by Henning Eichberg


From ›people‹ to ›population‹? – the problem


1. Volk as ideological contents
1.1. Agitprop and folk song–
Volk as a term of appeal
Volksfront – ›People‹ as a strategic term of unity
1.3. Against Nazism –
Volk as a term of distance
1.4. GDR – an alternative concept of German we-building
1.5. 1953 –
Volk as a term of revolt

2. Volk as intonation, rhythm, and practice
2.1. Genres of folk tale and folk music
2.2. The cynical-materialistic turn
2.3. Identification and warm feeling
2.4. Teacher’s attitude and popularizing rhythm
2.5. Fascination of Eastern European folk culture
2.6. The new Volkstümlichkeit
3. Brecht’s
Volk in the version of Heiner Müller
4. Folk and the body – Brecht and sport

5. Population? – People as substance or construction?
Volk in movement, civil society, and living democracy

The term of ›the people‹ (folk, Volk) has become problematic through Nazi history and should be substituted by ›population‹ as a ›more neutral‹ word – this is what some sociologists and intellectuals in (West) Germany have argued for. A general reference for this argument is Bert Brecht, the most prominent German left-wing writer and devoted communist.

In Denmark, the anti-folk argumentation is much less present, and the words folk and folkelig (popular) have a strong stand, both in culture and in politics. They were even confirmed by the Danish anti-Nazi resistance under World War II. The painter Asger Jorn, communist under the resistance against the German occupation and later an unorthodox anarchist thinker, promoted and collected folk arts from the Nordic cultures and launched the concept of democratic folkekunst.

This understanding corresponded to the international left-wing use of the term ›people‹, peuple, popolo, and Volk. Classical papers of the democratic, socialist and communist left were titled Volksstimme, Volkswille, Volkszeitung, Volksstaat, Volkspresse and Volksfreund or just Das Volk (which Karl Marx edited in London in 1859).

That is why there is good reason to have a closer look at Brecht’s relation to Volk and its political and poetic connotations. We look foremost at his lyrical and song work.

From ›people‹ to ›population‹? – the problem

The central source of the people-population problem was Brecht’s text Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit, published in Paris 1938. It was illegally distributed as special issue of: Unsere Zeit, publication of »Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller«. Point 5, under the subtitle: »Die List, die Wahrheit unter vielen zu verbreiten«, was directed against the Nazi misuse of language.

»Wer in unserer Zeit statt Volk Bevölkerung und statt Boden Landbesitz sagt unterstützt schon viele Lügen nicht. Er nimmt den Wörtern ihre faule Mystik. Das Wort Volk besagt eine gewisse Einheitlichkeit und deutet auf gemeinsame Interessen hin, sollte also nur benutzt werden, wenn von mehreren Völkern die Rede ist, da höchstens dann eine Gemeinsamkeit der Interessen vorstellbar ist. Die Bevölkerung eines Landstriches hat verschiedene, auch einander entgegengesetzte Interessen, und dies ist eine Wahrheit, die unterdrückt wird. So unterstützt auch, der Boden sagt und die Aecker den Nasen und Augen schildert, indem er von ihrem Erdgeruch und von ihrer Farbe spricht, die Lügen der Herrschenden; denn nicht auf die Fruchtbarkeit des Bodens kommt es an, noch auf die Liebe des Menschen zu ihm, noch auf den Fleiss, sondern hauptsächlich auf den Getreidepreis und den Preis der Arbeit.«

Thus, Brecht proposed:

- The word ›people‹ should be substituted by ›population‹

- One should take into account the inner differentiation of the people

- especially their differences of interests

- Talking about Volk should be reduced to its plural, Völker, the many ›peoples‹ of the world.

Bertolt Brechts lyrical-poetical writing, placed on the radical left-wing, illustrated, indeed, his life-long attempts to shun Volkstümelei, national-romantic populism. »Das Volk ist niemals tümlich« – the people is never populist, folk is never loristic. This untranslatable Brecht joke from another context was often linked with the question of population versus people, as quoted above. However, at a closer regard, Brecht’s work reveals some paradoxical implications of this critical position – and a much broader and contradictory literary practice.

This may help to reach a clearer understanding of the term ›people‹ today and its qualities challenging the capitalist world order.

1. Volk as ideological contents

On the ideological surface of Brecht’s literary work, one can search for Volk as contents. In consequence of his communist engagement, Brecht tried to replace the term Volk by ›more correct‹ Marxist terms of social class like Prolet, Arbeiter etc.

And yet, the word Volk was not absent in his work. On the contrary, Volk can be seen as a through-going element of Brecht’s poetical left-wing radicalism.

1.1. Agitprop and folk song – Volk as a term of appeal

In Brecht’s communist agitprop lyrics, Volk had its place as a term of appeal. Volk and the plural Völker designated the social and political subjects, which were appealed to for revolutionary action. Volk was here the people of class struggle and stood in sharp confrontation with the representatives of power and war.

Solidaritätslied, 1931/51, melody by Hanns Eisler:

»1. Auf, ihr Völker dieser Erde!
Einigt euch in diesem Sinn...
2. Schwarzer, Weißer, Brauner, Gelber!
Endet ihre Schlächterein!
Reden erst die Völker selber,
werden sie schnell einig sein.
3. Unsre Herrn, wer sie auch seien,
Sehen unsre Zwietracht gern...
4. Proletarier aller Länder,
einigt euch, und ihr seid frei...
Vorwärts, und nicht vergessen
die Solidarität!«

The song had its premiere in Rote Revue of Junge Volksbühne in 1931. In the communist movie Kuhle Wampe 1932, the song was sung and whistled by marching workers' sport people, and also by the Agitprop group Das Rote Sprachrohr.

Eisler saw the revolutionary Kampflied (fighting song) realizing »alle Eigenschaften des Volksliedes« (all qualities of the folk song), though it made – in contrast to other folk songs – the class character explicit.

1.2. Volksfront – ›People‹ as a strategic term of unity

When the communists decided the strategy of the People’s Front in the 1930s, Volk got a new positive connotation. The ›people‹ of the Popular Front where those who engaged themselves and built a common front against fascism – in French front populaire, in German Volksfront. Volk became a term of tactic and strategic unification.

Das Einheitsfrontlied, 1934 (»Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist…«) was for first time published in Edition de la Féderation Musicale Populaire around 1935. Its context was the decision of the KPD for the unity of all anti-fascists in 1934 and of the Comunist International for the formation of a Volksfront (People’s front) in 1935, with the following Volksfront congress in 1936. The song addressed in a popular way the masses of the people, using the Chevy-Chase verse form. It became popular in different languages. Brecht wrote about Eisler:

»seinen widerwillen gegen die vulgarität und primitivität der marschlieder hat er jetzt sublimiert, indem er etwa das einheitsfrontlied symphonisch auflöst, dh als volkslied in strengen musikalischen Stücken verwendet«.

The tendency of the folk and march song was, thus, directed against »diese scheusslichen Hitlerlieder«. But Eisler expressed more generally »Ekel gegen das Marschieren überhaupt«.

Brecht’s – cautious – turn to the Volk of the Popular Front can be compared to what the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1937 did for the nation. Formerly as ›wild‹ as Brecht and coming from circles of the Surrealists, but in the time of the Popular Front functioning as the official PCF-Stalinist philosopher, Lefebvre rehabilitated the nation against nationalism.

1.3. Against Nazism – Volk as a term of distance

It was, however, not without reservations that Brecht joined the new Stalinist strategy of Volksfront, which could be understood as a sort of Volksgemeinschaft, people’s community. Brecht kept to his left-wing radikal and workerist class perspective.

This skeptic distance was affirmed by the experiences of Nazi politics and especially World War II, when the Nazi expansion made the völkisch populist undertones of Volk and Volksgemeinschaft more obvious: »Volk ohne Raum«.

The song Mein Bruder war ein Flieger, around 1937, music by Paul Dessau, referred in an ironical way to the Nazi saying that »Unserm Volke fehlt's an Raum«. The term of Volk appeared as a sarcastic term of distance.

It is here that the initially quoted text with its differentiation between ›people‹ and ›population‹ had its historical place.

1.4. GDR – an alternative concept of German we-building

In the time of GDR – with institutions like Volkskammer, Deutscher Volkskongress, Volkssolidarität, Haus des Volkes, Volkskorrespondenten, Volkspolizei etc. – the problem of Volksfront returned. Who was ›the people‹? Should left-wing radicalism in Germany join the attempt of building a people’s community, now after socialist premises? Brecht both joined the project and kept his distance. And it was this distance that made GDR authorities distrust him as leftist »volksfremd”, ›decadent‹ and ›formalistic‹. On the other hand, Brecht tried to re-install the class-related term of Volk (der gemeine Mann) again in a sharp contrast against the great »Herren«, the masters, the lords, the power.

Aufbaulied der FDJ, 1948, music by Paul Dessau, defined these non-people figures as:

»Schieberpack ... und die Herren, die die Schieber schieben ...
Wanzen, Junker, Unternehmer, Potentat...«

Lied der Mutter Courage, additional verse from 1950, expressed the new relation to »us, the people« and its historical depth, as seen in the bottom-up perspective of the seventeenth century’s common woman:

»Es kommt der Tag, da wird sich wenden
Das Blatt für uns, er ist nicht fern.
Da werden wir, das Volk, beenden
Den grossen Krieg der grossen Herrn.

Die Händler all mit ihren Bütteln
und ihrem Kriegs- und Totentanz
Sie wird auf ewig von sich schütteln
Die neue Welt des g'meinen Manns

From this approach – the fundamental contradiction between Volk as the common people and the agents of power – Brecht’s Volk was turned towards an alternative understanding of the question of the national folk, too. »We, the Germans« became the topic of his famous Kinderhymne:

»Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe
Leidenschaft nicht noch Verstand
Dass ein gutes Deutschland blühe
Wie ein andres gutes Land.

Und nicht über und nicht unter
Andern Völkern wolln wir sein
Von der See bis zu den Alpen
Von der Oder bis zum Rhein.

Dass die Völker nicht erbleichen
Wie vor einer Räuberin
Sondern ihre Hände reichen
Uns wie andern Völkern hin.

Und weil wir dies Land verbessern
Lieben und beschirmens wir’s
Und das Liebste mag’s
uns scheinen
So wie andern
Völkern ihrs.«

We‹ and ›the people‹ constituted a read thread through this song, which could be regarded as an alternative left-wing national anthem. ›We, the people‹ was here explicitly related to ›we as the other people‹, contrasting the fascist bands of brigands and robbers.

This was a starting point for a new German tradition of Volk ideology and research, which produced famous reference works about popular culture, folk song etc. (Steinitz 1954/62, Jacobeit 1987). However, the communist Volk focus of the 1950s was soon turned down by the official policy of the GDR – launching the theory of the ›two nations‹ – and was finally repressed by the West German Anschluss of the GDR in 1989/90.

1.5. 1953 – Volk as a term of revolt

Short after the death of the Stalin, however, the wave of popular revolutionary unrest arrived also at the GDR. The 17th of June 1953 saw a sharp confrontation between the people and the power in the post-Stalin state. By the means of Soviet Russian tanks, the bureaucratic state monopolism overthrew the popular rising and survived 35 more years.

Brecht commented the riots and their oppression by an ironic and somewhat cynical poem (which he never published at that time):

»Die Lösung

Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
liess der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbandes
in der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen,
auf denen zu lesen war, dass das Volk
das Vertrauen der
Regierung verscherzt habe
und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
zurückeroberen könne. Wäre es da
nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
löste das Volk auf und
wählte ein anderes?«

The verse repeated the dialectic relation between power and the people from Brecht’s earlier communist days. But now it had got a new historical dimension.

2. Volk as intonation, rhythm, and practice

At a closer look, the relation of Brecht’s writing to the term of Volk was, thus, much more complex than one might think from out the dogmatic Marxist deduction and the recent (West) German bourgeois reduction. The picture gets still more nuances when we go deeper into Brecht’s poetical form and technique, looking at his way of how to say things. On this level of literary practice, Volk reveals as being more than an ideological program (or anti-program), it appears as intonation as different forms of intonation, atmosphere and swing.

2.1. Genres of folk tale and folk music

The folk tone in Brecht’s work found its expression already before he turned to orthodox Marxism. Directly after World War I, motives and intonations from fairy tales and folk music genres as ballad, Moritat and Bänkelsang delivered important inspirations for Brecht’s work, especially his anti-war poetry.

The song O Falladah, die du hangest, from 1919/32, music by Eisler, turned one of the brothers Grimm’s folk tales into a political direction. The horse Falladah breaks down in the time of war and, becomes a victim of hungry people. Dying, Falladah experiences the ›cold‹ society, where people fight a murderous struggle of survival.

The song Legende vom toten Soldaten, 1922/26, used the Chevy-Chase verse form from the popular tradition to show a grotesque picture of the dead soldier mobilized by the Kaiser. Brecht commented the story by the remark: »Das Volk sagte: Man gräbt schon die Toten aus für den Kriegsdienst« – saying that the people was the real author. The song was directed against the völkische Heldenballade, the national-patriotic hero worship. That is why the followers of the Hitler coup from 1923 placed this song high on their blacklist of what was regarded as Verhöhnung des Frontsoldaten (derision of the front soldier).

The song Apfelböck oder Die Lilie auf dem Felde, 1920, used the intonation of the popular folk ballad, Moritat and Bänkelsang, telling with some comical effects about a case of murder.

2.2. The cynical-materialistic turn

During the 1920s, Brecht gave the popular intonation a both cynical and materialistic turn. Both tendencies were interrelated.

Mahagonnygesänge, around 1920/25/29. In 1923, Brecht had experienced a Hitler meeting in the Munich Zirkus Krone, together with his friend Arnolt Bronnen. (Bronnen was a writer of ›black expressionism‹, later joining the national-revolutionary circles, trying to survive by some Nazi support, and after the war continuing as communist in Austria and in GDR.) These impressions made Brecht associate the brown-shirts with the criminal gang of Mahagonny. He combined the Nazigesindel (Nazi rabble) with the underworld of capitalist America – fascism as gangsterism . This picture was a counter-picture, but fascinating at the same time. At the same time, Brecht dreamt of a scene served after the model of the boxing ring, which can be read in relation both to the Hitlerist passion for boxing and violence and to the American sport fashion. For the Mahagonny songs and Dreigroschenoper, Brecht used folkloristic elements like folk dance, drinking songs and honky-tonk intonation, the Sauf- und Kneipenlied.

The Moritat vom Mackie Messer, from 1928, was re-figured after the murder ballad of the Augsburg Plärrer and other folk fairs, which Brecht liked to visit with passion. Maybe, it was also inspired by a Russian folk song. It intonated the monotonous repetition of the hurdy-gurdy, Drehorgel – and rose to a world hit in international pop music.

In this period, Brecht used jazz, shimmy, and tango, American gangster movies and melodramas as models. Popular culture appeared as trivial, vulgar, Gassenhauer-like, and thus not so far from entertainment industry. This atmosphere corresponded to the contents of Brecht’s cynical philosophy: People are materialistic.

The cynical attitude pointed, however, also back towards the intellectual himself, and it became, indeed, subjected to some persiflage. Commenting Brecht’s Lied vom Surabaya-Johnny, 1925/29, after Rudyard Kipling, Erich Kästner wrote a parody in 1930:

»Du sprachst von Kolonien,
Johnny, sunny Johnny,
und kanntest nur Berlin...
Du versprachst mir, mich zu ermorden.
Du stachst mir schon in die Haut.
Es ist nichts draus geworden.
Du hast dich nicht getraut...
Du warst nicht englisch, Johnny.
Du warst nicht indisch, Johnny.
Kauft Kolonialwaren bei Bert Brecht!«

2.3. Identification and warm feeling

Side by side with the materialistic cynism, however, Brecht’s folk intonation also showed an element of identification, an intonation of warm feeling.

Famous became his love song Erinnerung an Marie A., from 1920. It had as models both a »vulgäre Schlagermelodie« (vulgar pop song) and an anonymous old folk tune, the Volksballade von Schön Anna. Its popular Volkston was characterized as going »fast an die Grenze zum Kitsch«, to trash (Schöne).

Also Brecht’s Kinderlieder, from 1920/1932ff., were part of this tendency. Eisler described Brecht’s children’s songs as »ein einfacher, den breiten Massen brauchbarer Stil«.

The tone of Volk as identification corresponded to the socialist tradition, which had established the Volksbühne in Berlin, where the dramatic plays of Brecht were shown in 1927-1931. Volk, Kitsch and socialism were not so far from each other, and Brecht built his avant-garde poetry provocatively on this relation. Opening the question: Which Kitsch – and which Volk?!

2.4. Teacher’s attitude and popularizing rhythm

After his period of expressionist ›wildness‹, Brecht made a communist-didactical turn. He began writing Lehrstücke according to agitprop. They were means of teaching the popular masses the Marxist truth of society. This task demanded certain educational qualities from the text: It should be understandable, easy to recognize, simple, and follow folk patterns. The writer knew the truth, but the truth had to be mediated, to be made popular, to be popularized.

The play Die Mutter, 1932, after Maxim Gorki, had its premiere at the oppositional Junge Volksbühne. The pattern was taken from popular agitprop groups; Eisler cooperated with Das Rote Sprachrohr. The didactical-popular play adressed the audience by imperative forms of appellation and the intimate »du«.

Agitprop came, however, into a problematic relation to march music. On one hand, march music had popular and mobilizing effects, which were used by communist marching units in the streets, like Roter Frontkämpferbund. On the other hand, it reminded by its undertones of the völkisch Nazi squads – and was sometimes directly copied from soldiers‹ songs.

Between the period of agitprop and the period of Popular Front, there were no sharp cleavages, but rather a gliding what concerns the practice of intonation and the didactic of folk education.

2.5. Fascination of Eastern European folk culture

Under World War II, the folk musical inspirations from Eastern Europe obtained new significance, delivering cultural elements to the art of resistance. Brecht and his colleagues experimented somewhere between traditional folk tone and avant-garde music, which corresponded to the graphic work of Asger Jorn in Denmark. The popular element was among others found in folk dance.

Brecht’s play Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg, from 1943/57, documented this process. Eisler discerned between different pitches (Tonlagen) with certain social distinctions: music of the »höhere Regionen« (higher regions), music of the Nazi clique with deformed opera in Wagner style, and »Lieder des Volkes«. Among these latter ones were folk dances, which one could »behalten und sofort nachpfeifen« – polka, waltz, the Czech beseda as well as pantomimes. Brecht was especially interested in Czech folk songs in English translation. The music should have a cheerful tone and express what Eisler called the »Musik der Résistance«.

The cynical perspective, corresponding to the materialistic interpretation, did not disappear in this process. Das Lied vom Weib des Nazisoldaten discussed the question of war profit: »was das volk aus dem krieg herausholen wird«. As Brecht wrote himself, he had for this song »gut vom Volkslied gelernt«.

Mutter Courage, 1939/41/49, was another attempt to use popular traditions, »Volksweise«. Paul Dessau saw the challenge in the project »Musikstücke zu erfinden, die, ausgehend vom Volkslied, das Volkslied erweitern, indem sie es durch rhythmische und harmonische Mannigfaltigkeit bereichern«.

The song Lied des Pfeifenpieter, from 1951, turned to dialect which Brecht regarded as useful for the gestical quality of play. The song was based on a Dutch Shanty, a folk tune noted in 1536.

Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti, from 1940/48, was based on a Finnish source, and Brecht called it himself a »Volksstück«.

Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, from the 1920s/1948, based Chinese sources and had a folk singer from a kolkhoz singing comments. Brecht used Slovak folk songs, old Estonian folk tales, Georgian folklore and folk songs from Azerbaijan.

The later song Die haltbare Graugans, from 1946/47 was based on an American folk song of the Black-American singer Leadbelly. Dessau wrote, that »das Lied deutet das Vertrauen der amerikanischen Neger in die Unzerstörbarkeit des Negervolks aus«.

2.6. The new Volkstümlichkeit

The literary and musical work in the GDR confronted the artists with new demands from the side of state and party. These were interested in ›popular‹ tones, but this caused some problems for the avant-garde who tried to follow the political line.

The song An die Nachgeborenen, was written in 1934/37, and Eisler composed a tune in the dodecaphony which he had learned from his teacher Arnold Schönberg. But in the 1950s, a »volkstümliche Fassung« was composed for the singer Ernst Busch, now including popular, simple, even trivial elements.

»Die populäre Fassung ist selbstverständlich auch sehr lustig, und Busch singt sie auch grossartig. Aber ... Ich glaube, die populäre Fassung ist gar nicht viel populärer wie das; sie ist einfach einfacher zu singen. Ich habe also dem Busch eine Chance gegeben, das in eine volkstümliche Art des Musizierens zu zwingen – was auch einen eigentümlichen Widerspruch zwischen den hohen Versen von Brecht und einer einfachen Melodie ergibt« (Eisler).

Neue Kinderlieder, 1950, showed how Brecht now worked with what was called the »new popularity«.

»Neue Volkstümlichkeit ist ein Umschlagen des Neuen in das Einfache ... Sie ist das Gegenteil zum Epigonentum, aber sie wird Tradition in sich haben und alle Künste des Handwerks« (Eisler).

Eisler composed Neue deutsche Volkslieder nach Johannes R. Becher – but he did not experience this as an easy job. He wrote to Brecht in 1952:

»Auch ich bastel an Deinen Kinderliedern, die mir grosse Mühe machen. Es ist eben schwer ein passendes Arrangement zu machen, das weder vulgär noch verspielt oder gar tölpelhaft modernistisch ist. Ich entwickle mich zum musikalischen Hypochonder, es ist zum schlechte Laune kriegen.«

In this context, Brecht’s Kinderkantate was written as an attempt to create an alternative national anthem. And the song Die Pappel vom Karlsplatz played around the motive of the tree, which was typical for the ›popular‹ Brecht.

3. Brecht’s Volk in the version of Heiner Müller

One of the few artists who paid special attention to Brecht’s ›popular‹ dimension and its contradictions, was the dramatist and poet Heiner Müller. He described Brecht’s position on the radical left-wing standing against the Volksfront and in favour of revolutionary struggle, even terrorism. When the Volksfront concept became obligatory in the GDR under the heading of the all-parties Nationale Front, Brecht’s Marxism would be suspected as subversive and dangerous. What the Communist party leader Walter Ulbricht called "sozialistische Menschengemeinschaft", Volk without class struggle, could remind Brecht of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft. And its political concept corresponded with the bourgeois understanding of art, which began to dominate the cultural policy of the GDR.

This caused problems for the avant-garde (Brecht, Eisler, Dessau), which was now officially under attack as being ›formalistic‹. Under the heading of Kampf gegen den Formalismus, the 5th plenum of the ZK of the SED in 1951 ›unmasked‹ Brecht as ›decadent‹ and ›volksfremd‹. The only defence in this debate came from the actor Helene Weigel. She quoted Brecht as having said that the controversial play Die Mutter had a folk song structure and was based on the tradition of Volkslied.

And yet, there was another Brecht than the anti-Volk left-winger.

»Es gibt eine Linie, die bei Brecht durchgeht und die mich interessiert. Das ist die gotische Linie, das Deutsche.«

A classical example was for Müller the song O Falladah, die du hangest, which he characterized as »sehr deutsch, sehr zerrissen, eben nicht heiter, beruhigt, römisch, klassisch, chinesisch«. Müller discovered in Brecht’s work a deep conflict between different styles. One Brecht was »Chinese« or »Roman«, but this only in certain situations of life. The other was »the Gothic line« starting with the play Baal. This Gothic Brecht was placed somewhere between the young wild Bavarian expressionist with his preindustrial agrarian fascination and his popular appeal – and the classic Brecht, under the brake of Stalinist (self-) censorship.

The German ›popular‹ Brecht, as seen by Heiner Müller, was characterized by Knittelvers, those rhyming couplets using a four-stress line:

»die ›deutschen‹ Knittelverse, die eine ungeheure Gewalt haben. Das ist so wie ein Anschluss an einen Blutstrom, der durch die Literatur geht, seit dem Mittelalter, und das Mittelalter war die eigentlich grosse deutsche Zeit. Im Mittelalter gab es eine deutsche Kultur. Danach zerfiel das in Regionen, dann in private Provinzen ... Die Bauernkriege waren das grösste Unglück der deutschen Geschichte. Dann kam der Dreissigjährige Krieg, und danach gab es diese Gesichter nicht mehr in Deutschland, Gesichter wie bei Cranach, wie bei Dürer, so etwas wie einen Volkscharakter.«

After Middle Age, the Knittelvers reappeared in eighteenth century’s Sturm und Drang, later in the work of Heinrich von Kleist and Georg Büchner. »Der Knittelvers ist die einzige deutsche Versform, die originäre deutsche Versform vor dem Blankvers.«

And last but not least, a German Volk feature of Brecht was his Bosheit, his maliciousness and fiendishness.

»Der Terrorismus ist die eigentliche Kraft, der Schrecken. Deswegen war der Hitler als Gegner ganz wichtig für ihn, auch formal. Das ist die gleiche Art von Bosheit, da war eine ungeheure Affinität... Interessant ist Brecht eben nicht als Aufklärer.«

This was both a provoking observation and a deep remark from the side of an artist, who has been called »the real Brecht pupil« (Theo Girshausen).

4. Folk and the body – Brecht and sport

Brecht had, thus, like other engaged intellectuals on the side of radical left-wing workerism, a tendency to throw the concept of Volk out and to put the concept of class in instead. He really tried. And yet, through the backdoor the Volk entered again.

Brecht’s persisting accomplishment was that he renewed the folk tone and transposed it to the 20th century. Den anti-volkstümliche cynic became the great folk singer of the century, the last before the rock singers entered the scene.

This paradox has a methodological point. It means that Volk is not restricted to a political or ideological contents. Volk describes a way of doing, of saying and singing. The folk tone has a bodily dimension, as dance, march, verse form, as a way of singing or humming with others, as swing and rhythm and intonation. ›Folk‹ is not only an idea, i.e. a construction on the level of superstructure, but it is something with the body, related to bodily practice.

This may, finally, be illustrated by the relation of Brecht to sport. The sports arena was for Brecht a model for the theatre of the future.

»Unsere Hoffnung gründet sich auf das Sportpublikum. Unser Auge schielt, verbergen wir es nicht, nach diesen ungeheueren Zementtöpfen, gefüllt mit 15 000 Menschen aller Klassen und Gesichtsschnitte, dem klügsten und fairsten Publikum der Welt (...) Das alte Theater hingegen hat heute kein Gesicht mehr.« (Brecht 1926: »Mehr guten Sport.«)

»Also ich schlage vor, ihr (...) ladet die Leute in den Zirkus ein! Da dürfen sie in Hemdsärmeln dasitzen und Wetten abschliessen. Und sie müssen nicht auf seelische Erschütterungen lauern und mit den Zeitungen übereinstimmen, sondern sie schauen zu, wie es mit einem gut steht oder abwärts, wie er unterdrückt wird oder wie er Triumphe feiert, und sie erinnern sich an ihre Kämpfe vorm Vormittag (...).« (Brecht 1920: »Das Theater als sportliche Anstalt.«)

Brecht’s sportive utopia included, however, from the very beginning an inner contradiction. Two models were competing in the world of sports, which he referred to. The one was the competitive sport of performance, the ›American‹ model. In those large »pots of concrete”, the people were the »knowing and fair« spectators, paying and betting, but the people was also reduced to spectatorship leaving the field of bodily activity to the few elite experts. Brecht was fascinated by this. The other model was workers‹ sport, which Brecht described in his movie Kuhle Wampe. This was an attempt to develop mass sport and mass gymnastics, less competitive and rather showing ›proletarian discipline‹ in rank and file. Here the people were not only spectators, but in bodily movement themselves.

Both models had something in common: With the body in focus, by movement and certain forms of non-verbal practice, they created collective identity and solidarity by doing.

It is here that Brecht met with the Danish left-winger folk artist and avant-garde painter Asger Jorn.

»Volkskunst bedeutet nicht etwa, für das Volk zu singen, sondern das Volk zum Singen zu bringen.
Volkskunst besteht nicht darin, lediglich eine Kunst zu machen, die dem Volk gefällt,
sondern vielmehr das zum Blühen zu bringen, was als Kunst aus dem Volk wächst.
Die einzig demokratische und volkliche Kunsttendenz besteht darin,
aus dem Volk der Zuschauer ein Volk der Mitwirkenden zu machen.«

5. Population? – People as substance or construction?

With these discoveries in mind we can turn back to the initial question of the relation between people and population. Brecht’s folk tones were not ›population tones‹, and the People’s Front against fascism was not a ›Population’s Front‹. ›People‹ cannot just be converted to ›population‹ without more or less grotesque implications. Karl Marx‹ paper Das Volk from London could not be re-baptized as Die Bevölkerung (The Population), which would give no meaning. If the socialist Volksparteien (people’s parties), as they can be found in the Nordic countries and in other parts of the world, would called Bevölkerungsparteien (population’s parties), this would be close to nonsense. And the socialist anthem The International, in its German version, appealed to the peoples of the world, not to the populations:

»Völker, hört die Signale,
Auf, zum letzten Gefecht!«

People are a collective seen from inside – ›we, the people‹ – and acting bottom-up, and including the dead and the not-yet born human beings. Population is a unit seen from outside, measurable, and administrated from above.

In this respect, the folk singer Bertolt Brecht was on the side of the people in action, turning the administrated and measured population into something different, into an actor of revolutionary quality. Making Bevölkerung into Volk.

Such observations around Brecht and his leftist contradictions require a deeper theoretical approach. Because they question some assumptions dominating today about whom ›the people‹ are, the folk. During 200 years of its modern existence, the term ›the people‹ has become colonized by hegemonic theories. These have been mainly two: substantialism and constructivism.

Traditionally, one has tried to define a given people by a certain substance, treating it like a material object. The ›substantial people‹ was objectified by criteria of ›blood‹, language, historical origin, territory, religion, customs, ›national character‹ and inner psychic disposition, state and constitution, common economy, community of communication or whatever.

This is what the Nazi terminology of the German Volk referred to. And it was the conflict with this substantialism that gave meaning to Brecht’s opposition and his proposal to replace ›people‹ by ›population‹.

From the beginning of the modern ›folk‹, the substantial view of the folk was opposed by interpretations of folk as an idea. This had in the early nineteenth century typical connotations of elitist national idealism: ›Great men build nations‹. But in recent times it was revived by theories which subjectively understood themselves as critical. The ›people‹ was said to be nothing but a construction, created by the propagandistic actions of leaders or intellectuals, typically nationalist ideologists. The assumption about the ›constructed people‹ became in this way dominated by elitist connotations again: The ›people‹ does not exist in itself, nor does it find itself – it is made from above, as an »imagined community« or an »invented tradition«.

This constructivism was the background for the attention that some ›post-national‹ sociologists paid to Brecht’s ›anti-people‹ remarks – and for their misreading.

If one tries, instead, a materialistic approach from body and movement culture, the dual pattern of substance versus construction reveals as insufficient, and a third understanding becomes visible: ›People‹ is related to movement. »We are the people!« was a basic saying of democracy since the time of the French Revolution. The call »We are the people!« did not mean: We are the blood! nor: We are an idea! But people said: We are in motion! By reclaiming the street and by festivity, people reclaimed their individual and interacting bodies against ruling power elites.

Volk in movement, civil society, and living democracy

Brecht’s Volk after World War I were the people in movement against the war. Since the 1920s, the communists were ›the movement‹. In the 1930s, the anti-fascist Popular Front was an attempt to overthrow dictatorship by the united force of left-wing movements, and the anti-Nazi resistance under World War II was a movement with other means and methods. The building of a socialist GDR in the 1950s required a people’s movement. But soon this revealed as a simulation, an illusion, and people rose in revolt against Stalinist power in 1953. In all these processes, social movements, political movements, cultural movements were acting – not the population.

The population has no intonation, atmosphere or rhythm – the folk has. Population can be quantified and measured, the people cannot. In contrast to the static and statistic population, people are in dynamic movement – the concept designating both bodily movement and historical change. The two terms tell different stories and cannot substitute each other.

Das Volk ist niemals tümlich – Brecht’s ironical and untranslatable saying has to be re-read in the light of the complex relations between people and population. »The people are never populist” – »folk is never loristic« – how ever this may be paraphrased, it does not imply a destruction of the Volk. On the contrary: Brecht’s saying reconstructed ›the people‹ against their populist misunderstanding, ›folk‹ was restored against its folkloristic domestication. On the political level, this can be compared to what Henri Lefebvre did when rehabilitating the nation against nationalism.

While the ›nation‹ of Lefebvre, however, could be translated (more or less), the ›folk‹ of Brecht could not – it could only be ›done‹ and interpreted. (Even if the differentiation of folk as ethnos, demos, and plebs helps to some partial translations, see Korsgaard 2007). The untranslatability of the Brecht joke affirms on a more basic level the presence of Volk in bottom-up experiences of the people, which cannot be translated from language to language. But they can be paraphrased in a spirit of international recognition and solidarity.

Such observations are especially significant for future sociology. They challenge towards studies in civil society, which is another word for ›the people‹. The term of ›civil society‹ spread since the 1980s as contrasting the logics of the state and the market. It designates the bottom-up self-organisation of the people in togetherness and distinction, in repetition and change. In the Nordic countries, civil society is understood in prolongation of the Scandinavian term of folk. The study of civil society contributes to the sociology of democracy – democracy not to be understood as a certain superstructure of ideas and institutions, but as a form of life in materialistic perspective.

The troubles about Brecht’s ›folk‹ terminology are, thus, not only historical and retrospective. They obtain their actuality just in a time when living self-determination is on the agenda. And when power tries to blur the fundamental differences between the top-down administrative category of ›population‹ and the bottom-up moving people of democracy.


Brecht, Bertolt 1938: Fünf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit. First published in Paris.

- 1984: Brecht Liederbuch. Hg. Fritz Hennenberg. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Jorn, Asger 1993: Heringe in Acryl. Heftige Gedanken zu Kunst und Gesellschaft. Hamburg: Edition Nautilus.

Eichberg, Henning 1991: »Vergleichender Vandalismus. Wer sind Sie eigentlich, Asger Jorn?« In: Wolfgang Dreßen u.a. (Hg.): Nilpferd des höllischen Urwalds – Spuren in eine unbekannte Stadt – Situationisten, Gruppe SPUR, Kommune I. Berlin: Werkbund-Archiv & Gießen: Anabas, 92-105.

- 2004: The People of Democracy. Understanding Self-Determination on the Basis of Body and Movement. Århus: Klim.

Jacobeit, Sigrid und Wolfgang 1985-95: Illustrierte Alltagsgeschichte des deutschen Volkes 1810-1900. Vols. 1-3, Leipzig, Jena, Berlin: Urania.

Korsgaard, Ove 2007: »Grundtvig’s recommendations: People’s enlightenment and empowerment.« In: Journal f World Education, 36, 1: 22-27.

Lefebvre, Henri 1937: Le nationalisme contre les nations. Paris: Editions sociales internationales. Reprint Paris: Méridiens-Klincksliek 1988.

Müller, Heiner 1992

Samuel, Raphael 1981 (ed.): People’s History and Socialist Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Steinitz, Wolfgang 1954/62: Deutsche Volkslieder demokratischen Charakters aus sechs Jahrhunderten. Vol. 1-2, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag. Reprint as Der grosse Steinitz in one volume Frankfurt/Main: Zweitausendeins 1983.

*Notes for a lecture at the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, May 2008 (revised 9.5.08)

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