Kriegsfibel; War Primer

Kriegsfibel; War Primer (written 1940-1945, first edition 1955, second edition 1994)

In a short piece written in 1931 for the tenth anniversary of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, Workers’ Illustrated News), Brecht commented that photography has become a weapon against truth, and that the media uses photographs in order to cover up the real facts (Brecht, BFA vol. 21, p. 515). Brecht was a great admirer of John Heartfield, an artist who used photomontage. Heartfield took press photographs out of context, combined them with other images and added his own captions with satirical messages. In this way, Heartfield subverted the ideological implications of mass media images. Heartfield’s covers for the AIZ became famous, reaching a mass audience.

During World War Two, Brecht developed a new artistic practice in which he stuck press photographs of the war into his work journal. Brecht did not doctor these images like Heartfield; instead he placed a four-line poem under each image. In a journal entry of 20 June 1944 he called these works ‘photo-epigrams’.

The result is one of Brecht’s most powerful works. In total there are 85 images and accompanying epigrams, including the addenda and an image for a projected ‘Peace Primer’.

The opening image shows Adolf Hitler making a speech. The epigram comments that he is a sleepwalker who is leading Germany to its doom. The second image shows workers lifting steel plates; the epigram comments that these plates will be used to make guns. One epigram (number 8) asks German soldiers if their real enemy is the French, or their own (German) commanding officer. Image 16 shows a crew of aerial bombers; the epigram reminds us that their bombs will be aimed at women and children. Image 18 shows Liverpool before it was bombed; the epigram reminds us that this is still a city, but not for long. Image 41 shows the helmets of dead soldiers; the epigram comments that they were defeated they moment they put on their helmets. Portraits of Friedrich Ebert (29) and Gustav Noske (82) are accompanied by epigrams which mention their role in crushing the German Revolution of 1918 with the help of General Wilhelm Groener and the German military high command, which set the scene for the gradual right-wing takeover of the Weimar Republic.

In her preface to the first edition of Kriegsfibel; War Primer in 1955, Ruth Berlau described the book as a practical manual demonstrating how to read press photographs. Brecht’s book anticipates the work of the French critic Roland Barthes (Mythologies, 1957), in which magazine covers and advertisements are subjected to analysis in order to unmask or decode their ideological content.

In 2011, the London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin produced War Primer 2. In this project they updated Brecht’s War Primer by inserting images of conflict taken from the 21st-century ‘War on Terror’. War Primer 2 is available to download for free from the publisher, MackBooks (see link below).

English Translation

Bertolt Brecht, War Primer, trans. and ed. by John Willett (London: Libris, 1998)

Further Reading in English

Martin Brady, ‘Brecht and Film’, in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 297-317

Philip V. Brady, ‘From Cave-Painting to “Fotogramm”’: Brecht, Photography and the Arbeitsjournal’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 14 (1978), 270-82

David Evans, ‘Brecht’s War Primer: The “Photo-Epigram” as Poor Monument’, Afterimage 30 (2003), 1-8

Sarah James, ‘Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, War Primer 2’, Photoworks (2011-2012), 18-27

Tom Kuhn, ‘Poetry and Photography: Mastering Reality in the Kriegsfibel’, in Verwisch die Spuren. Bertolt Brecht’s Work and Legacy. A Reassessment, ed. by Robert Gillett and Godela Weiss-Sussex (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. 169-89

Jonathan J. Long, ‘Paratextual Profusion: Photography and Text in Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer’, Poetics Today 29 (2008), 197-224

Further Reading in German

Welf Kienast, Kriegsfibelmodell. Autorschaft und kollektiver Schöpfungsprozess in Brechts Kriegsfibel, Palaestra 313 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001)

Web Links

A selection of images from Kriegsfibel, scored by Hanns Eisler [in German]

Download War Primer 2 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin for free