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The Karl Marx of Music

Composer Hanns Eisler was a lifelong communist and self-described Jacobin. His music provided the soundtrack for both the tragedies and triumphs of German antifascism.

Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, date unknown. City of Liebzig, Germany.

Hanns Eisler was one of the towering composers of the modern era. Yet his biography reads more like a spy thriller than the academic careers of many of his musical contemporaries. Born in 1898 into a struggling petit-bourgeois family, his life took in some of the decisive moments of the twentieth century, from the front lines of World War I to Berlin during the rise of Nazism, Civil War Spain, McCarthyite America, and Cold War-era Germany.

A talented composer of film scores, the double Oscar-nominee Eisler is perhaps best known for writing the national anthem of the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the state founded in the eastern portion of Germany after World War II. The optimistic message of Auferstanden aus Ruinen (Arisen from Ruins) reflected the promise of overcoming the crimes and devastation of the Nazi era.

The socialist future was not realized: the new state was born in harsh circumstances and ultimately collapsed. But Eisler, who died in 1962, also represented a generation that had felt fascism on their own hides and sought to create a new Germany. For decades a collaborator of Brecht’s, Eisler is an unduly forgotten protagonist of a cultural milieu galvanized by a shared socialist humanism.

“Politically Unreliable”

Although born in Leipzig, Germany, to a Jewish-Austrian father and a German mother, Eisler grew up in his father’s native Vienna together with his sister Elfriede and brother Gerhart. This would remain discernible in the heavy Viennese accent he would always have when speaking German. Eisler often remarked on his dual class heritage: his mother, an impoverished servant, brought him up with stories of working-class reality in the late nineteenth century, while his philosopher father came from the Bildungsbürgertum (educated petty bourgeoisie) and ensured there was a rigorous humanist philosophy within the family home.

During his youth, the family experienced periods of severe poverty. They supported the Social Democratic Party and at age fourteen Eisler joined a socialist youth group. He showed musical talent from a very young age, completing his first composition at the age of ten. As Eisler’s father could no longer afford their rental piano, this was done without the aid of an actual musical instrument.

Shortly after graduating from secondary school in 1916, Eisler was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, at that time fighting for its survival in the storm of World War I. Officers branded Eisler “politically unreliable” due to memberships in various socialist organizations and the fact that his brother had published an illegal anti-war magazine. Following a brief spell at a reserve officers’ training school where he was repeatedly punished for disobeying orders, Eisler was assigned to a Hungarian infantry regiment on the eastern front. His superiors hoped that the language barrier would hinder him from further political agitation. Eisler turned to composing music in his spare moments in order to cope with the horror and tedium of war. His composition Gegen den Krieg (Against the War) was sadly lost for future generations. However, Eisler later wrote of the impact that October Revolution of 1917 had on the soldiers, celebrating news which they hoped would stop the bloodshed that had become their daily reality.

After the final surrender of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) in 1918, Eisler moved back to Vienna. Thanks to his obvious promise he became a personal student of famed expressionist composer Arnold Schönberg, inventor of the twelve-tone technique. However, despite the radical innovation of the musical groups he was moving within, Eisler found himself restless within the political confines of petit-bourgeois Vienna and unable to make a living. In 1925 he moved to Berlin, a hotbed of cultural and political sedition at the time. Supporting himself by working as a piano teacher, Eisler became involved in political agitation by writing songs for workers’ choirs and agit-prop groups, including the most famous communist ensemble of the Weimar Republic — Das rote Sprachrohr (The Red Megaphone).

In 1926, Eisler met the young playwright Bertolt Brecht, with whom he became fast friends. Eisler’s fate soon became entwined with that of the celebrated playwright, with whom he would collaborate closely for the rest of his life. That same year, Eisler joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and began working as a music critic for the party newspaper, Die rote Fahne (The Red Flag). During this period, his songs became part of the soundtrack of the social revolution which seemed to bubble barely under the surface of Berlin throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was thanks largely to his collaboration with Ernst Busch, a working-class singer who became one of the most famous voices of the late Weimar Republic. Eisler composed many songs for him to sing, usually using lyrics taken from the poetry or plays of Brecht and Erich Weinert (another widely known communist author). Busch performed with Eisler on piano throughout the workers’ clubs and pubs of Berlin and beyond. One of the most influential songs of this period was Roter Wedding (Red Wedding). This inspirational march tells of Wedding, a famous communist neighborhood in Berlin, and calls listeners to action:

“Red Wedding” greets you comrades,
Hold your fists at the ready!
Keep the red ranks closed,
As our day is fast approaching!

With the meteoric rise of the Nazi Party following the financial crash of 1929, Eisler’s attention, like many of his communist comrades, was increasingly directed towards antifascist activity. A collaboration with Brecht and Ernst Busch, Das Lied vom SA-Mann (The SA Man’s Song) tells the story of how an initially enthusiastic Nazi brownshirt sees the error of his ways upon being ordered to shoot at fellow workers. The Kampflied gegen den Faschismus (Battle Song Against Fascism) in 1932 was a popular shellac vinyl single which highlighted the fact that many capitalists were backing Hitler’s allegedly “national socialist” agenda. Equally, it called on all listeners to forget old divisions and join the united front under the red flag. While producing specifically antifascist material was naturally a key concern of Eisler’s in this period, he like Brecht also recognized that being against something was not enough, and that socialists had to offer a positive inspirational alternative to the divisive demagoguery of the far right.

Projects such as the famous KPD-funded film Kuhle Wampe (Who Owns the World), for which Eisler composed the score, aimed to communicate convincingly why the capitalist system was responsible for the mass unemployment, hunger, and destitution affecting millions of Germans. The film ends with a stirring rendition of Eisler and Brecht’s famous Solidaritätslied (Solidarity Song) which calls for working-class unity across nations and races in order to build a better world for all, asking powerfully in its final refrain: “Wessen Welt ist die Welt?” (“and whose world is the world?”) During filming, members of the KPD had to physically protect the sets from SA brownshirts and the film was banned upon release by the government, demonstrating the increasingly aligned interests of the German state and the Nazi Party.

Despite the many challenges they faced, Eisler, Brecht, and Busch et al. played a significant role in building mass working-class cultural networks in Berlin, establishing a “red hegemony.” Importantly, it voiced not only opposition to fascism and capitalism but also an inspirational and conceivable alternative: humanity’s socialist future. Their approach to building a cultural alternative relied on catchy songs, gripping theater, and films aimed at the “everyman,” sure in their conviction that only the working class itself could halt fascism and build a democratic society worthy of the name. While these efforts could not stop the Nazi behemoth on the national level, it should be noted that Berlin did remain “red”; in the final democratic election in 1932 the two workers’ parties won some 62 percent of votes (KPD, 38 percent; SPD, 24 percent) as against 22 percent for the Nazis.

The Hollywood Years

After the Nazis were handed state power in 1933, both Eisler’s Jewish heritage and communist convictions forced him to flee. The first stage of his exile was spent in Paris. In order to pay the bills he wrote scores for cheap films, one of which he prosaically described as a “piece of shit.”

In February 1934 Eisler saw firsthand what he described as an attempted putsch by French fascists. As a committed communist, he hurried to the counterdemonstrations organized by the French trade unions. On arrival he found the assembled multitude singing the French version of Roter Wedding (Red Wedding) which had become a classic of the international workers‘ movement. One worker, not recognizing the composer and eyeing the balding, rotund Eisler with suspicion, shouted “Hey bourgeois, you must sing with us!” Eisler tried his best but could not remember the French lyrics to his song and so was forced to retreat, having been mistaken as an out of place member of the bourgeoisie who had stumbled across the demonstration by accident. Eisler’s often self-deprecating humor was demonstrated in his enjoyment in regaling people with this anecdote.

Over the next few years, Eisler would move from place to place following commissions for film scores. He also sought to support the international communist and antifascist struggle as best he could by giving concerts and recording music. The Einheitsfrontlied (Song of the United Front) which Brecht and Eisler composed at the behest of the Comintern (the international alliance of Communist Parties) in 1934 was a staple of these performances. The song sought to underline the Comintern’s new policy that sought a formal united front in the fight against European fascism and to bridge the old divisions between Social Democrats and Communists which had helped divide the workers’ movement and contributed to the rise of fascism. It is still a popular song among socialists and antifascists to this day, having been translated into many languages and recorded by several artists.

In early 1937, Eisler was invited to Spain by the International Brigades, made up of international volunteers defending the Spanish Republic from the clerical-fascists under Franco. Arriving in Madrid, he was quickly whisked away to the front line in Murcia where he spent a few weeks with the XI Brigade famous for being involved in some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict, particularly the defense of Madrid in 1936.

On the day of his arrival he was so inspired by the volunteers that he penned four new songs that very day, which were duly sung by volunteers of all nations at an impromptu concert that evening. Many of them were severely wounded and most exhausted, leading Eisler to recall: “They did not sing beautifully; their voices were hoarse due to the frightful cold of the battle lines. But they sang with great passion. This is how the peasants must have sung during the Great Peasants’ Revolt, the Taborites [a fifteenth-century millenarian movement], this is how La Marseillaise must have sounded for the first time.” Perhaps the most notable song to come from Eisler’s time in Spain is No Pasarán!, the musical rendering of a poem by Spanish Republican poet Herrera Patere, which could be heard throughout Madrid shortly after its initial recording and became one of the most iconic songs and slogans of the Spanish Civil War. No Pasarán is still a common battle cry for antifascists today.

In 1938, Eisler emigrated to America on a temporary visa with his second wife Louise. In New York he again found himself compelled to turn his attention to composing film scores in order to support his family, including a cartoon funded by oil magnates. He could never have imagined that circumstances would leave him working for big American capital. At the same time, however, he was involved in the activities of the Communist Party of America, helping organize a large memorial event for Lenin as part of anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution. As any communist activity was grounds to revoke his visa, he adopted the pseudonym “John Garden.” He even helped write the unofficial anthem of the Communist Party of America, Sweet Liberty Land.

Following a series of visa complications — Eisler was an undesirable communist, as far as the American authorities were concerned — there was an order for his arrest and deportation in 1940. Had he been sent back to Europe, it is highly likely that Eisler would have been travelling to his death due to his Jewish heritage and well-known communist allegiance. Fortunately for Eisler, he was able to seek refuge in Mexico, at that time led by the left-winger Lázaro Cárdenas. Thanks to a “sleeping consular official” (as the House Un-American Activities Committee would later term him), Eisler was soon able to procure an unlimited visa in person on the Mexican-Californian border. The official clearly did not know he was dealing with a known communist. Following brief sojourns in New York and the USSR, Eisler decided to join his close friend Brecht in Los Angeles.

Following the assassination of senior Nazi and key Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovakian partisans in 1942, Brecht and Eisler worked together on a film loosely based on the events entitled: Hangmen Also Die! Eisler managed to sneak in the melody of the Comintern Song over the final credits, under the title No Surrender. For his work on the film, directed by Fritz Lang, Eisler would be nominated for an Oscar, as he was again for Clifford Odets’s None but the Lonely Heart, in which Cary Grant played the lead. His reputation as a Hollywood film-score composer now ensured, Eisler found offers of work coming in thick and fast. In comparison to much of his previous exile experience, Eisler was now able to live comfortably. He and his wife bought a house next door to fellow antifascist exiles such as the celebrated novelist Thomas Mann and Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno. From 1943 onwards, the FBI would keep Eisler and this circle of antifascists under almost total surveillance as his over-six-hundred-page FBI file attests.

In 1946, the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under Senator Joseph McCarthy reconvened its anticommunist witch hunt. The wartime alliance with the USSR had come to an end, and so, too, the short-lived tolerance of communist émigrés. Hanns Eisler and his brother Gerhart, a functionary of the KPD, who had been in America since 1941 were the subject of a furious press campaign. Eisler was called before the Committee to find that he had been denounced by none other than his own sister Elfriede, now using the name Ruth Fischer.

Fischer had been the leader of the KPD during a brief ultra-left phase in the mid-1920s characterized by sectarian attitudes to cooperation with the SPD; in this period, KPD members were forbidden from shaking hands with SPD members and parliamentary representatives were instructed to wear red gloves. Following her exclusion from the party in 1926, Ruth Fischer and husband Arkadi Maslow were close collaborators of various Soviet oppositional figures, firstly Grigory Zinoviev and later closely with Leon Trotsky until they fell out with him in 1936.

In 1941, the couple who had also been forced into antifascist exile, found themselves in Havana when Maslow suffered a heart attack which Ruth Fischer would always believe was a targeted assassination by Soviet agents. From this point on she became a tireless communist renegade, publishing an anticommunist journal The Network, delivering anti-Soviet lectures at the University of Cambridge in England, and even becoming a key figure in the anticommunist activities of the early CIA forerunner The Pond. Fischer appeared hell bent on bringing down world communism single-handedly and her brothers were her first target, despite the fact that she had remained friendly with Hanns during the war years, receiving financial support from him and even staying with him in LA on several occasions. The letters which she sent to the HUAC show how paranoid she had become. She also began taking out full-page ads in newspapers across the country accusing her brother Gerhart of having murdered Soviet politician Nikolai Bukharin and of being a nuclear spy for the Soviet Union.

The future president, Richard Nixon, sat on the HUAC and noted in his preparations that the case against Eisler could be “the most important” to be brought before them. In retrospect, historians believe that the Hanns Eisler case was intended as the opening salvo of the Hollywood hearings, in which scores of actors, artists, and other film personnel were subjected to prolonged periods of pressure and scrutiny in order to sniff out any whiff of communism.

Eisler noted his impressions of the HUAC in his diary: “This hearing is sinister and risible at the same time. The Committee is not actually interested in my testimony at all, it has only two purposes: to present me as a monster publically and to throw me in jail for perjury.” The threat of jail was very real; Hanns’s brother Gerhart was sentenced to three years in jail, although was ultimately able to flee to Europe in 1948 by smuggling aboard a ship while out on bail.

Eisler sought to defend himself from the McCarthyites’ machinations by responding to the infamous question: “Are you or were you at any time a member of the Communist Party?” by stating in his heavily Germanized English that he had “put in an application” but did not take “more care of it” due to his “artistic activities,” while also noting that like membership in any body, if you don’t pay your dues you “drop out.” These poised semantics were necessary to try and keep himself out of jail. However, this did not stop him from occasionally provoking the Committee and landing a few blows of his own. When the chief investigator, Robert Stripling, was asked what the purpose of reading so many quotes from Eisler’s songs, interviews, and articles may be, he retorted arrogantly “The purpose is to show that Mr. Eisler is the Karl Marx of communism in the area of music.” Eisler responded laconically: “That would flatter me!”

Perhaps the most powerful moment of Eisler’s testimony was when he faced repeated questioning as to whether he was officially a Communist Party member. He stated passionately that “The Communists have sacrificed so much and fought so heroically, I would be a swindler if I called myself a Communist, I have no right to say this, the Communist underground workers in every country, they are heroes! I am not a hero, I am a composer.” Ultimately, Eisler’s attempts to box clever were unsuccessful and in March 1948, he was expelled from the United States. He headed to Austria, the country for which he still held citizenship. The signed contract to write the score for his close friend Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus would never transform into reality.

Facing the Future

On arrival in Vienna, Eisler quickly realized this was not the same city of his youth or even of his visits during exile. He found a cultural and personal boycott of almost anything associated with communism. The Communist Party of Austria procured him a flat but the prospects for his music career appeared bleak.  In June, 1949, Eisler emigrated to Berlin. The promise of work from the GDR’s state film company DEFA, the fact that his old friend Brecht was establishing a Berliner Ensemble theater group, and the wider possibility of contributing to the first socialist state on German soil appear to have been decisive for the now fifty-one-year-old composer

Eisler threw himself enthusiastically into the Aufbau (construction) of socialism. In 1951, he would write: “I have endeavoured since my youth to write music for the benefit of socialism. This task has been difficult and often full of contradiction. But it seems to be the only worthy task for the artists of our age.” Eisler’s first contribution was to compose the GDR’s national anthem Auferstanden aus Ruinen (Arisen from Ruins) with lyrics from poet Johannes R. Becher. The song captured the mood of the times, the hope and determination to build a socialist society from the ruins of German fascism and war.

However, Eisler’s early years in the GDR were not without controversy. In 1953 he was accused of debasing the national legend of Goethe’s Faust with his play, which he intended to turn into an opera, Johann Faustus. The details of this largely academic dispute are perhaps difficult to appreciate some sixty-five years later. But more interesting is the discernible attempt in some quarters to highlight episodes such as this in order to disassociate the celebrated intellectual Eisler from his chosen country, the GDR, as if they were evidence of his “dissident” or “oppositional” stance.

Similar narratives can be found with regards to Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Busch, among many other communist intellectuals and artists. Relatively minor disputes are disproportionately emphasized in order to claim these convinced communists for a Western liberal canon of “critical intellectuals.” Their Marxism-Leninism is seen as an awkward anomaly due to the times in which they lived and operated. Commentators such as Friederike Wißmann or Andrea and Philip Bohlmann portray Eisler as a “cosmopolitan” intellectual whose relationship with communism can be described wholly in terms of “dissidence”. The Bohlmanns suggest that Eisler’s sense of justice and spirit of struggle were derived not from his Marxist convictions but his identification with Judaism, despite his in fact staunch atheism.

This tendency appears to have been part of a wider discursive shift brought about in the aftermath of the supposed “end of ideology” (as claimed by Francis Fukuyama) and the delegitimization of the socialist left in the 1990s. Marx and especially Lenin could no longer be discussed. However, nearly thirty years later, in a post-crash world in which right-wing authoritarianism and economic insecurity are on the rise, we can see that this proclamation of the “final victory” for capitalism and liberal democracy was itself a mere expression of ideological bias.

This demands that we reconsider the history and tradition that communist intellectuals like Eisler really represent. His own final words on the Faustus debate are telling: “I can only imagine my place as an artist in that part of Germany where the foundations for socialism are being built anew.”

The question of artistic freedom was one which Eisler enjoyed philosophizing over. He rejected any liberal notion of absolute artistic freedom, considering that artists must endeavor to serve a higher purpose: “I do not believe in artistic freedom which simply exists for its own pleasure. In this regard I can state plainly that I am a Jacobin.”

Sun Over Germany

Eisler evidenced this unity of artistic purpose and meaning with aesthetic quality throughout his time in the GDR. This was particularly poignantly expressed with the music he composed for French director Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog). The groundbreaking 1956 documentary was one of the first to bring the horrors of the Holocaust to a wider Western European audience. Eisler’s haunting melodies overlap with images of Auschwitz-Birkenau, testimony from survivors, and the final montage of camp guards repeating the same words, “I am not responsible.” Eisler’s music, like the film itself, avoided sentimentality, which is perhaps why it remains a potent classic to this day.

The Jewish-heritage communist Eisler had always considered it his duty to educate the world about the horrors of fascism, and not least to teach that fascism was a form of capitalism. As the opening lines of one of his 1930s songs had plainly put it: “Who pays the money for Hitler and his company? It is the big profitlers [sic] of the weapons industry!” This duty came to fruition in his magnum opus the Deutsche Sinfonie (German Symphony). Eisler began work on the symphony during his exile period, the first two movements were scheduled to be performed in 1937 as part of the Paris World Exhibition. However, the Nazis persuaded the French government to cancel the performance. A slightly more developed version was scheduled to be performed in England in 1940, however, this was halted, somewhat ironically, due to anti-German sentiment among the English musical establishment. It would not be fully completed until 1958, shortly before its premiere.

Using lyric poetry from Brecht, Eisler created a sweeping cacophony of intermittent tales. They tell of the concentration camps — the original title was Concentration Camp Symphony — of the bloody hands of German soldiers raised in the Hitler salute, but also of the suffocating atmosphere of enforced conformity and denunciation which characterized life under fascism for ordinary Germans. In many respects, the symphony represents a socialist artist’s comment on the “German question” in the Nazi era but also, significantly, thereafter. Eisler gives a resounding answer that this question is, at its core, a question of class struggle. The penultimate and longest section entitled Worker’s Cantata is a stirring reworking of Brecht’s Lied vom Klassenfeind (The Class Enemy Song). It tells a moving story of a worker grappling with the class system around them from childhood onwards, through war, hunger, and poverty. The repeated motif of rain falling from above to below serves to illustrate the upper class’s inherent need to exploit the classes below, for example:

Rain can’t suddenly fall up
because it is benevolently inclined,
but what it can do is: it can stop
once the sun comes out and shines.

The metaphorical sun is an end to the capitalist class system; that is, socialism.

With this emphasis on the class nature of any nation, and therefore the disparities of power, of influence, and of the ability to forge the ideology of that nation, Eisler sought to point an accusing finger at the German capitalist class which had handed power to Hitler in order to brutally crush the latent social revolution. This is again highlighted in the epilogue of the symphony, which repeats:

Look at our children, stunned and besmeared in blood!
Freed from a frozen Panzer they come:
Even the Wolf who licks his lips needs
a place to hide! Warm them, they are numb.

Eisler did not wish to excuse the crimes committed by German soldiers in the name of the German nation — far from it. But as a consistent Marxist he wanted his audience to understand that these crimes had ultimately stemmed from a dialectic of material events and relations that emanated from capitalist class society — a lesson many writers on the subject of fascism appear to have forgotten. Eisler’s magnum opus is ultimately a powerful call for recognition of Germans’ culpability but also their resistance; a call for the rehabilitation of those led astray and for an end to the socioeconomic structures that ingrain division, competition, and ultimately war.

Two events in 1956 had a profound effect on Eisler. Firstly, in February, Khruschev’s so-called “Secret Speech” attacked the deceased Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It shattered the positive image of Stalin and thus of the entire Soviet-influenced socialist project. The repercussions of the speech are still felt in debates surrounding communism today. Secondly, in August his best friend and collaborator Brecht died aged fifty-eight. Following this, Eisler fell into a deep depression and began to drink heavily. However, this blue funk was short-lived. He dedicated himself to continuing the work of his dear departed friend, setting numerous of Brecht’s words to music, notably Kriegsfibel (War Primer) and Schwejk im zweiten Weltkrieg (Schweik in World War II), a powerful reworking of Czechoslavakian author Jaroslav Hašek’s celebrated World War I novel The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1958 he received the National Prize of the GDR for his combined efforts.

Eisler would never have been happy with superficial simplifications such as the concept of “Stalinism” or “anti-Stalinism.” He instead sought to get to grips with the fluid development of socialism; to understand it dialectically and contextualize the birth pangs of a revolution surrounded by hostile enemies and to do so without moralizing judgements. He sought to envisage the trajectory of a socialist society truly unencumbered by imperialist encirclement, hot or cold war; a society that had traversed the vestigial class divisions and resentments that were clearly still present in the early postwar socialist states. This can be seen from his final major work Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs) in which he comes to terms with the history of socialism, warts and all, but communicates the importance of learning from the tradition and past of socialism in order to build the “scarcely imagined joy: life without fear.”

Hanns Eisler would not live to see his hopes fulfilled. He died on September 6, 1962. He was given a full state funeral by the GDR, which set up an award to honor his legacy: the Hanns Eisler Music Prize has been awarded since 1968 for outstanding compositions. The Hanns Eisler College of Music in Berlin still bears his name today. There are a great many things we can learn from a life like Eisler’s but perhaps the most poignant is captured in the words of Brecht, which Eisler himself set to music, “Change the world, it needs it!”