Bertolt Brecht’s Refugee Conversations Is a Book for Our Times

The German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht died on this day in 1956. His newly released book Refugee Conversations draws on his own years in exile to tear apart the anti-immigrant politics which still plague us today.

Bertolt Brecht.

A new piece by Bertolt Brecht? Yes, and it’s about time. His Refugee Conversations was published in fall 2019 by Bloomsbury Methuen in a new, complete, and long overdue translation by Romy Fursland, filling a gap in the Anglophone edition of Brecht’s works. Conceived in the tradition of the dialogue novel — in this case, Brecht was most obviously inspired by Denis Diderot’s late eighteenth-century satirical novel Jacques the Fatalist — the conversations unfold between two German exiles in Finland, fleeing the juggernaut of Hitler and his advancing army: Ziffel, a talkative bourgeois intellectual, and Kalle, a less voluble but nonetheless sharp-thinking prole.

Although Brecht never completed the series of conversations for publication, this is not really a fragmentary text, but a work in progress. As presented in this edition, it consists of nineteen numbered dialogues between Ziffel and Kalle, two refugees who meet on an occasional basis for an undefined number of weeks at a train station café in Helsinki.

Their conversations consist of encounters between two constructed, literary figures, and their meetings are intellectual conversations carried solely by the dialogue. There are no “dramatic” elements, and the “plot” is sparse, reduced to the almost ritualistic entries and exits framing each section.

That their meeting-place is a train station marks both the transitory nature of their conversations and the symbolic dimension of transit and transfer that characterize their stranded situation as refugees fleeing political violence. The experience of the ephemeral and provisional, the lived reality of refugees, determines the openness of the prose dialogue’s form.

Ziffel and Kalle are not heroic figures but typical Brecht characters familiar from the major plays written during his years of forced exile from Germany (1933–1948). Like Mother Courage, Galileo, and Puntila, for example, they are (morally) ambiguous figures, representatives of “Marxist morality” insofar as we are to judge who they are by what they do.

These are all characters facing fierce odds and unpalatable choices. There are always choices, and Brecht never fails to point out the choices his characters make. Sometimes their choices seem strange, unless we recall Brecht’s other message, reinforced by his own life experience: to survive. Consequently, we follow in many of his texts how convictions are expressed and then denied in a kind of strategic rationality that plays for time by seeming to go with the flow.

This is how Refugee Conversations proceeds. It is dialogic on various levels: the figures announce views on various issues, then renounce them, then reflect on this communicative behavior that also models a concept of literary communication with the reader of the dialogues and leaves us either to recognize the strategic limits of communication or to appreciate the dialogue’s ironic embellishments.

From this perspective, Refugee Conversations is a philosophical dialogue about survival in dark times. Both Ziffel and Kalle are immigrants and anti-fascists, confronted with the difficulties of exile and aware of the danger of political activities, even outside Germany. This forces them to be careful and to assume a protective mode of communication.

Yet, it is not far-fetched to see these two figures as two sides of Brecht, in conversation with himself, featuring two different tones. First there is the middle-class professional Ziffel, who strives to do well. He faces off against Kalle, the working-class, sly rebel who is skeptical and cynical; his name is a variation on Karl, hinting at Marx.

The encounter of the two voices allows Brecht to hold up various ideas for inspection. In the process the two learn to trust one another so that their differentiated voices become clearer, and finally, on the last page, they decide to do something, together.

Highlighting the Contradiction

What do Ziffel and Kalle talk about and how do the conversations proceed? The first conversation is crucial both for setting the tone and the nature of their exchanges. It presents two prototypical refugees from Hitler’s Germany, an intellectual and a worker, whose dialogues are constructed dialectically in a dynamic process of continuity and discontinuity.

The template for this kind of dialectical reasoning is established at the beginning of the first conversation. Ziffel opens with a blunt statement:

This beer isn’t proper beer, although that is perhaps compensated for by the fact that these cigars are not real cigars either – but your passport, that has to be a passport. Otherwise they won’t let you in. (p. 8)

This signals, from the outset, that dialectics is a particular way of apprehending reality, an epistemology based on a consistent sense of non-identity: things are not what they appear to be. Following this logic, Kalle responds: “The passport is the noblest part of a human being.”

But what is the human being beyond a commodity, a mechanical holder for the passport, Ziffel counters, and Kalle spins out the consequences: “… a human being is, in a certain sense, necessary for the passport. The passport is the main thing,” not the human being. And so it continues: Hitler and Mussolini wouldn’t exist if not for the people they lead — they are only great if someone else pays the price.

Furthermore, order would not be comprehensible if there were no disorder, and the military, which prizes order above all else, systematically wastes a nation’s resources by destroying them (p. 11). And after an ongoing series of associatively linked contradictions, the first conversation ends with Ziffel and Kalle agreeing:

Kalle: You could say: disorder is when nothing is in the right place. Whereas order is when the right place has nothing at all.

Ziffel: These days, you tend to find order where there isn’t anything. It’s a symptom of deprivation. (p. 13)

Dialectical contradiction shapes the dialogues on the level of content and form, strategically guiding readers’ interaction with the text. Conventional dialectics creates a tension between a thesis and a dichotomously opposed antithesis in order to negotiate or resolve the contradiction through a process of synthesis, out of which a new thesis develops, etc.

Brechtian dialectics highlights the contradiction — this, in contrast to conventional dialectics, which aim to re-establish identity, totality, and harmony through the synthesis. Brecht analyzes social reality in terms of contradictions underlying social relations, and these contradictions are a powerful motor for transformation based on contestation. His poem “In Praise of Dialectics” (from the end of the 1933 play The Mother; this translation by John Willett) provides a concise summary:

Those still alive can’t say “never.”

No certainty can be certain

If it cannot stay as it is.

When the rulers have already spoken

That is when the ruled start speaking.

Who dares to talk of “never”?

Whose fault is it if oppression still remains? It’s ours.

Whose job will it be to get rid of it? Just ours.

Whoever’s been beaten down must get to his feet.

He who is lost must give battle.

He who is aware where he stands – how can anyone stop him moving on?

Those who were losers today will be triumphant tomorrow

And from never will come today.

Here, dialectics undergirds not only a worldview but also a method of analysis: the necessity of negation. History can be transformed precisely because the historical process is subject to intervention in the order assumed to be fixed or natural.

Honing the readers’ dialectical thinking is the prerequisite for critique and intervention, the trigger of all agency and the aesthetic method of Refugee Conversations.

We should not overlook the humor at work in both the first dialogue and the dialectical contradictions which determine the line of argumentation in Refugee Conversations. Indeed, this entire project was conceived as a satirical treatment of the plight of survival in exile, exposing the conflict between what is and what should be, and playing with the protagonists’ thoughts and the harsh reality imposed upon them.

Brecht understood the transgressive power of humor; he used his sense of humor to convey a serious message about the need to intervene and change the world. This is the pleasure the sparring partners seem to have in their conversations, and it is the pleasure Brecht must have experienced in his frequent self-quotations and references to others’ works. Let me indicate some of the instances of humor that permeate each of the dialogues.

Ziffel dominates the first conversations — he talks more than Kalle and tends to steer the dialogue. Their different socialization as academic and laborer, the need for the two strangers to establish trust in order to talk about politics, and the consequences they share as refugees, all play a role here.

In the second conversation, Ziffel introduces the idea that he, as an unimportant person, intends to write his memoirs, but then — in a typical dialectical inversion — he needs to convince Kalle that especially an unimportant person counts because of “the astounding capacity of our age to make something out of nothing [which has] created vast numbers of important people” (p. 18).

Conversation three presents Ziffel’s schooling in imperial Germany before World War I; conversation four relates, in the telegram style of notes, the experience of an adolescent; conversation five includes Ziffel reading a chapter of the memoir covering his training as a physicist in the Weimar Republic, the consequences of the market crash in 1929, and the growing Nazi threat.

While conversation seven is announced as “Ziffel’s memoirs III,” Kalle interrupts him before he can begin and tells something about his own background. By conversation ten, we learn that “Ziffel had to break the sad news to Kalle that he didn’t think it would be possible for him to continue his memoirs, because he hadn’t experienced enough,” which leads Kalle to advise him that he should just talk to him “about all the places you’ve been and why you left — how you lived, in other words” (p. 56).

Talking About Freedom

The dilemma Ziffel faces with his interrupted memoirs hints at two significant details. First, he sets out to write the story of his individual growth, notably of an “unimportant person,” in the tradition of the German novel of development or Bildungsroman. Yet he is unable to imagine a coherent narrative, which only confirms that the function of the bourgeois individual as the subject of history no longer pertains.

The autobiographical form cannot capture the social reality of collective or class agency. Moreover, that the written evidence of the culture of the bourgeois personality merges into a (dialectically structured) spoken exchange underscores all the more the irony of this “self-denial.”

Second, Kalle’s voice becomes increasingly distinctive and self-confident in the course of Ziffel’s autobiographical narrative, as we read in conversations five, six, and seven. He is better able to judge the kind of person his conversational partner represents and, beginning with conversation seven, he becomes ever more critical of Ziffel’s unpolitical attitude as an intellectual and his insistence on individual freedom.

This culminates in conversation eight (written later, in the USA in 1942) when Kalle provokes Ziffel into a discussion of the historical role of the working class, revealing their different views on freedom and dictatorship of the proletariat.

This marks a stage of trust in their relationship that was not given at the beginning of their encounters in the train station café, and we learn that Kalle’s labor union experience and stint as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp have made him suspicious of Ziffel’s bourgeois privileges.

Ziffel follows Kalle’s advice that he should just talk about his life rather than write an autobiography, and conversations nine through thirteen recount his refugee trajectory through five countries on his way to Helsinki — providing Kalle plenty of opportunities for witty rejoinders.

Each of the conversations addresses the “virtues” Ziffel encountered in the countries he passed through: the freedom-loving Swiss, French patriotism, Danish humor in the face of adversity, Swedish charity, and Finnish self-control. Yet each of these positive virtues is subject to the already established dialectical pattern of subversive irony.

Swiss love of freedom, for example, is only for tourists who can afford to be free; it is not allowed for exiles, which leads Kalle to conclude that excessive talk of freedom is usually a symptom of its lack. He also extends this conclusion to the Land of the Free itself:

The Americans are particularly fond of talking about freedom. Like I said: there’s something suspicious about it. When someone starts talking about freedom, it’s usually because that’s where the shoe pinches. (p. 54)

The excessive patriotism of the French came up against the Vichy government’s preference to collaborate with the Nazis. Danish joking has more to do with self-deception, to wit: they sat by and laughed as the Nazis occupied their country, believing they just weren’t important enough for Germany to overrun them.

The examples of comedic misunderstandings lead Ziffel to reflect on the meaning of true humor and to riff on Hegel as “one of the greatest humorists of all the philosophers” (p. 62). This offers Brecht the opportunity to dissect — once again — the importance of dialectical reasoning, contradiction, and the non-identity of things. Ziffel concludes:

Exile is the best possible school for dialectics. Refugees are the sharpest dialecticians. They’ve become refugees as a result of changes, and they spend all their time studying changes … When their opponents are victorious, they calculate the cost of the victory, and they have a keen eye for contradictions. Long live dialectics! (p. 64)

Meanwhile, Sweden’s charity triggers Ziffel to tell a story about the quandary of an émigré physician who commits a crime when he saves the life of a Swede because émigrés are not allowed to work in Sweden — prompting Kalle to reason that it is safer to seek exile in a country where charity is not a virtue.

And the Finns, finally, have so much self-control that they do nothing to prevent their exploitation. Brecht often addressed the theme of human virtues and the price that the “little people” have to pay for them, most strikingly in “The Song of the Temptations of the Great” in scene nine of Mother Courage and Her Children (written in 1939, around the same time as Refugee Conversations). The satirical review of Ziffel’s exile destinations reveals each of the stereotypical virtues of national character to be nothing more than a façade or — even worse — its very opposite.

The final two conversations Brecht completed before leaving Finland (eighteen and nineteen) are interrupted by three further conversations Brecht inserted later in the USA (fourteen, fifteen, and seventeen). These added dialogues do not introduce new themes, instead they expand on limitations of democracy in capitalism and extend the ideological critique of language, both anticipated in the discussion of the great virtues and now directed at concepts like “the people,” “race,” or the commodity value of thoughts.

Especially this last theme reprises Brecht’s satirical treatment of “Tuis” or bourgeois intellectuals who “sell” their capacity to think to the highest bidder, a favorite theme of his from the early 1930s on that yielded his last completed play, Turandot or the Congress of Whitewashers in 1954.

The last two conversations show the provisional rapprochement between Ziffel, the intellectual, and Kalle, the worker. Following the former’s “moving speech” — as Kalle calls it (p. 95) — about his frustration with the demand to be virtuous (it simply doesn’t work in times of crisis and deprivation) the last, very short conversation moves to action.

Kalle is establishing an insect extermination company and offers Ziffel a job, which he accepts without hesitation. This is Brecht’s allegory for the Popular-Front politics he advocated during his exile years after 1937, bringing together the bourgeois intellectuals who considered themselves above class struggle and the class-conscious proletarians in their united struggle against the “insects,” i.e., the vermin of fascism and parasites of capitalism.

With that, Kalle rises and asks Ziffel to join him in a toast to Socialism, to that utopia for which they yearn, “but in a way that doesn’t attract attention of everyone in here … And he stood up, cup in hand, and made a vague movement that anyone watching would have had a hard time identifying as a toast” (p. 95).

Autobiographical Backdrop

Refugee Conversations “documents” the imagined encounters of two ordinary men in the process of becoming extra-ordinary, and this is where the text’s optimism is to be found — in the belief in change and the transformability of history. Brecht excelled at giving expression to the cunning and human skill of the impoverished and exiled, to those who are often forced to observe events as they roll over them.

His dialectical realism helps expose the fundamentally and ideologically constructed nature of reality and identify the power relations and interests shaping common perceptions of society and politics. This can be the catalyst for action. The sequence of nineteen conversations represents a performance of dialectics as the two prototypical refugees from Hitler’s Germany share experiences and thought processes, but “performance” does not refer to a dramatization of exile.

Brecht did not intend the conversations to be staged, and in fact the first two adaptations for the stage in Munich (1962) and in East Berlin (1966) were not theatrical successes. Yet by the end of the twentieth century there had been at least sixty productions of the Refugee Conversations, many translated into other languages.

We shouldn’t overlook what Brecht did not include about power relations in these prose dialogues. In Ziffel’s memoirs and Kalle’s questions, as he relates them, there is no mention of the bitter hostility between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD) in those last years of the Weimar Republic, when the SPD considered the KPD to be sectarian terrorists and the KPD accused the SPD of being “social fascists.”

The split of the working-class political parties in the Weimar Republic played right into the hands of the National Socialists. Brecht also does not refer to the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact of 1939, when Stalin and Hitler agreed to stand down while Stalin prepared for war and Hitler could proceed on the Western Front, at the price of Polish sovereignty.

However, at the end of conversation eighteen, the narrator lists a number of aggressive events in October 1940, adding “and still the Soviet Union said nothing” (p. 94). This may also be the reason why Ziffel and Kalle in the final conversation toast an abstract “Socialism”; the Soviet Union is not the utopia they are seeking.

While the nineteen conversations collected in this volume have been renumbered from Brecht’s plans for them, they do follow, by and large, the sequence that he laid out in 1944 when he pressed the material into a spring binder, presumably in the order he wanted to publish them. But this is only the endpoint of a longer story behind the plans for Refugee Conversations, a story worth telling because it illustrates in paradigmatic fashion not only Brecht’s working methods but also his constant refashioning of material based on inspiration from multiple sources.

Brecht fled Berlin on February 28, 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, jumping on a train to Prague with his wife, the actress Helene Weigel. Following a string of controversial censorship scandals and slanderous attacks on writers and intellectuals in the preceding months, it was clear to Brecht that he was in the line of fire. And indeed, his apartment in Berlin was searched by the police on the same day he fled.

In Prague, they connected with their young son, Stefan, who flew there separately from Berlin, and then traveled on to Vienna, where they stayed with Weigel’s relatives. Brecht soon headed to Switzerland, while Weigel waited for their daughter Barbara to be brought to Vienna from Augsburg, where she was staying with Brecht’s father.

In early April, she joined Brecht with the two children in Lugano, Switzerland, and soon thereafter Brecht left for Paris for several weeks to explore possibilities of settling there with his family because it was becoming a magnet for German refugees. In June, the family moved from Switzerland to Denmark where they settled down for the next six years.

Like many Germans in exile, Brecht expected that the Hitler phenomenon would pass in a few months, or at most in two years. Settled in Denmark, in the fall he began to plan a satirical epistolary novel called “The Trip around Germany,” influenced perhaps by Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (Lettres persanes, 1721, the ruminations of two noblemen traveling through France) or Heinrich Heine’s Travel Pictures (Reisebilder, 1826, about his travels through Germany).

As Hans Peter Neureuter explains, a number of fragmentary texts were quickly abandoned. Over six years later, in early 1940 — by which time Brecht and his family had been forced to leave Denmark after the onset of the war and settled in Finland while waiting for visas to enter the United States — he began to think again about a satirical travel or adventure novel.

This is not to claim that in the meantime he had forsaken this theme. Numerous poems from the exile period reflect on his own experiences of loss of home, otherness, trying to integrate, and the fate of fellow refugees. For instance, the first lines of the 1939 poem “On the label emigrant” read (in David Constantine and Tom Kuhn’s translation):

I always thought the name they gave us wrong: emigrants.

That means people who leave. But we

Did not emigrate, leaving one country of our own free will and

Choosing another. Nor did we immigrate

Into some other country in order to stay, possibly forever.

No, we fled. We are the persecuted, the banished.

In fact, the thousands of poems Brecht wrote throughout his life were often the genre he used to express deep emotions. Returning to the idea of a satirical novel about refugees, now he was playing with the idea of a simpleton who moves around from one unlivable country to another, searching for a non-existent utopian place to settle down, someone like Voltaire’s Candide or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver. Other than many notes and plans, including the idea of a “double book” divided into the travelogue and a series of his already extant short stories, the novel itself hadn’t taken shape yet.

A half-year later, in October 1940, Brecht read Diderot’s novel Jacques the Fatalist, which inspired him to consolidate his ideas in the form of a prose dialogue under the title Refugee Conversations. Having just completed the Finnish-influenced folk comedy Puntila and His Man Matti, he still had “the Puntila sound in my ear,” referring to Matti, who provided the working-class perspective “from below” for this new project.

And indeed, Brecht’s idea for a dialogue situation between two refugees to structure the entire novel was able to encompass the previous plans in an open form that allowed for associations and dis-order. The original idea for an epistolary novel, for example, fed into conversations nine through thirteen, in which Ziffel explains to Kalle with great (dialectical) irony various virtues he encountered in travels to Switzerland, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Lapland/Finland (the very countries of exile through which Brecht himself had traveled between 1933 and 1940). The autobiographical background to these travels became Ziffel’s memoirs in conversations three, four, and five. Within several weeks Brecht had written fifteen of the conversations.

When Brecht left Finland in mid-May 1941 for the United States via Moscow and the Tran-Siberian Railway to board a ship to California in Vladivostok, the Refugee Conversations were more or less complete, with the first two and final two conversations functioning as bookends and the central part expandable for potentially additional episodes.

Settled in Santa Monica, he turned his attention once again in 1942 to the project, adding conversations eight, fourteen, fifteen, and seventeen, and then in 1944 he took up the material to prepare its sequencing, presumably for publication, placing the now numbered pages in a spring binder.

Here he confirmed his intention of including a series of his short stories, as he had planned in 1940 — the “double book” idea. But those stories were published in 1949 as an independent collection under the title Tales from the Calendar, while short excerpts from the Refugee Conversations were published posthumously in 1957 and 1958, and the finished text not until 1961, consisting only of the prose dialogues.

Today, the Refugee Conversations are still, or once again, topical, almost a commentary on our daily news about deportations, blocked asylum, discrimination against immigrants, evictions, etc. It’s as if neoliberal ideology has paralyzed our capacity to think dialectically, to imagine alternatives and to intervene in social reality. The anti-dialectical view of capitalism’s mythic universality blinds the powerful insights of negation and antithesis. This is what Refugee Conversations can help us recover, how to think dialectically.