Hans Eisler

A musician who was student of Arnold Schoenberg and his 12-tone method, Eisler rejected that style for a simpler one, the better to express a working-class Marxist ethos. He is a better known figure than some of the exiles, not so much because of his time in the UK but because of his collaboration with Brecht, his infamous appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and his return to E Germany where he wrote its national anthem. His time in London was spasmodic and brief but was noteworthy as far as MI5 was concerned!

Though born in Germany, he grew up in Vienna where he became an active socialist at an early age. But he returned to Berlin where he joined the KPD and wrote as the music critic for its paper, Rote Fahne. To the dismay of Schoenberg, whom he had studied under, Eisler’s music became increasingly geared towards the agit-prop movement. Eisler wrote the music for many of Brecht’s plays and his socialist songs were popular throughout the left. He also wrote many songs for the famous Ernst Busch, a working-class singer, who performed in the workers’ clubs and pubs in the last years of the Weimar Republic.1 One example of his collaboration with Brecht and Busch tells the story of how an initially enthusiastic Nazi brownshirt sees the error of his ways upon being ordered to shoot at fellow workers!

After 1933, Eisler’s music and Brecht’s poetry were banned. Fortuitously, Eisler was in Vienna when Hitler became Chancellor and knew not to return. First he fled to France where in February 1934 he witnessed and demonstrated against an attempted putsch by French fascists. Then he arrived in the UK, where he was a member, at least briefly, of the KPD exile group. MI5 showed much interest.

It is worth noting that two years before he arrived here, Eisler was already being monitored by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). 2 The earliest document in the file devoted to Eisler in the National Archives is already dated 19 June 1932. A letter addressed to the SIS and the British Board of Film censors details Eisler’s work as a German proletarian composer and author of many revolutionary songs, who had collaborated with Piscator in Berlin and was now working In Moscow composing music for a film about the Konsomol.3 Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official chronicler, describes how MI5’s primary target were communists. On this, they shared an interest with the Nazis. Indeed Guy Liddell, the head of counter- espionage for MI5, accepted an invitation to meet with the future leader of the Gestapo in Berlin on 30 March 1933. Liddell’ s subsequent report was called ’The liquidation of communism and left wing socialism in Germany’! (Brinson and Dove, 12, 16.17).

Eisler, like so many of these early lefty exiles, was initially denied the right to work, the Home Office arguing why wouldn’t the services of a British composer suffice. Remember this is 1934 when only a few thousand refugees had arrived here. The whiff of xenophobia- and probably anti-Semitism- is strong. Finally, it was agreed that Eisler could have paid employment on the basis he soon afterwards left the UK. A squabble broke out between bits of MI5 with a more relaxed attitude and the Aliens Department of the Home Office’s with their suspicions about communists. Eisler, they claimed ‘conclusively’, had shown sympathy for the Meerat prisoners (which he almost certainly had).4 There had to be a question mark over a work permit (Levi, 13, 14).

Eisler was one amongst hundreds of refugees who needed to earn a musical living here yet was seen as very much of a threat in the music industry, and a Jewish threat at that.5 W. Gillies Whittaker, writing in the ‘Music Journal of the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ in November 1934, warned against the prospect of a ‘foreign invasion’ and the ‘very serious situation’ facing the music profession as a result of the political and racial (sic) expulsions from Germany (Levi, 16).

Alan Bush (much suspected by MI5) and the composer, Michael Tippett were responsible for mounting the first concert exclusively devoted to Eisler’s music at Morley College in March 1935 which featured Communist, Labour and Co-operative groups, the Hanns Eisler Orchestra, London Labour Choral Union, the Labour Speaking Chorus, London Workers Choir, West London Ladies’ Cooperative Choir, the Workers’ Music League and the Young Worker’s Ballet. It was committed to giving a practical demonstration of the ways in which music could be used to further the class-struggle (Levi, 15).6 After much disputation, another milestone was the premiere of Eisler’s Kleine Sinfonie, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 12 April 1935.

But his modernist music (never mind his politics) really put (bourgeois) people’s backs up. A subsequent plan by Bush to put on the first performance in England of Eisler’s recent ‘Lenin Requiem’ had to be ditched after Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Henry Wood declined the invitation to conduct, at least in part because the text exhorted the masses to rise up and fight the capitalists (Levi,18,19).

Eisler had by now left the UK but requested another visa in 1936 and a subsequent extension, he explained, to collaborate with Ernst Toller (see separate biography) whose play ‘No more peace’ with lyrics adapted by W. H. Auden was to be produced at the Gate Theatre on 11 June 1936. Once again MI5 tracked his movements from the moment he landed in the country, though this time, their response was more conciliatory (Levi, 17, 18).7

Like many other refugees, he saw the UK as a stepping stone to the US and in 1937/38, he succeeded in getting into the US where he continued to write and have his music performed. He was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Hangmen also die’ (1942) which depicts the assassination of Heydrich.

The American intelligence services were already onto him and they and their British brothers kept in touch. In February 1941 Britain requested information from New York as to whether Eisler was involved in an American equivalent of the Free German League of Culture (an essentially British KPD broad front cultural group) and he was subsequently added to the US blacklist! He was one of the first artists placed on the Hollywood blacklist and was hauled before the Houser of un-American activities.8 When accused of being the Karl Marx of music, he replied that he would be proud. (Among his accusers was his sister, Ruth Fischer!) (Levi, 20, 21)

He avoided actual deportation in 1948 by flying out to Prague, protesting that while he understood the need to become an exile from Nazi Germany, being forced into exile a second time by the supposedly democratic US was devastating! He came on to the UK, where he claimed he had been strip searched at the airport. On his stop-over, he met with Ernst Meyer (see other biography) and Ernst Bush. He first returned to Austria but, badgered by the SED to come back, he arrived in E Berlin in October 1948, re-uniting with his old friend and comrade, Brecht. He had a complicated relationship with the GDR where his music was not popular. He died there in 1962.

1 Busch was a well- known performer of left-wing songs, associated with Brecht, and a member of the KPD. He fled the Nazis to the USSR, where, according to my mother, who knew him in Moscow, he betrayed various ‘off-line’ comrades, who were then deported back to Germany and death. Her hatred of him was so great that she would not accept a gift of a record of his famous Spanish civil war songs.

2 My very real thanks to Eric Levi for sending me his invaluable article ‘A Composer under Surveillance -Hanns Eisler and England,1925-1962’, originally inProceedings of the International Hanns Eisler Conference, London 2010. (10,11). His sources referred to here are drawn from the National Archive.

3 Erwin Piscator was a famous left-wing German theatre director and theorist about the role of agit-prop.

4 The Meerut Conspiracy Case, 1929- 1933 refers to trade-unionists arrested for organising an Indian railway strike. The British Government, concerned about the influence of the Indian Communist Party and of the anti-imperialist ‘League against Imperialism’, (established by Munzenberg from Berlin), falsely convicted 27 of them.(For further information on the close link between the KPD, LaI and the Indian Communist party, see my book ’Beaten but not Defeated’.)

5 Michael Haas, Exiled Austrian and German Musicians in Great Britain,


6 Alan Bush was a prolific but largely unrecognized British composer and a Communist activist, committed to the USSR.

7 In 1937, Levi went to support the International Brigades but that is another story.

8 In one American communication to their British counter-parts, Eisler is described of heavy build, very prominent stomach, prominent nose and Jewish appearance!