Brecht, To Future Generations

Bertolt Brecht, An die Nachgeborenen (1939), in my translation from the very simple and direct German.

I

Truly I live in dark times!
A sincere word is folly. A smooth forehead
Indicates insensitivity. If you’re laughing,
You haven’t heard
The bad news yet.

What are these times, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds,
When, if you’re calmly crossing the street,
It means your friends can’t reach you
Who are in need?

It’s true: I earn a living.
But believe me, that’s just a coincidence. Nothing
of what I do entitles me to eat my fill.
It’s a coincidence that I am spared. (If my luck stops, I’m lost.)

They tell me: eat and drink! Be glad that you did!
But how can I eat and drink if
What I eat is snatched from the hungry,
My glass of water from someone dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would like to be wise.
The old books say what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and spend the short time
You’ve got without fear.
Do without violence.
Return good for evil.
Not fulfilling desires but forgetting
Counts as wisdom.
I can’t do any of that:
Truly I live in dark times!

II

I came to the cities in a time of disorder.
When famine ruled.
I came among the people in a time of turmoil
And I rebelled with them.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

I ate my food between slaughters.
Murder lay over my sleep.
I loved carelessly
And I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

In my time, roads led into the swamp.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
I could do very little. But without me,
Rulers would have sat more securely, or so I hoped.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

Energies were low. The goal
Was far in the distance,
Clearly visible, though for me
Hard to reach.
So the time passed
That was given me on earth.

III

You who you will emerge from the flood
In which we have sunk,
Think
When you speak of our weaknesses
And of the dark time
That you have escaped.

For we went, changing countries more often than shoes,
In class warsdesperate
When there was only injustice and no outrage.

This we knew:
Even hatred of humiliation
Distorts the features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when
one can help another,
Think of us
Forgivingly.

(Originally posted in 2014.)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Tanja Kloubert

    Peter, Brecht is in your English translation as profound as in original. The poem is however quite pessimistic. It justifies violence as instrument of resistance, because other means seem ineffective (because coming too late). Hopefully it is not yet comparable to our times. Greetings from Brecht’s home town.

    • PeterLevine

      That’s an important point about the poem. Based on the broad civic reaction to Trump so far, I am actually far more optimistic than Brecht was (understandably) in 1939.