Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Brecht's "To Those Born Later" as a plea against "presentism"

Bertolt Brecht's "To Those Born Later" begins with an exclamation (here in the Willett, Manheim, Fried translation): "Truly, I live in dark times!" – those of his Danish exile between 1934 and 1938. The poem's conclusion addresses "you who will emerge from the flood" and asks them, first, to consider that "we / Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness / Could not ourselves be friendly", and then to "think of us / With forbearance." Don't judge people, that is, if their political actions and goals are inconsistent. And more generally, this is a plea against "presentism": judge people only by the standards of their own time, not by later standards. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 February 2021)



The translation by John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried is available on various web pages, but most of them omit the last three stanzas. Presumably, someone left them out, and others copied the incomplete version. This is the complete translation. The German original, with a recording of Brecht reading it, is on Lyrikline.

To Those Born Later

Bertolt Brecht

trans. John Willett, Ralph Manheim, Erich Fried




Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet had

The terrible news.


What kind of times are they, when

A talk about trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

That man there calmly crossing the street

Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends

Who are in need?


It is true I still earn my keep

But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing

I do gives me the right to eat my fill.

By chance I've been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)


They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!

But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat

From the starving, and

My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?

And yet I eat and drink.


I would also like to be wise.

In the old books it says what wisdom is:

To shun the strife of the world and to live out

Your brief time without fear

Also to get along without violence

To return good for evil

Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them

Is accounted wise.

All this I cannot do:

Truly, I live in dark times.




I came to the cities in a time of disorder

When hunger reigned there.

I came among men in a time of revolt

And I rebelled with them.

So passed my time

Which had been given to me on earth.


My food I ate between battles

To sleep I lay down among murderers

Love I practised carelessly

And nature I looked at without patience.

So passed my time

Which had been given to me on earth.


All roads led into the mire in my time.

My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.

There was little I could do. But those in power

Sat safer without me: that was my hope.

So passed my time

Which had been given to me on earth.


Our forces were slight. Our goal

Lay far in the distance

It was clearly visible, though I myself

Was unlikely to reach it.

So passed my time

Which had been given to me on earth.




You who will emerge from the flood

In which we have gone under


When you speak of our failings

The dark time too

Which you have escaped.


For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes

Through the wars of the classes, despairing

When there was injustice only and no rebellion.


And yet we know:

Hatred, even of meanness

Contorts the features.

Anger, even against injustice

Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we

Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness

Could not ourselves be friendly.


But you, when the time comes at last

And man is a helper to man

Think of us

With forbearance.

No comments: