritz, Altshausen
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