The Decision

The Decision
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Date premiered 10 December 1930 (1930-12-10)
Original language German
Genre Lehrstück

The Decision (Die Maßnahme), also known as The Measures Taken, is a Lehrstück by the twentieth-century German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Written in collaboration with Slatan Dudow and the composer Hanns Eisler, it consists of eight sections in prose and unrhymed, irregular verse, with six major songs. A note to the text by all three collaborators describes it as an "attempt to use a didactic piece to make familiar an attitude of positive intervention."[1]


Plot summary

The plot involves three comrades sent to organize the workers in China. They meet a young militant, who offers to join them as their guide. They are forced to hide their identities because organizing the workers is illegal. The three comrades instruct the young comrade to abnegate himself and to take advantage of opportunities. He is told to hide that he is a communist. Their mission must remain a secret. Should they be discovered, the authorities will attack the organization, and the entire movement, not merely the lives of the four comrades, will be put in danger. Before entering China, they all put on masks in order to appear as Chinese. At the sight of the injustices and oppression, the young comrade is not able to contain his desires and acts immediately to correct the wrongs he see around him. As a result, he exposes himself by taking off his mask. When he does, he puts the entire mission and movement in danger. As a revolutionary uprising among the workers begins, the authorities pursue the young comrade. The comrades realize that they "can neither take him with us nor leave him"; if they help him to escape, they will be unable to help the uprising, and the needs of the many outweigh those of an individual; if he is left behind and caught, he will unwittingly betray the movement and then be shot. To save the movement, they conclude that their only solution is to shoot him. They ask him for his consent. The young comrade agrees to his fate in the interest of revolutionizing the world and in the interest of communism. He asks them to take him to the lime pit and to help him with his death. They shoot him and throw his body into the lime pit, so that the authorities can not identify him and put the uprising into danger. The play concludes with a chorus, to whom they have been telling their story, reassuring them that have made the correct decision.

"You've helped to disseminate / Marxism's teachings and the / ABC of Communism," (a reference to the popular book by Nikolai Bukharin) they assure them, and the revolution there has begun. They also mark the sacrifice and cost that the wider success entailed:

At the same time your report shows how much

Is needed if our world is to be altered.

Bertolt Brecht, The Decision (scene eight).

Production history

The Decision received its first theatrical production at the Großes Schauspielhaus in Berlin, opening on the 10 December 1930.[1] A Brecht favorite, Ernst Busch, played the young comrade. The play was also produced in Moscow around 1934.[2]

Heiner Müller, a postmodern dramatist from the former East Germany who ran Brecht's Berliner Ensemble for a short time, reworked The Decision in his plays The Mission: Memory of a Revolution (1979) and Mauser (1970).

Brecht and his Critics

Brecht wrote the play in 1930. Since then, some critics have seen the play as an apologia for totalitarianism and mass murder while others have pointed out that it is a play about the tactics and techniques of clandestine agitation.[3] They have also pointed out that it is thematically similar to his 1926 poem, "Verwisch die Spuren", ("Cover Your Tracks"), that his friend Walter Benjamin saw as “an instruction for the illegal agent." [4] Elisabeth Hauptmann told controversial Brecht biographer John Fuegi that "she had written a substantial portion of it," but had forgotten to list herself as co-author.[5] Ruth Fischer, the sister of Hanns Eisler, denounced Brecht, as "The minstrel of the G.P.U.". She also viewed the play as a foreshadowing of the Stalinist purges and was among its harshest critics.[6]

In his journals, Brecht, however, relates how he had rejected explicitly that interpretation, referring the accusers to a closer scrutiny of the actual text; "[I] reject the interpretation that the subject is disciplinary murder by pointing out that it is a question of self-extinction", he writes, continuing: "I admit that the basis of my plays is marxist and state that plays, especially with an historical content, cannot be written intelligently in any other framework."[7]

Banning the Play

Brecht and his family banned the play from public performance, but, in fact, the Soviet government did not like the play and other governments banned it as well.[8] Performances resumed in 1997 with Klaus Emmerich's historically rigorous staging at the Berliner Ensemble.[9]

The Decision and the F.B.I.

The F.B.I. translated the play in the 1940s, and titled it The Disciplinary Measure. The report described it as promoting "Communist World Revolution by violent means."[10]

The Decision and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

Brecht appeared before the Committee on October 30, 1947. Only three members of the Committee and Robert E. Stripling, the committee's chief investigator were present. Brecht wanted no attorney, and unlike the previous ten witnesses, was charming, friendly and seemingly cooperative.

The committee tried to trick him by reading some of his more revolutionary plays and poems, but he was able to dismiss those questions by saying they were bad translations.[11] Some of his answers were cleverly evasive, such as when he was asked about Comintern agent Grigory Kheifetz. At one point, he stated that he had never joined the Communist party. Despite Brecht's extensive support for Communism, most authors agree that he really hadn't officially joined the party, nor did he ever do that in his life,[12][13][14][15][16] although it has also been claimed in the literature that he had joined in 1930.[17][not in citation given][18][Need quotation to verify]

Brecht was asked specific questions about The Decision. He said it was an adaption of an old Japanese religious play. When asked if the play was about the murder of a Communist party member by his comrades "because it was in the best interest of the Communist party", he said that that was "not quite" right, pointing out that the member's death is voluntary, so it is basically an assisted suicide rather than a murder. He compared that to the tradition of hara-kiri in the Japanese play.

The interrogators suggested that the title of the play (German Die Maßnahme) could be translated as "The Disciplinary Measure".[19] During his testimony, Brecht objected to this title, and argued that a more correct translation of the title would have been "Steps to Be Taken".[19]

The committee went lightly on him despite frequently interrupting his answers. At the end, Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas said, "Thank you very much. You are a good example ..."[20] The next day, Brecht left for East Germany.

Brecht was embarrassed by Parnell's compliment but said the committee was not as bad as the Nazis. The committee let him smoke. The Nazis would never have let him do this. Brecht smoked a cigar during the hearings. He told Eric Bentley that this let him "manufacture pauses" between their questions and his answers.[19]

Examples of his Testimony About The Decision

Brecht: This play is the adaptation of an old religious Japanese play and is called Nō Play, and follows quite closely this old story which shows the devotion for an ideal until death.

Stripling: What was that ideal, Mr Brecht?

Brecht: The idea in the old play was a religious idea. This young people —

Stripling: Did it have to do with the Communist Party?

Brecht: Yes.

Stripling: And discipline within the Communist Party?

Brecht: Yes, yes, it is a new play, an adaptation.

From the Testimony of Berthold Brecht.[21]

The interrogators ask explicitly about the death of the young comrade:

Stripling: Now, Mr Brecht, will you tell the committee whether or not one of the characters in this play was murdered by his comrade because it was in the best interest of the party, of the Communist Party; is that true?

Brecht: No, it is not quite according to the story.

Stripling: Because he would not bow to discipline he was murdered by his comrades, isn't that true?

Brecht: No; it is not really in it. You will find when you read it carefully, like in the old Japanese play where other ideas were at stake, this young man who died was convinced that he had done damage to the mission he believed in and he agreed to that and he was about ready to die in order not to make greater such damage. So, he asks his comrades to help him, and all of them together help him to die. He jumps into an abyss and they lead him tenderly to that abyss, and that is the story.

Chairman: I gather from your remarks, from your answer, that he was just killed, he was not murdered?

Brecht: He wanted to die.

Chairman: So they killed him?

Brecht: No; they did not kill him - not in this story. He killed himself. They supported him, but of course they had told him it were better when he disappeared for him and them and the cause he also believed in.

From the Testimony of Berthold Brecht.[22]


  1. ^ a b Willett (1959, 38-39).
  2. ^ Bertolt Brecht and the Politics of Secrecy by Eva Horn, p. 17
  3. ^ Bertolt Brecht and the Politics of Secrecy by Eva Horn, p. 7
  4. ^ Walter Benjamin, “Kommentare zu Gedichten von Brecht,” in Gesammelte Schriften II,vol. 2 (Frankfurt, Germany: Suhrkamp 1991), 556.
  5. ^ Fuegi, John. 1987 Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, according to Plan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 71
  6. ^ Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the State Party Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.
  7. ^ Brecht (1993, 372).
  8. ^ Otto Friedrich. 1995. Before the Deluge, A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. (HarperPrennial.) 321.
  9. ^ Pilz, Dirk. "Brechts 'Maßnahme' in Bergen", Berliner Zeitung (, June 6, 2007.
  10. ^ This translation can be found in Hans Eisler's F.B.I file and a summary in his own F.B.I file.
  11. ^ Lester Cole, Hollywood Red, 1981, (Ramparts Press) 285
  12. ^ Joy Haslam Calico. Brecht at the opera. P.113
  13. ^ Ann Stamp Miller. P.62. The cultural politics of the German Democratic Republic
  14. ^ Philip Rush, Robert Lowe. 2004. A Student's Guide to A2 Drama and Theatre Studies for the AQA Specification. P.71
  15. ^ Mark W. Clark. 2006. Beyond Catastrophe: German Intellectuals and Cultural Renewal After World War II, 1945-1955. P.137
  16. ^ Fredric Jameson. 2000. Brecht and method. P.17
  17. ^ Otto Friedrich. 1995. Before the Deluge, A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. (HarperPrennial.) 265
  18. ^ Lloyd Billingsley. 1998. Hollywood Party: how communism seduced the American film industry in the 1930s and 1940s. (Prima Lifestyles). 197
  19. ^ a b c Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities: An Historical Encounter, Presented by Eric Bentley (Record Label: Folkways Records Originally released: 24-OCT-2006)
  20. ^ Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, House Committee, 491-504
  21. ^ Demetz (1962, 34).
  22. ^ Demetz (1962, 36).


  • Brecht, Bertolt. 1993. Journals 1934-1955. Trans. Hugh Rorrison. Ed. John Willett. Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Poetry, Prose Ser. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-91282-2.
  • ---. 1997. The Decision. In Collected Plays: Three. Ed. and trans. John Willett. Brecht Collected Plays Ser. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-70460-2. p. 61-91.
  • Demetz, Peter, ed. 1962. "From the Testimony of Berthold Brecht: Hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, October 30, 1947." Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views Ser. Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-081760-0. p. 30-42.
  • Friedrich, Otto. 1995. Before the Deluge, A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. HarperPrennial. ISBN 0-06-092679-1.
  • Fuegi, John. 1987 Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, according to Plan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-28245-4
  • Müller, Heiner. 1995. The Mission. In Theatremachine. Ed. and trans. Marc von Henning. London and Boston: Faber. ISBN 0-571-17528-7. p. 59-84.
  • Müller, Heiner. 2001. Mauser. In A Heiner Müller Reader: Plays | Poetry | Prose. Ed. and trans. Carl Weber. PAJ Books Ser. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6578-6. p. 93-107.
  • Thomson, Peter. 1994. "Brecht's Lives". In Thomson and Sacks (1994, 22-39).
  • Thomson, Peter and Glendyr Sacks, eds. 1994. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge Companions to Literature Ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41446-6.
  • Willett, John. 1959. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-34360-X.

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