In 1920, Bertolt Brecht arrived as a 22-year-old Bavarian playwright to Berlin, the town he called “Cold Chicago.” The sickly child, who grew up to have heart and kidney problems, would properly start his writing career in a place and time of political fragmentation, economic instability, and social decay. Right-wing radicals and Communists were already clashing in the streets. The budding, but struggling Brecht — in Berlin, he even had trouble finding a clean and warm apartment — learned to thrive and adapt. In 1922, he received the Kleist Prize, the most important literary award during Weimar times.
Brecht left Germany after Hitler came to power in February 1933 and, after stays in Prague, Zürich, and Paris, ended up in Denmark, where he began work on what eventually became The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is set in Chicago and tells the story of a fictional mobster, adept at creating problems that only he can solve. As he bulldozes his way to power, Arturo Ui also takes acting lessons so he knows how to strut, spin, and seduce his victims, allies, and adversaries.
Brecht had a feel for right-wing demagoguery. In The Resistible Rise, Ui represents Adolf Hitler. The respected yet compromised and hapless figure Dogsborough — a play on words from the German Hindenburg (Hunde meaning dogs) — represents Paul von Hindenburg, the feeble, elderly statesman and German president whose obliviousness enabled Hitler’s power grab.
Brecht’s blind spot was for leftist demagoguery. His answer to fascism was Marxism. His last stop in life — after a period in the United States — was Communist East Germany after the war, where he settled and died in August 1956.
Brecht was always close to music, and to themes of polarization, extremism, and violence. From his Dreigroschenoper — “Three Penny Opera” — comes the iconic song “Mack the Knife.” Here’s (Opens in a new window) “Mackie Messer” with Lotte Lenya. Here’s (Opens in a new window) Louis Armstrong’s rendition.
Brecht’s musical theater masterpiece premiered on August 31, 1928, at Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin. You can attend performances of Dreigroschenoper early this fall in Berlin: at Brecht’s artistic home, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, on September 18 and October 3. (Opens in a new window)
American Purpose Pipeline
Our team is back with articles, Zoom discussions, in-person meetings, and podcasts hosted by Frank Fukuyama, Richard Aldous, and Charles Lane. Please spread the word about American Purpose membership opportunities. (Opens in a new window) Help us identify new sponsors so we can continue to grow a vibrant network of individuals devoted to reform and the defense of liberal democracy.
I mention briefly going into September:
Another member of our editorial board, Azar Nafisi, joins Merve Emre soon for a Zoom session (Opens in a new window) on how to read and think about free speech in 2023. American Purpose research associate Tejas Srinivasan will moderate. In light of the horrific attack on Salman Rushdie, it’s hard to think of two better guests to take up these topics.
Mathilde Fasting has an upcoming piece on the work of W.G. Sebald, a German writer and remarkable chronicler who emigrated to England after World War II. His award-winning historical novel Austerlitz is set in the 1940s and deals with issues of memory, identity, and responsibility. Sebald died in a car accident caused by a heart attack two decades ago. Mathilde is an American Purpose contributing editor in Norway. She just hosted American Purpose contributing editor Matt Hanson on her podcast (Opens in a new window).
• Kate Epstein has a fine piece in the Wall Street Journal (Opens in a new window) this week on the symmetries between Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters and his most fervent opponents. Kate teaches history at Rutgers and is a member of our editorial board.
• Marc Plattner has a forthcoming essay on the nature of today’s authoritarianism and what form the competition with liberal democracy is likely to take. Marc’s article is adapted from remarks delivered at João Espada’s Estoril Political Forum, which took place in Portugal in June.
• Les Lenkowsky is writing on trends in philanthropy and raises the question of when too much democracy is a bad thing. “Participatory philanthropy” — a new trend — is neither new nor a good idea, Les argues.
• Julian Waller writes in his upcoming article on authoritarianism’s young theorists found primarily on the internet. Julian is a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University working on authoritarianism, historical regime types, and sources of today’s illiberalism.
• Arch Puddington is preparing a piece that poses questions free media ought to consider when they provide platforms for authoritarian adversaries. What exactly is the role of responsibility and restraint in free-speech liberalism?
• Anne Applebaum wrote (Opens in a new window) recently about Anna Bondarenko in The Atlantic. Anna received an important NED award in June for her work in organizing volunteers in remarkable ways in Odesa (thanks to Carl Gershman for bringing this to my attention).
• Dan Twining’s International Republican Institute published a poll (Opens in a new window) on Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia and the war this month. Overwhelming majorities remain convinced their nation’s future belongs firmly in the West (less than 1 percent want to be part of a Russian economic union). Less heartening are polling (Opens in a new window) data from the Levada Center on how Russians are thinking (majorities apparently still support Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s war of aggression).
• Vittorio Hösle is a German academic and essayist who thinks we have a Putin problem and a Russia problem. Vittorio thinks that Putin’s revanchist, imperialist designs actually make Moscow more dangerous than Beijing in the short term. Vittorio is with us on Friday, August 26 (Opens in a new window), at 12 noon ET (thanks to Michael Jindra for the connection to Vittorio).
• On Germany’s important role in support of Ukraine, German Green Franziska Brantner joins us to discuss the increasingly tricky terrain of German politics. That’s this Thursday at 12 noon ET. Franziska is a former MP who serves now as state secretary for economics. Bundestag member for the CDU Norbert Röttgen joins us in September. Jack Janes will moderate.
• On Poland’s remarkable role in support of Ukraine, we have Piotr Krygiel from Warsaw on August 30 (Opens in a new window) at 12 noon.
• On British public opinion toward the war, we have British Foreign Policy Group director Sophia Gaston with American Purpose contributing editor Peter Pomerantsev on August 31 (Opens in a new window) at 12 noon. We’ll also have, in mid-September, British trade expert Daniel Capparelli and former EU advisor to Prime Minister Theresa May, Denzil Davidson.
On September 15, I’ll be at Texas A&M University for a talk to students and faculty on Russia’s war and Putin’s attempt to destabilize the region (thanks to the Alexander Hamilton Society). The week before, I’ll speak about Ukraine to a group of business executives from Pennsylvania (in Harrisburg). Thanks to business leader John Dame for the kind invitation.
There’s more: Bob Asahina, Stuart Levey, and Frank Fukuyama on our changing world order; Hiro Aida on Japan after Shinzo Abe’s murder; Dan Chirot on great-power competition in Africa; John Rodden on Kingsley Amis; Bill Galston on George Washington; David Skinner on the language police; Richard Rodriguez on an important anniversary (Opens in a new window) of his influential memoir. And Michael Mandelbaum on The Godfather (Opens in a new window) at 50.
A year ago
Last August, America fled Afghanistan. A tragic story continues. Josh Rogin has just published an important column (Opens in a new window) on American allies left behind, including those who worked for RFE/RL. I’m sharing again my reflection (Opens in a new window) on the service of my former colleagues working for the congressionally-funded media network. Led by the inestimable Jamie Fly, the company is still working fearlessly in-country today (in Dari and Pashto). Read RFE/RL’s Abubakar Siddique (Opens in a new window) on Afghanistan and regional developments. Join us when we host Elliot Ackerman on September 15 (Opens in a new window)to hear Elliot on his new book on America’s end in Afghanistan.
In September, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass will be performed at the Kennedy Center, where it premiered in 1971. The Vietnam War divided the nation. Richard Nixon was president. In April 1971, the Supreme Court upheld bussing as a legitimate means to achieve integration in public schools. New conservatism battled hippie counterculture. Bernstein seemed to lean into everything around him.
Mass draws on elements of classical and jazz, pop, rock, and musical theater. Bernstein saw beauty and revelation in Beethoven and Broadway. Fans saw in the work commissioned by Jackie Onassis Lenny’s genius: Authenticity, creativity, and a complete lack of musical inhibition. Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Hume called Mass “a rich amalgamation of the theatrical arts.” Critics mauled the work; a mishmash, given to fads, sentimentality, and Bernstein’s “obsession” with youth culture (a “garbled … hackneyed hodge-podge,” said the New York Times).
I like Mass very much. Leonard Bernstein’s birthday is tomorrow, August 25. He was born the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1918. He was renowned as a conductor, teacher, and communicator. Bernstein struggled, though, for recognition as a composer. He certainly had a gift for melody.
You can hear Mass at the Kennedy Center on September 15, 17, and 18. Here’s (Opens in a new window) “Simple Song,” the lovely, lyrical piece that opens the work.