Johannes R. Becher
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Johannes Robert Becher (May 22, 1891 in Munich – October 11, 1958 in East Berlin) was a German politician, novelist, and poet. He was affiliated with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) before World War II. At one time, he was part of the literary avant-garde, writing in an expressionist style.
With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, modernist artistic movements were suppressed. Becher escaped from a military raid in 1933 and settled in Paris for a couple of years. He migrated to the Soviet Union in 1935 with the central committee of the KPD, but got caught up in the Great Purge. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Becher and other German communists were evacuated to internal exile in Tashkent.
He returned to favor in 1942 and was recalled to Moscow. After the end of World War II, Becher was allowed to leave the Soviet Union and returned to Germany, settling in the Soviet-occupied zone of what became known as East Berlin. As a member of the KPD, he was appointed to various cultural and political positions and became part of the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party. In 1949, he helped found the Akademie der Künste, and served as its president from 1953 to 1956. In 1953 he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize (later the Lenin Peace Prize). He was the culture minister of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from 1954-1958.
Johannes R. Becher was born in Munich in 1891, the son of Judge Heinrich Becher and his wife. He attended local schools.
From 1911 he studied medicine and philosophy in college in Munich and Jena. He left his studies and became an expressionist writer, his first works appearing in 1913. An injury from his suicide attempt made him unfit for military service/ and he became addicted to morphine, which he struggled with for the rest of the decade.
Political activity in Germany
He was also engaged in many communist organisations, joining the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1917, then went over to the Spartacist League in 1918 from which emerged the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1920 he left the KPD, disappointed with the failure of the German Revolution, and embraced religion. In 1923, he returned to the KPD and very actively worked within the party.
His art entered an expressionist period, from which he would later dissociate himself. He was part of die Kugel, an artistic group based in Magdeburg. During this time, he published in the magazines Verfall und Triumph, Die Aktion (The Action) and Die neue Kunst.
In 1925 government reaction against his anti-war novel, (CHCI=CH)3As (Levisite) oder Der einzig gerechte Krieg, resulted in his being indicted for "literarischer Hochverrat" or "literary high treason". It was not until 1928 that this law was amended.
That year, Becher became a founding member of the KPD-aligned Association of Proletarian-Revolutionary Authors (Bund proletarisch-revolutionärer Schriftstellers), serving as its first chairman and co-editor of its magazine, Die Linkskurve. From 1932 Becher became a publisher of the newspaper, Die Rote Fahne. In the same year he was elected representing the KPD to the Reichstag.
Fleeing from Nazis
After the Reichstag fire, Becher was placed on the Nazi blacklist, but he escaped from a large raid in the Berlin artist colony near Breitenbachplatz in Wilmersdorf. By March 15, 1933 he, with the support of the secretary of the Association of Proletarian-Revolutionary Authors, traveled to the home of Willy Harzheim. After staying briefly in Brünn, he moved to Prague after some weeks.
Finally, in 1935 Becher emigrated to the USSR as did other members of the central committee of the KPD. In Moscow he became editor-in-chief of the German émigré magazine, Internationale Literatur-Deutsche Blätter. He was selected as a member of the Central Committee of the KPD. Soon Becher was caught up in the midst of Jozef Stalin's Great Purge. In 1935 he was accused of links with Leon Trotsky. Becher tried to save himself by “informing” on other writers' alleged political misdemeanors. From 1936, he was forbidden to leave the USSR. During this period, he struggled with depression and tried several times to commit suicide.
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 horrified German communists. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the government evacuated the German communists to internal exile. Becher was shipped to Tashkent as were most of the communist émigrés. It became the center of evacuation for hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians from the war zones, and the government relocated industry here to preserve some capacity from the Germans.
During his time in Tashkent, he befriended Georg Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, who was also sent there. They intensively studied 18th- and 19th-century literature together, after which Becher turned from modernism to Socialist Realism.
Return to East Germany
After the Second World War, Becher returned to Germany with a KPD team, where he settled in the Soviet zone of occupation. There he was appointed to various cultural-political positions. He took part in the establishment of the Cultural Association, to "revive German culture," and founded the Aufbau-Verlag publishing house and the literature magazine, Sinn und Form. He also contributed to the satirical magazine, Ulenspiegel.
In 1946, Becher was selected for the Party Executive Committee and the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party. After the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on 7 October 1949, he became a member of the Volkskammer. He also wrote the lyrics to Hanns Eisler's melody "Auferstanden aus Ruinen," which became the national anthem of the GDR.
That year, he helped establish the Akademie der Künste. He served as its president from 1953 to 1956, succeeding Arnold Zweig. In January 1953 he received the Stalin Peace Prize (later renamed the Lenin Peace Prize) in Moscow.
In Leipzig in 1955, the German Institute for Literature was founded and originally named in Becher's honor. The Institute's purpose was to train socialist writers. Institute graduates include Erich Loest, Volker Braun, Sarah Kirsch and Rainer Kirsch.
From 1954 to 1958, Becher served as Minister of Culture of the GDR. During the Khrushchev Thaw, Becher fell out of favor. Internal struggles of the party eventually lead to his political demotion in 1956.
Late in his life, Becher began to renounce socialism. His book Das poetische Prinzip [The Poetic Principle] wherein he calls socialism the fundamental error of his life ["Grundirrtum meines Lebens"] was only published in 1988.
The following year, in declining health, Becher gave up all his offices and functions in September 1958. He died of cancer on 11 October 1958 in the East Berlin government hospital. Becher was buried at the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in the Berlin center, with his gravesite among the honour graves of Berlin. Becher lived in Majakowskiring 34 street, Pankow, East Berlin.
Legacy and honours
Although the party praised Becher after his death as the "greatest German poet in recent history", his work was criticised by younger East German authors as backward and politically embarrassing. Examples include Katja Lange-Müller who called him a "Neanderthal minister of culture [Neandertaler von Kulturminister]".
Official awards and honours include the following:
- 1953 Stalin Peace Prize (later renamed the Lenin Peace Prize)
- The Institut für Literatur Johannes R. Becher was founded in 1955 in Leipzig and named in his honor.
- Robert K. Shirer, "Johannes R. Becher 1891–1958", Encyclopedia of German Literature, Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000, by permission at Digital Commons, University of Nebraska, accessed 3 February 2013
- Braun, Matthias (2013). "Kunst im Dienst der Partei" [Fine Arts serving the Party]. Damals (in German) 45 (4): 10–13.
- Valerie Majoros, "Lajos Tihanyi and his friends in the Paris of the nineteen-thirties", French Cultural Studies, 2000, Vol. 11:387, Sage Publications, accessed 30 January 2013
- Georg Lukács, translated by Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, German Realists in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Rodney Livingstone, MIT Press, 2000, p. xv
- Works by Johannes R. Becher at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Johannes R. Becher at Internet Archive
- Robert K. Shirer, "Johannes R. Becher 1891–1958", Encyclopedia of German Literature, Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000, by permission at Digital Commons, University of Nebraska