Primary Source Analysis: Brecht/Mussolini

Note: The following short analysis was originally submitted to HIST 795 at Queens College in the Fall 2016 semester.

By the time German writer Bertolt Brecht penned “The Legend of the Dead Soldier” towards the end of World War I, the horrors of the war were fresh in the minds of many of its participants and observers. Brecht’s poem, a scathing rebuke of the attitudes of German leadership towards the war, satirically mocks the Kaiser’s inability to let a soldier die but one death for his country. The sentiments offered by Brecht, a witness himself to the effects of the fighting, differed resoundingly from others at the time who viewed the war as glorious and productive endeavor. Among this latter group was Italian Benito Mussolini who in 1914 authored an article for Il Popolo d’Italia (‘The War as a Revolutionary Event’) arguing in favor of the glories and gains attainable from a continental fight. When read together, Brecht and Mussolini’s pieces provide obviously contrasting feelings towards the war itself but they also combine to offer a stark view/critique of a few of the attitudes that would come to embody fascism in subsequent years.

While Brecht’s poem is not a direct response to Mussolini, it helps to first consider the latter in order to understand the mindset of those that Brecht aimed his ballad towards, even if Mussolini’s Italy was not aligned with Brecht’s Germany during the war. Printed in the first issue of his personally founded newspaper, Mussolini’s article argues for Italian interventionism in effort to seize charge of the nation’s “destiny.” In doing so, he employs a number of strategies and appeals common to future fascist rhetoric not least of which is the establishment of an “us vs. them” mentality from the article’s onset. Labeling “anti-war propaganda [as] the propaganda of cowardice,” Mussolini divides the nation between an elite opposed to war for selfish reasons (e.g. Jesuits, bourgeois, royalists) and the exploited class of the rest of the nation on whom those groups propose to force “shame…and universal derision.”[1]

As Stanley Payne notes, “nowhere in the world were there more vehement opponents of bourgeois culture, liberalism, humanitarianism, and pacifism” than Italy.[2] This is immediately clear in Mussolini’s writing which cannot help but turn Italy’s population against itself from its opening lines. Similarly, Mussolini focuses his efforts on a subset of his country in appealing to his nation’s youth: “it is you, the young of Italy…which destiny has charged with ‘making’ history.”[3] Foreshadowing the “fascist exaltation of youth” to come, Mussolini attempts to stir support from those fated to shape the nation of tomorrow.[4] Like the fascist emphasis on an idealized future, Mussolini hopes to achieve his aim by rallying a force oppositional to that of the complacency of the pacifist. Framing himself among other “rebellious spirits,” he proposes nothing less than the violence of war to aid in the creation of his vision of the future.[5]

Italy would eventually enter World War I on the side of the Allies and Mussolini would see service in the trenches against Austria-Hungary in 1917. The philosophy espoused within his article, while likely of little influence during the war for Italy, would resurface with Mussolini’s ascendancy into national politics following the armistice. Nevertheless, several of the ideas heralded by Mussolini, particularly his glorification of war, would be recognized by German Bertolt Brecht within his own country and serve as the basis of his poem, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier.”

Brecht’s poem tells the tale of a dead soldier’s repose disrupted by the Kaiser’s command he be unearthed and placed back into service for his country. The morbidly humorous poem reflects the dehumanizing and debilitating effects of war (note words such as “decay” and “stink”) in the face of cheering village crowds happily ignorant of the truth.[6] Brecht rejects the courageous and redemptive views of war suggested by Mussolini, and dismisses the notion of a heroic death through his depiction of a German nation that continually, and without second thought, sends their youth to almost certain death or injury on the battlefield.

That image is the criticism that lies at the heart of the poem: neither the German state nor people were able to recognize the futility of their efforts with the one soldier in the poem meant to symbolize the nation’s decreasing reserve of youth. Blinded by nationalism, observers in the poem are unable to recognize the mangled state of soldier and country both under a shroud of the “garish colors” of the “old imperial flag.”[7] Nationalism would only intensify following the war in both Germany and Italy but Brecht’s critique helps to trace its rise from the First World War.

While Brecht’s writing almost certainly grew from his personal observations during the war, it nonetheless serves well to highlight and criticize the infatuation with war and sacrifice that would become core tenets of fascist thought in Germany and beyond shortly thereafter. War, of course, was not the only concern of the (would be) fascists even if the first world war amplified many of those priorities for a period. As we saw with Mussolini’s article, the seedlings of several other characteristics: societal divisiveness, adulation of youth, nationalism, an “idealized” vision of the future, and extolment of violence were all already well planted by 1914. Brecht recognized a few of these severely misguided beliefs by the time he published his poem; little would he know, however, how relevant it would remain in the following decades.

Bibliography

Brecht, Bertolt. “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” n.d., <http://www.goethe.de/ges/prj/nzv/ret/bbr/enindex.htm> (Sept. 19, 2016).

Mussolini, Benito. “The War as a Revolutionary Event.” Facism. Edited by Roger Griffin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Payne, Stanley. A History of Fascism 1914-1945. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

[1] Benito Mussolini, “The War as a Revolutionary Event,” in Roger Griffin, ed., Fascism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 27.

[2] Stanley Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 62.

[3] Mussolini, 28.

[4] Payne, 13.

[5] Mussolini, 27.

[6] Bertolt Brecht, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” n.d., <http://www.goethe.de/ges/prj/nzv/ret/bbr/enindex.htm> (Sept. 19, 2016).

[7] Brecht.

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