Union Songs

The Birth of a Worker's Song

1935 Hanns Eisler
Hanns Eisler on the web

This article by Hanns Eisler is taken from "HANNS EISLER A REBEL IN MUSIC" published simultaneously by International Publishers, New York and Seven Seas Books, Berlin. ©1978

Papenburg is a concentration camp in East Friesland, a part of Northern Germany. Here 5,000 German workers were kept prisoner. The surroundings of the concentration camp are foreboding, all around only bog and wasteland. The prisoners were put to working in the swamps digging ditches f or drainage. They had to march f or two hours to their place of work and two hours back again to the barracks. The work was hard in the extreme. The prisoners had to stand in water up to their knees all day long, digging the ditches with heavy shovels, one of the heaviest of manual labors. With no rubber boots or any gloves, disease spread rapidly among them-rheumatism, gout, heart trouble, eczema and abscesses. The guards treated the prisoners with great severity; the food was unspeakable. To make them still more wretched, they were forbidden to smoke. Only on two afternoons a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, was smoking allowed. The march to and from work was indescribable. Especially the march back, carrying the heavy implements. Many prisoners collapsed on the way, but were driven on by the guards with blows from their rifle butts.

That was what the camp was like for 5,000 proletarians, Communists, socialists, non-party people and a few intellectuals. Yet they wrote a wonderful song for themselves. The song that was born there is called "The Peatbog Soldiers." The text had to be written in such a way that it could be sting in front of the guards, that is, it had to be camouflaged. This song did not .arise spontaneously, as bourgeois folk song experts have assumed. A nucleus among the prisoners set about writing this song in an organized way. What was the main purpose of the song? Why did 5,000 proletarians take the trouble to produce this song, although they had not been able to study poetry or music? Why did they feel urged to do it and how were they able to create such an extraordinary song? We revolutionary professional musicians take off our hats to them in admiration and respect. I consider this song one of the most beautiful revolutionary songs of the international working-class movement. It does not surprise us revolutionaries to see what a tremendous impact can be made by groups of class-conscious workers on the cultural front.

The purpose of this song was to raise the morale of those comrades who were not so politically stable, to give them courage and to create a community spirit on the march. During the first months in the camp the prisoners had to sing the songs suggested by the SA, patriotic songs, soldiers' songs and so on. But the jolly marching tunes of these songs were in crass contrast to the dire state of mind of the prisoners, particularly the politically unstable. The first stage before writing the song was to try and find new words to fit the old soldiers' tunes. This proved inadequate and so a number of draft texts were written by various groups among the politically mature comrades. The best of these drafts was the one chosen for this song. Anyone reading this text without knowing the purpose of it and the way it came to be written may wonder what is revolutionary about it. Yet when you hear it you are overwhelmed to realize how well our imprisoned comrades understood the problem of camouflaging a revolutionary song. The first verses only describe the melancholy hopelessness of their condition. But the last verse!

But for us there's no complaining
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall cry rejoicing,
Homeland dear, you're mine at last.
Then we'll march as peatbog soldiers
No more with our spades
To the moor.

The prisoners laid a special emphasis on the words "no more," and note the phrase, "Homeland dear, you're mine at last." This text cannot be separated from its truly wonderful melody, which continues the tradition of the old songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Germany. The question arises as to how the modern industrial proletariat knew the songs of the Middle Ages so well that they could lean on this style without having had special musical tuition. The answer is that in the working-class youth movement they liked singing songs from the revolutionary peasant uprisings of the sixteenth century and from the Thirty Years' War, directed against the invasion of the predatory Swedes. The first four bars of the melody of the "Peatbog Soldiers" are a note for note quotation from a song of the Thirty Years' War, with the following words.

Children, listen to the wind howling
Howling against the windows.
Children, where Tilly wreaks havoc
Specters are dwelling.

Tilly was the famous general of the Thirty Years' War. The next passage of the song is a new type development of this quotation. The refrain is actually a more modern formulation, reminiscent of certain military songs, also in conformity with the content of the song, "The Peatbog Soldiers." The peculiar construction of the refrain in major, with the verse in minor, is reminiscent of the Russian revolutionary Funeral March. There too the refrain is in major. Summarizing one can say that the musical form of the song is a sort of montage of various elements, though a song put together in such a way does not prevent it from being new in itself and having a new sort of effect.

Sung to this melody the text has a mournful character, but rises to a wild climax. The remarkable thing is that despite the grief, an optimistic feeling always comes out in the refrain, intensifying towards the end especially with the words, "No more with our spades."

The comrades who brought me this song said that this verse was always sung with particular fervor and was the reason for the appeal of the whole son-. Our comrades reported that the SA and the police guards were absolutely amazed that suddenly a new song was being sung on the march by the prisoners. They had learnt it in the barracks of Camp 1-there were five camps in Papenburg-and so it was sung freshly and vigorously by a large group of prisoners. The rumor that a new song had been written spread like wildfire through the working detachments and the other camps. Every prisoner wanted to learn it and so an active smuggling went on from camp to camp. The amazment of the guards was indeed great, yet even with a magnifying glass they were not able to discover anything Communist or socialist in the text. In addition it sounded splendid and so the guards were also enthusiastic. Many SA and SS men asked for copies of the song so that they could take it home to learn. I have been told that the song also had an extraordinary effect on the SA guards and is connected with the following incident. When the SA camp guards were dissolved and replaced by a reliable police force, some of the SA men proposed to the prisoners that the whole camp should flee together over the adjacent Dutch border. Thinking it a provocation, the prisoners turned the proposal down. But during their last night's watch some SA men entered the barracks secretly, woke the prisoners and with tears in their eyes begged forgiveness for what they had done to them.

Of course, this is not due to the song alone. But it, too, had helped in influencing the SA. But most of all it helped the mishandled, exhausted and starving comrades on the march and gave the people and the guards a picture of defiance, strength and unbroken will. When a group of prisoners sang the song it was an event for the people of the countryside and for this reason "The Peatbog Soldiers" was forbidden by the district military commander, despite the fact that no political implications could be found in it.

But this song cannot be forbidden, the German workers outside the camps already know it. Many workers of other countries know it and in the next few years it will encircle the world. It is a revolutionary document of great significance and one of the most marvellous revolutionary songs created by the revolutionary working class.

Source: Bericht fiber die Entstehung eines Arbeiterliedes, Typescript, Hanns Eisler Archives.

EGW III/i, pp. 274-78.

Article written in 1935 in New York during Eisler's solidarity tour, probably for publicity work of organizing committee. A stencilled copy of the shortened English version was among Eisler's posthumous papers.

According to the singer Mordecai Baumann the "Peatbog Soldiers' Song" climaxed the musical part of every meeting, and became known throughout the country. The song was written by prisoners in the concentration camp Borgermoor near Papenburg, in Northern Germany in August 1933. The words were written by a miner named Esser, and the actor Wolfgang Langhoff, who later became General Director of the Deutsche Theater, Berlin. The four part male chorus was composed by Rudi Goguel, a white-collar worker. A chorus of sixteen sang it for the first time at a performance called the "Circus Conzentrani." The song became known publicly through released prisoners. Eisler heard of it in January 1935 in London, through someone who later turned out to be an informer of the Gestapo. Eisler made an arrangement to the melody and provided a piano accompaniment.

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